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I'm good at "reading people" (originally written Sept 24, 2022)

My whole life I’ve been told I’m good at reading people. Sometimes to an uncanny degree, so they’ve said. To me, it’s second nature. It’s part of why I’m now a psychologist instead of a middle school teacher.

I have sat with a dear friend in silence while they wrestle through an inner conflict and broke the solitude to say, “I just saw three separate thoughts cross your mind, what were they?” Surprised, and helped by the specific identification of three separate thoughts, they are able to more easily untangle the knot they’ve been combatting. Now, this is something that’s far far easier for me to do in person than in a video call, of course, unless I know the other person extremely well — because (I assume) it’s mostly about body language and microexpressions.

Today I had an unusual experience.

As a psychologist, I am still only registered provisionally. This means I must meet weekly with a mentor who can advise me as needed and draw my attention to things I should not miss until the day I write my licensing exam, at which point I no longer need his oversight and can be fully registered without the provisional qualifier. Now, because of the somewhat remote nature of where I live (still quite wild and unsettled territory 500 kms north of another urban centre, despite being a city with its own population of about 60,000), we typically meet virtually via video conference with the exception of two specially-planned meetings — one in which he flies up to meet me here, and one of which I will fly down to meet him there. Today’s meeting was the one in which he flew up. Today I finally had the opportunity to meet my mentor of the past year-and-a-half in person. And it was lovely; he’s such a solid and compassionate and unflappable example of a kind human being.

But I couldn’t read him.

I always expect that kind of neutral read from someone in a video call; like I said above — most of my ability to read someone comes from body language and microexpressions (I think?) or perhaps the way their presence inhabits a space we both share. I’ve never had that neutral of a read from someone before. Neutral is the only word because it wasn’t flat or empty; it was warm and sturdy and kind. But it was completely neutral. Nothing for me to notice.

Now I’m beginning to wonder — do I read people? Or do I read trauma? Or maybe I read emotional and psychological distress, pain, heartache, and sorrow. Experiences. Interpretations of a person’s experience as a reflection of their inner world.

I have never had that neutral of a read of a human in my office before. Or maybe even out of my office. So now I’m trying to put pieces together. I know that my mentor has done a lot of his own therapy — the field of psychology we’re in is a form of psychoanalysis, which requires a lot of personal work to be done before you practice — which lends some credibility to my guess.

And now I’m wondering: can I be that kind of human?

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