The Illusion of Transparency: I'm Actually Not Okay

The Illusion of Transparency: I'm Actually Not Okay
Valeria Sabater

Written and verified by the psychologist Valeria Sabater.

Last update: 15 November, 2021

So many people suffer from the illusion of transparency. They think that all their sadness, emotion, and desperation is clearly visible to everyone else. They believe that the rest of us should be able to guess what their needs are right away. But people aren’t always open books. So if you really need something, the only option you have is to be assertive.

Maybe you’re already intimately familiar with this idea. The truth is that most of us have experienced it firsthand, in some way or another. For example, if you speak in public, you might think “I’m sure everyone can tell how nervous I am…” The reality is, however, that your audience only noticed your excellent speech and self-confidence.

“The illusion of transparency tells us that there are people capable of believing that their internal states are obvious to others. They believe that they are mirrors, perfectly reflecting their most private side…”

Think about times when you get home after a really bad day. One of those Murphy’s Law days where everything that could go wrong does go wrong. In spite of that, your significant other, family, and friends have no clue that you’ve had a bad day. They can’t tell at all.

We aren’t as transparent as we think we are. Our inner self isn’t a TV screen or a mirror. However, that fact shouldn’t make you angry or sad. Other people have no obligation to scrutinize you and try to figure out if you are okay or not.

The best and healthiest thing you can do is to speak honestly and simply say, “I have had the worst day today.” But a lot of people angry when others can’t guess what they’re feeling. They feel ignored when other people can’t magically discern what they’re worried about.

The illusion of transparency: look how much I am suffering!

Carlos and Eva are going to celebrate their anniversary tonight. They have been together for two years, and they reserved a table at a nice restaurant. However, just as they are about to leave, Eva realizes that Carlos has been in the bathroom getting ready for a long time. She’s worried, so she knocks on the door and asks if he’s okay. A few seconds later, he comes out and says he doesn’t want to go to dinner, he doesn’t feel like it.

Eva is worried and asks him what’s wrong. After a lot of hemming and hawing, Carlos finally tells her that he doesn’t feel like celebrating their anniversary. He doesn’t think that their relationship is going very well because she never seems aware of what is going on with them. 

His answer surprises Eva and makes her feel anxious. She asks him what it is, then, that’s wrong. “Things aren’t going well at work. I might get fired. I’ve been worried sick for two days and you didn’t even notice.”

Eva’s answer is simple. “Why didn’t you tell me any of this?” This situation is actually quite common. We aren’t just looking at an obvious communication problem. There is also a very dangerous cognitive bias at play. It makes Carlos believe that other people can figure out our emotions just by looking at us, like they have some special radar.

illusion of transparency

So, here we have Carlos, who has been carrying his worries around for several days, believing all the while in his own transparency. He was so focused on his anxiety that he took for granted that his girlfriend would see it too. As much as we all try to avoid doing this, we aren’t always successful.

Not everyone gives obvious clues about what they’re thinking and feeling. What’s even worse is that some people get more tense and anxious when they realize that others aren’t noticing their suffering. They expect everyone to pick up on on their unhappiness. 

If you want something, learn to communicate

We all know how important empathy is. This nonverbal language, this connection that we have with the people we love, enables us to pick up on other people’s needs or issues without the need for words. That being said, empathy can fail us for a variety of reasons.

You can perceive an emotion, but maybe not the underlying problem. You can ask someone what’s wrong, but the answer might be “nothing.” So often, where there is an illusion of transparency, there is also emotional immaturity and a lack of effective communication. They are Trojan Horses that barge into relationships. So it’s very important to learn to manage them in a mature way.

What to do about the illusion of transparency

Remember that all of us have this illusion of transparency to some degree or another. For most of us, it probably comes up regularly, in different ways. It is especially common in romantic relationships. Many of us have the idea that our partner should be able to guess what’s going on and what we need.

Our desire for an intimate relationship is strong. So strong, in fact, that we forget that love doesn’t give us psychic or supernatural powers. We can’t intuit everything that the other person is thinking or feeling. Consequently, it’s important to keep in mind the following:

  • Never assume that someone else is obligated to understand what you are going through.
  • If you want a quality relationship, base it on assertiveness. The foundation should be openly expressing what you need, what you feel, and what bothers or hurts you.
  • People aren’t as transparent as they think. Nor are our significant others as capable of intuiting our emotions as we think. Sometimes routines and work make it hard to be very aware of other’s feelings. That doesn’t mean, however, that we are less interested or that we love them less.
  • You should express your concerns in the present. Anything you save for tomorrow will just become a bigger problem.

In conclusion, you probably identified with some of the above, so don’t wait; work on the things we’ve discussed in this article. If you do, you’ll be able to minimize the effects of this common cognitive bias and enjoy better relationships.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.