Assumptions: The Stories We Make Up in Our Mind
posted: Aug. 25, 2023.
If you were to look out your window and see this cat sitting on your windowsill looking in at you, what would your reaction be? Would you say, "Oh, what a cute kitty cat! I wonder if it's lost?" And would you go outside and try to pet it or help it in some way? Or would you say, "There is a stupid cat on my windowsill! Shoo, cat....get out of here," and then go outside and try to scare it away?
Your reaction to that cat would be based on the underlying assumptions you make about cats. If you grew up with a kitty who prompted you to stop playing with dolls when she came to live at your house, and that cat became your baby, and you dressed her in doll clothes and fed her milk out of a doll baby bottle, and she snuggled with you and purred when you petted her, then you would probably want to go outside and check on the cat to make sure she was ok, and maybe you'd even pick her up and pet her. Your underlying assumptions would be something like, "Cats are so cute, they're affectionate, and they are great companions. I live kitty cats!"
But if you grew up in a place where people hated cats or were afraid of them, and most definitely one would never be welcomed into the home, then you might be more likely to go outside and try to scare the cat away, based on underlying assumptions such as, "Cats are sneaky. You can't trust them. They will act friendly and then they'll turn on you and scratch & bite you. They think the world belongs to them."
We make assumptions everyday about a lot things...not just about cats. For example, when you are in a relationship, it's something that commonly happens that we make assumptions or interpretations about the meaning of someone's words or actions. Sometimes we even assume we can read someone's mind and know what motivated them to speak or act in a certain way.
So what is an assumption?
1. It's something that is accepted as true without questions or proof.
2. "It's an unexamined belief - what we think without realizing we are thinking it."
3. It's an interpretation we make, whether or not we know the full story, even if we think we do.
In a relationship, have you ever made up a story in your mind about the meaning of someone's words or actions, and then you felt hurt or angry about it, only to find out later they hadn't intended it how you interpreted it? Or has someone ever misinterpreted your words or actions, and then they made up a story in their mind about your intentions, and then they felt angry or hurt:? You probably had to spend some time trying to explain what you really meant, right?
Conflict can occur in the best of relationships but this one thing - making assumptions or interpretations without questioning if your assumptions are accurate, or without asking yourself if the story you are telling yourself might be one you are making up in your head - can not only cause a lot of drama in a relationship but can also contribute to you feeling upset or less than confidant in yourself.
Take a common experience that's happened to all of us at some time in our life...
What kinds of assumptions do you make when you call, text, or email someone about something important to you but you don't hear back from them? As their response time takes longer and longer, how does it affect you while you wait? Do you get irritated and impatient? Do you ever start feeling hurt or rejected by them? Sometimes people make toxic assumptions like, "I must not matter to them. My needs aren't important," or "They're too busy for me. They're selfish." Does that sound like the kinds of thoughts you might have in a situation like that?
Or sometimes people are able to make more benign assumptions, such as, ""Wow, they must be really busy right now. I know they'll contact me back when they get a chance," or "With so many messages coming in these days, It's so easy for one to get lost. That might be what happened. If I don't hear back by tomorrow, I'll try contacting them again." Does that sound like some thoughts you would have if something like that happened to you?
One time a friend called me repeatedly, leaving short, cryptic messages that indicated an increasing irritability with each message she left because i wasn't responding back right away. The problem was that she wasn't trying to call me. She was trying to call her husband because she was experiencing a small emergency and needed an answer from him right away. She had made a mistake in the number she'd clicked on in her phone. Her message wasn't going to the person she needed to receive it, and so, of course, he didn't respond. The messages she left on my phone indicated she was assuming he was ignoring her or that he didn't care about what she needed. I assumed she would notice she was calling the wrong number and would correct her mistake, but she didn't. I soon called her back and said it sounded like she needed to reach her husband but that she was calling my number instead of his. She expressed embarrassment when she realized she had made assumptions that weren't accurate.
That's the thing about assumptions...sometimes they are accurate, but sometimes they are just a story we make up in our mind. And if you can't tell the difference, it's probably a relationship disaster waiting to happen.
So, you could save yourself from a lot of personal and relationship upsets if you learn to do 5 things:
1. When you notice you are having a big negative reaction to something someone has done or said, step back and ask yourself, "Wait...what am I telling myself about that? Could I be making up a story in my mind, or am I completely sure that I'm telling myself the full truth?"
2. Then ask yourself, "What are the facts, and nothing but the fact?" Sometimes it helps to write them down.
3. Next, ask yourself, "What assumptions or interpretations am I making about all of that? Am I assuming something negative about myself or about the other person?"
4. Then ask yourself, "Are there some other possible explanations or logical reasons as to why this thing might have happened that is upsetting me?" Once we generate a number of other possible explanations, we can often see that our emotional reaction might not be warranted.
5. Last, if the person is a safe person, learn to check out your assumptions, for example, you could ask them, "When you said/did (their words or actions), I wondered if you meant (your assumptions). Was that what you meant?" Or another way of phrasing it for visual learners would be, "When you said/did (their words or actions), here is the picture I had in my mind about what you meant.. (your assumptions). Does that match the picture you had in your mind when you said/did it?"
Relationships are complicated enough without adding inaccurate assumptions and interpretations into the mix. Learning to use these tools can help to eliminate or at least calm down many relationship conflicts, as well as help you feel more confidant with yourself.