As human beings, we make assumptions all of the time.
If you are able to sit down at a computer at the library and work with it effortlessly because you already know what a computer does even though you have never worked with this exact computer, your mind is working off of assumptions. In other words, we don’t know it’s a computer until we attempt to work with it. If you see a breed of dog you have never seen before in your life but you know its a dog, your mind is working off of assumptions. We don’t know it’s a dog for a fact, but the ingredients for “dog” comes up in our mind and we guess based on what we already know of dogs. Assumptions are based off of our past experiences with the world and help us to build a system of structure and rules within our own mind, representative of the world. That classification system also includes categories in our mind like “good” and “bad.”
This is, however, where subjective experiences come into play and assumptions now begin to influence and possibly control our behavior. For example, imagine that a dog that I previously trusted has bitten me.
From then on, I begin to question every dog that crosses my path and I may even become very fearful. I may also question my decision-making abilities to know what animals are good and bad. My emotions, particularly fear, are now making my decisions for me and utilizing assumptions to keep me safe.
This is the point where the assumptions I am using are coming from one single incident, out of probably hundreds of times I have been around dogs with no problems. Why doesn’t my mind take those other experiences into account? The difference between the two is the strong emotions (fear, in this case) we attach mentally to the single incident. From an evolutionary perspective, our mind is designed to take these memories and keep them at the forefront so history does not repeat itself on our watch.
Whenever you see a dog, you are reminded that it could be, might be, or is dangerous and could potentially threaten your life.
So what is the problem here? First off, our emotions are driving our thoughts. No rational thinking is going on when our emotions are at 100%. Now imagine that I am not talking about dogs, but other people. Someone hurt me, and now I can’t trust anyone because my fear says so. Second, I start to think I can accurately see the future and read other people’s minds, thoughts, and motives.
“That person looks like the person who hurt me. Stay away from them.”
“This person thinks I’m not smart enough for them.”
“Why would a random person on the street ask me a question? Maybe they are trying to figure out where I live.”
The emotions are feeding themselves with assumptions. I’m getting more scared by the minute because my mind is creating all of these scary scenarios. The fact is, I can’t see the future or read minds. All I know is what is in front of me, which is very little, and that’s scary. Not knowing is scarier than the illusion of knowing.
Just because we had one, or even multiple bad experiences, doesn’t mean we can’t live our life how we would like it to be. Fear does not have to be in the driver’s seat (nor does any emotion for that matter). Fear can and should still be in the car, just not driving—because while we do need to stay safe, we don’t need to be confined in life.
Keeping mindful about how our thoughts drive our feelings and behaviors is an important first step in getting back in the driver’s seat. Noticing you are feeling down or moody today? Write it down! Analyze the assumptions your mind in engaging in by asking yourself the following questions:
Why do I think this happened? What does this event mean?
How do I feel (i.e. emotions) because of my thoughts above?
How do I behave as a result of my thoughts and feelings?
Believe it or not, the process of writing this out can be incredibly helpful. When I have clients write these things down on their own, they will say things like “I can’t believe I thought that!” or “That is so silly!” I know from experience that the very process of writing your thoughts down can help anyone to slow down and cultivate deeper insight.
The next part is far more challenging, which is taking a mental “timeout” and asking yourself “Would a trusted friend agree with my interpretation of the event or situation?” and “What do I know versus what do I think I know?” These are questions of facts (information from another source besides one’s own mind) versus what your mind is coming up with to fill in the unknown blanks of a situation.
For example, I know my spouse is upset. I can observe their behavior that tells me something is wrong. What I think I know is that my spouse is upset with me because I asked them to help me with some chores. That is a guess, but my anxiety will fill in the blanks so I can resolve it in my mind. My anxiety needs to know why. When we are able to clarify these differences and sit with the distress of not knowing all the answers, we can instead gather information as it comes in. Thus, our emotions stand a much better chance at staying balanced instead of throwing us into a panic.
A reflection upon our assumptions as sources of knowledge is a very important aspect of navigating our day-to-day lives. However, when we combine our assumptions with strong emotions and judgment, we can quickly paint ourselves into a rigid psychological corner. We are not open to new experiences, we begin acting as if we know what people are thinking (hint: people generally don’t like that), and believe that we can see the future as if its already been written. Emotions are just that powerful.
So how do we prevent ourselves from making assumptions to begin with, if it’s possible? Ask questions. Be curious. Be compassionate towards others rather than assuming it’s about you. Check in with yourself during the day to practice mindfulness. When we are mindful, we can deal with these issues before they become a problem. But don’t forget that we are emotional beings who make assumptions inevitably. Just be compassionate with yourself and your mind as this practice is another important piece in keeping our emotions from taking control.
Author: Candice Ackerman
Editor: Alli Sarazen
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