By Punya Srivatsava
The assumptions we have about others and situations can often steep us in misery and conflict. Punya Srivastava explores why we jump to conclusions and how we can heal from this habit
Whenever people closest to me would not reply to my Whatsapp texts, or return my calls as soon as I wanted them to, the first thought to cross my mind would be that may be something had happened to them. This would be followed soon after by the thought that perhaps they did not consider me important enough to give me attention. This had been happening on-and-off with a very close friend a few weeks ago. Every time I would receive a delayed response or not receive a return call for a long time, my mind would turn into a bioscope and replay all such situations from the past. The thought that she might be busy, or might not be in a situation to revert at the moment would pop up every now and then. Yet, the dominant thoughts would always be the initial ones. Gradually, these instances got accumulated over time, cementing my opinion of her.
One day, when she didn’t turn up on time, I rang her up but didn’t get any response. Worrying as to what might have happened to her, I dialled her number a few more times only to receive a seemingly insouciant text informing me that she would be late. Anger surged through my veins. All kinds of thoughts, ranging from my insignificance in her life to her disregard and lack of concern for my state of mind, bubbled in my head, and I decided to confront her when she came. However, I wanted to bury myself alive with shame when she revealed the reason behind her behaviour. She had been running around to get a stray puppy some medical help and when she had typed that message, she was actually holding the pup while the vet put it on drip. My assumption had almost pushed me to lash out, and put our friendship in jeopardy.
And I am not alone. We have all made assumptions and have been at the receiving end of someone else’s presumptuous behaviour too.
What are assumptions?
I see assumptions as hypotheses formed by taking people and situations for granted. We keep on playing a movie in our head, too lazy or too afraid to perform a reality check on them. In my case, for instance, my previous experiences with my friend gave me the comfortable option of replaying the past, instead of waiting to know the real reason. Assumptions are our best efforts to make sense out of the events in our lives. We may experience them as reality, but they are, in fact, all in our minds. Unfortunately, we are so good at bringing our imagination to life, that we often endow our assumptions with a life-like quality.
“Assumptions are simplistic. They keep our worldview sorted, reduce the time we spend on analysing and thinking hard about people’s real self, and even protect us from questioning our true motives and intents. Who wouldn’t want it? It is far simpler and easier to spend time on Whatsapp than on sitting down and reflecting as to why my first impressions convert into judgements; or why it is easier to rate a person on a scale of one to ten than to look deeper into his or her psyche,” says Sugandh Gupta, a Delhi-based psychologist providing behavioural training to organizations.
“Perspectives born of our own experiences or beliefs transferred to us by our environment make us assume,” says Jaipur-based energy healer and writer, Chitra Jha. “They are a part of our survival mechanism that drives self-protective behaviour. If I know in advance how the world or its people behave/think/act, I would be better prepared to handle my life,” she adds.
Why we assume
“Assumptions are defence mechanisms we have created to protect ourselves from inconsistencies, our own inadequacies, and the all-pervasive social chaos. More often than not, assumptions are self-preserving mechanisms that orient our life in a particular way. They are like the steering wheel of a car. We may choose to hold the steering wheel hard and drive straight and explore the unknown, or we may choose to turn the steering wheel in a direction that is familiar and secure,” says Sugandh.
Assumptions arise because of several factors. For one, because we forget that over a period of time life changes, people change, and situations too. Nothing remains the same. However, our understanding of the person or situation may not have kept up with the times.
Sugandh illustrates the point: “For instance, you are friends with Abhilasha since school and you have happily assumed that you know her inside out after 20 years of friendship. And then you see her dating a guy who, according to you, she would have disapproved of at first glance. You see her buying clothes that you are sure are not of her taste. You start feeling puzzled, isolated, and confused about the foundation of your friendship. What just happened? You pigeon-holed Abhilasha! Twenty years of friendship formed such a strong fortress in your mind that when her behaviour was incongruent with your assumptions, you could not assimilate and re-organise your neural circuits about her,” she explains.
Another reason behind assumptions is our belief system. “We have preconceived notions about life based on what we learn from our families, schools, peers, or neighbours. “For example, a person who may be an introvert is often mistaken for a snob; or if a girl comes home late one night after a party, she’s assumed to be a fast girl,” says Gayatrri Bhartiya, a Delhi-based life coach and metaphysical trainer.
Banhi Shikha Nath, a Delhi-based PR consultant, shares an example of how our belief systems build up. “Once while travelling in the metro, I happened to sit next to a lady with a little girl. There was an African woman sitting opposite to us. I happened to overhear what the kid’s mother was whispering to her. To my dismay, she was telling the little girl that if she wouldn’t go to school daily, that black ghost (the African lady) would kidnap and take her away. I knew that from that moment onwards the kid was going to see every black person as a ‘black ghost’ and probably teach her children the same thing. That’s how assumptions start creeping into our lives,” she says.
|An expectation-based assumption led Gayatrri Bhartiya to lose a client|
“Our assumptions are the source of all conscious and much unconscious behaviours. Change assumptions and our view of the situation, and the way we respond to it also changes,” writes author Victor Bogart in his book, Your Assumptions: How They Control Your Life & What to Do About Them.
Assumptions in relationships
“Assumptions are the termites of relationships.”
– Henry Winkler
In relationships, assumptions come into play whenever there is a traffic jam in the two-way communication. I vividly remember an instance where jumping to conclusions and lack of communication taught me a good lesson. I had just graduated from college then and would miss talking to my best friend every day, for she had started working as an intern right after. However, her phone would be unreachable every time I rang her up. I would send her text messages every day but didn’t get any reply. For the first few days, I assumed her new job was keeping her busy. But thereafter, my mind began to move into overdrive. ‘Why couldn’t she text me just once? Is she that busy?’ ‘Has she already forgotten me?’ Stewing, I stopped texting her. That very Saturday, she called me up and told me how disappointed she had felt that I had not once made an attempt to know how she was doing in her new job.
My jaw dropped. Here I was fretting at not getting any response from her while there she was waiting for me to call her up. Later, when we calmly sat down to talk, I learnt that the number on which I had been calling her had been out of service for some reason, and she had been using a new number. I, on the other hand, had totally forgotten about her new number. Instead of trying to see the reason behind each other’s actions, we chose to jump to conclusions, and spent a whole week moping.
|The desire to control relationships make us rely on assumptions says KripaJyoti|
“If you live your relationships based on assumptions, you’re never going to feel fully happy or satisfied, because assumptions leave no room for change, growth or negotiation,” writes Ashley Thorn, a licensed marriage and family therapist, Salt Lake City, Utah, on her blog www.wasatchfamilytherapy.com. She further writes how assuming is a form of passiveness which doesn’t require any real effort or action, both of which are vital to keep relationships moving in a positive direction.
“When we are true to ourselves, when our intentions are pure; when we believe in the larger picture, our assumptions drop.”
“Do we want to stop assuming? Are we willing to live a life of self-awareness and complete personal responsibility and accountability?” asks Sugandh, adding, “Can we create a space of unconditional regard and positive acceptance of everyone, beginning with ourselves? The only possible way to reduce assumptions is to become conscious of what we do.”
To become conscious we need to be reflective. Reflection is the process of acknowledging our own incapacities, accepting our limitations, and embracing our strengths. It is ‘knowing and believing’ that our imperfection is perfect. And imperfect as I may be, so are those around me. This state of mind is only attained with weeks and often years of training, self-reflection and self-acceptance.
According to Chitra, we stop assuming when we are clear within us; when we believe in our own goodness. “When we are true to ourselves, when our intentions are pure; when we believe in the larger picture, our assumptions drop,” she adds.
“I have made assumptions about people in my life, particularly close relationships, which created serious conflicts,” says KripaJyoti. As she moved inwards, she understood that it was she who was at fault; the other person was behaving as he should. “At that moment deep-rooted trauma surfaced because no one wants to look at their flaws. When I looked at mine, all my assumptions about those relationships dropped immediately. I opened my eyes to the truth. I started working on myself, and asked for forgiveness from the other person for creating a disturbance in their space because of my assumptions. It was my need which made me assume things about others. When I overcame my needs, my assumptions and expectations from others dropped completely,” she adds.
Communication also plays a very important role in clearing out assumptions. If we were to talk to the person instead of running scenarios in our own head, things can get much easier. However, that can sometimes backfire, says Chitra. She points out that when we try to communicate in the full heat of our anger and hurt, the other might retreat into self-defensiveness, leaving us feel unheard. She suggests that more important than communication is sincere willingness to see the other person’s point of view. “If my intention in confrontation is ‘conflict’ and ‘one-upmanship’ it will strengthen the conflict, but if it is ‘resolution’ and ‘love’ it will soften the other person,” adds Chitra.
I remember an expression I came across on an online forum – to assume (ass-u-me) is to make an ass of you and me. Now whenever I catch myself making assumptions, I pull the brakes and remember that line. This is one thing which I would never want to do to myself or to my loved ones.
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