Though I’ve written about assumptions before, for whatever reason in this season of life, I’ve been even more aware of them at play. Part of this may be due to the political conversations swirling around as well as my move away from clinical work freeing me to be more transparent about my personal views (which are always evolving). I find assumptions especially interesting because they are one of the many mental habits that can cause us and those around us much suffering. A practice of mindfulness can make this more apparent, offering us a wider range of choices for wise responding.
Like most things in moderation, assumptions can be useful. They provide a shortcut when we need to make quick decisions. They allow us to fill in the blanks when there are no answers to be found. But, any habit taken too far can become an addiction – something we continue to engage in despite harm to self and others. Many of us are addicted to knowing, to feeling certain and safe – above the fray. Our assumptions tend to be an attempt at self-fulfillment of our desires. Yet, much like gambling, we tend to lose more than we gain.
It’s infinitely easier to see someone else’s faulty assumptions than our own. Maybe we notice something familiar mirrored in the behavior of our fellow certainty addicts. My work as a psychologist has taught me very clearly that what we see on the surface in another usually gives very few clues about what lies beneath, including motivations and intentions. My mindfulness practice has also helped me recognize the subtler ways I personally assume and jump to conclusions before there’s enough information to make an accurate assessment.
Many times when we make an assumption, we aren’t aware that its merely a hypothesis. We act upon our hunches as if they are truth and then we selectively attend to information that supports this version of “truth”. It becomes a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy as our actions, reflecting our views, impact others and their relationship with us. If we’re willing to explore our mistaken assumptions when we discover them with kindness and curiosity, they can tell us much about our beliefs and preferences.
What a man believes may be ascertained, not from his creed, but from the assumptions on which he habitually acts. – George Bernard Shaw
Usually when someone makes assumptions about us, we never know about it. At most, we might feel a sense of puzzlement about their behavior – and the discomfort of this not knowing puts us at risk of making our own assumptions. If the assumption is in our favor, we may be tempted to shrug our shoulders and let it stand, but carrying a vague feeling of dissonance. On the rare occasion that we are made explicitly aware of someone’s assumptions about us, they tend to be phrased as a statement of fact, with little room to offer clarifying information.
At this point, you’re probably connecting the dots between assumptions, stereotypes and unconscious bias. Assumptions are often snap decisions we make based on sparse and vague foundational information that may be outdated, inappropriate for the current situation, or just plain wrong. These biases and stereotypes are capable of harming individuals, whole groups of people, and even entire nations when held collectively. So, challenging our assumptions is not just a nicety or an opportunity for personal growth, but an ethical responsibility.
Don’t Make Assumptions. Find the courage to ask questions and to express what you really want. Communicate with others as clearly as you can to avoid misunderstandings, sadness and drama. With just this one agreement, you can completely transform your life. – Don Miguel Ruiz, The Four Agreements
Very often we forget the very simple act of asking questions. In my early years, my conditioning was such that asking personal questions felt like prying, nosy or rude. Those of us with this conditioning spend many years training ourselves not to inquire and suppressing our natural curiosity. I still struggle with it in my personal life. But, I try to remember how it feels when someone asks me a question out of a place of genuine caring and interest – I tend to feel seen and valued when this happens. This is one of healing aspects of therapy as well – it is a place where someone is genuinely curious about your experience and seeks to understand.
A dedicated practice of mindfulness can help us become more objectively aware of our own thought processes and habits, to compassionately explore and learn from our mistakes, and to make space for thoughtful decision making so we might reduce the harm our assumptions cause ourselves and others. Through our practice, we might also better understand the assumptions others make about us, take time to care for and resource ourselves around these often painful experiences, and respond skillfully rather than taking it personally and perpetuating the cycle of suffering.
Our own life is the instrument with which we experiment with the truth. — Thich Nhat Hanh