Assumptions: Killing Connection for Survival?

Image by Alexander Fradellafra from Pixabay

Let’s face it: We make assumptions about almost everything, including ourselves. How many times have we said, “I got this!” and the result didn’t match our assumption? We tell people what we think is happening in the world, based on what we have seen or heard on the news or social media. We give unsolicited advice because we think we know the solution to someone’s problems, based on their version of their situation they shared with us. We have car accidents when we turn in front of another car because the driver had their turn signal on, and we assumed they were turning instead of going straight. It happens constantly and repeatedly throughout our lives. Where do assumptions come from?

Our past experiences create our assumptions which we use as proof or evidence to base them on when we make them today. We think we see and experience the world accurately, our reality, but we don’t. It’s OUR reality. We see what benefits or is useful to us instead of a larger, more accurate view of actuality.

The brain evolved to see usefully, not accurately. — Beau Lotto, Neuroscientist

So we make assumptions. But, at what cost?

When talking to people, if they nod their head, we assume they are listening or understanding what we are saying. Driving our cars, we usually assume people will follow traffic rules and obey the laws. When the assumed behavior doesn’t match the actual behavior, it definitely has an impact whether it’s good or bad.

Assumptions impact many things, especially, how we relate with each other. We can’t deny how they affect our relationships. When we meet someone for the first time, we can assume certain things about them or their lifestyle based on their actions (e.g. How they’re dressed, if they have tattoos, etc.). We tell ourselves stories and jump to conclusions via our assumptions.

Think of the impact an assumption can have on our intimate relationships. We assume our partner or spouse is treating us differently because of something we did wrong. Then, we tell a story or create a false narrative about the situation within our minds. This causes us to act out of fear, anger, jealousy or whatever negative emotion we create. We say or do something we later regret, and this pattern can repeat itself causing resentment or distance in the relationship.

At the beginning of our relationships as couples, we may assume we see eye to eye on things or have the same preferences. Once we start living together, it can become an entirely different world! Let’s just say people assume those they love have good hygiene, until they actually start living with them.

When we have a disagreement or argument, we may assume the other person will respond or act a certain way. Our assumptions lead to expectations and, when they aren’t met, we get angry, feel sad or let down in some way. This can damage our relationship and we feel less connected, creating distance or a wedge between us and our companions.

Why do we do it? We typically make over 30,000 decisions each day! It’s a number that sounds and feels overwhelming. It stands to reason that, if we make some assumptions along the way, we can also make it easier and faster to decide. Assumptions help us focus on other, more pressing things like work, navigating school, or what to stream tonight with dinner (By the way, what’s for dinner and do you have all the ingredients?). As neuroscientist and author, Beau Lotto states in his book, Deviate:

To breakdown your own personal physics of know, that the meanings applied to your past experiences have given you, you must embrace one fundamental fact about yourself: You have assumptions. They are deep assumptions. So deep, you can’t move without them, not even one step forward. You’d die without them. These assumptions are an empirical result of your trial and error experience, whether that experience be internal or external. They necessarily limit what you think, do, and feel. But in doing so, they can destroy relationships and careers.

Back when we lived in caves, assumptions were a matter of life or death! If we assumed the food or a safe place to live was just over the hill or around the corner, it could spell instant death for us. Eating something we thought was safe or joining a tribe we thought was safe, wasn’t always true. Our safety isn’t really ever guaranteed, even today, but we still go out into the world with the assumption we will return to the “safety” of our home/cave. Now, I’m not trying to create anxiety or fear where it didn’t exist. I’m merely challenging some of the assumptions we make each moment of each day.

This is how we begin to overcome our assumptions, by challenging them! Here’s some ways we can begin to deconstruct our assumptions:

  • Question the assumptions we make and why we make them
  • Strive for concrete evidence vs. blind acceptance
  • Be aware of our tendency to justify or rationalize an assumption
  • Speak up and communicate instead of thinking or using internal dialog
  • Remember the cost of making assumptions and past mistakes
  • Be patient with yourself on this journey (It’s part of being human and also habitual, it took time to form them, it will also take time to shift them.)

We’re human and assumptions are part of the human experience. We may not be able to completely stop making assumptions, but we can become much more aware of them. This is a process. It takes practice each day. Be kind to yourself as you identify and challenge your assumptions. We’re all human and we want to live a better life. The cave is familiar and feels safe, but it’s full of regret and missed opportunities too.