“Assumptions are the termites of relationships” ~Henry Winkler
Reactivity between my partner and I is "up". And yeah, I realise it's a pandemic, so we can be forgiven for some of that. However, whatever the reason might be (and it's always complex!)... I decided to have a big think about it.
So... here are my thoughts, and my hope is that my thoughts may be useful for you.
(and us, lol!)
I began this piece with the title "Assumption Liberation Front - Recruiting New Members!". This is because when I got to the end of the first draft of this piece, I felt really strongly that in trying to get better in this arena that I would liberate myself from something really poisonous - perhaps akin to ousting some kind of tyrannical dictator from the sacred lands of my heart & soul.
A Very Important Disclaimer
To be very clear - I'm talking here about "unhelpful assumptions" - and right there we have a subjectivity minefield.
Who gets to decide what's helpful or unhelpful?
YOU do; that's who. But, how can you be sure you're making helpful ones?
As humans, we are always going to make assumptions, and without doubt, some are useful. The human brain is a prediction-making machine. One way our brain saves energy is by making assumptions. The trick is to get better at discerning for yourself those times when the assumption is not serving you, and is driven or motivated by reactivity.
So, in my examination of these things called "assumptions" below, you can assume (now this is a perfect example of the helpful kind!) that I am talking about the reactive, inflexible and potentially problematic brand. How to discern when we are doing this is all part of the journey to being a more effective human.
When you think about it, the word assumption sounds kind of benign doesn't it? In it's reactive form, they are anything but; and all too often they begin a cascade-of-shit when it comes to our interactions with other humans.
In my identifying and catching them early, I'll get better at maintaining healthier, loving and more growthful relationships with the people in my life, as well as reducing my own stress.
Reactivity & Assumption - A Symbiosis?
Reactivity is based in Assumption.
Assumption is based in Reactivity.
Do you think thats true? I am coming to see that they have a symbiotic relationship; or is that co-dependent? In fact, can they even exist without each other? Now there's an interesting question!
Let's take this idea of their symbiosis further. If we work to reduce reactivity, do we then reduce the chances we'll fall down the rabbit hole of unhelpful assumptions? And, on the other side of this coin: if we work to reduce assumptions, is this an important key to reducing our reactivity? These two seem so inextricably entwined. We might think of them as binary stars, forever orbiting each other, unable to escape each others gravitational pull - unless of course we choose to bring some intentionality into our lives, thoughts and interactions.
Assumptions are such an easy place to go to when we feel hurt or upset, and they have a totally magnetic appeal for the affronted ego.
When we feel hurt, all we really want is to find our centre once again and feel calm. Assumptions look to be an easy pathway, as our brains convince us that this sense of "knowing" will provide a sense of control over our chaotic emotions. Unfortunately, in responding to the siren call of the Assumption, we will almost always end up feeling more upset.
How and Why your Assumptions will hurt you
Our reactive assumptions will often disconnect us from the 'other' we are in relationship with. This is true of any form of black and white thinking, which increases the risk of our losing connection with the complex multilayered reality that always describes any other human or situation we are interacting with (or in).
Assumption spells the death-knell of curiosity. The purpose of Assumption is to 'work it all out'. It's mission is to "know what is going on". In choosing assumption, the situation (or persons motives) can be "officially diagnosed" and so it is that we will have no need to ask further questions. Can you recognise this in yourself when you are feeling upset, hurt or angry?
The reason we hold onto our "Situation Diagnosis" is that when we feel upset / angry we are simply trying to reach for less inner turmoil. The certainty that Assumption assures us it will provide for us feels like a safe harbour in this stormy sea of not-knowing that our boat-of-self is currently being tossed around upon.
When we make the choice to call into this (so-called) safe harbour, at least three things happen:
1 - we lose our curiosity
2 - we elicit a defensive response in the other ...and...
3 - disconnection happens
Disconnection brings about an even greater degree of turmoil - just what we were trying to avoid - F**k!
A defensive response brings with it subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) changes in our own facial expression, voice tone and body language. These changes are then picked up by the neuroceptive faculties of the other person. Wiithout even needing to do a thing, or make a decision to do so, a defensive reaction is launched. You can see how easy it is to seed a game of "Defensive Reaction Tennis" - where the volleys are fired faster and faster and faster, until someone smashes their racquet on the court and storms off.
These thoughts were inspired by current events in my own life. I am a great racquet thrower (on the ground, not at the person!) and can easily experience myself getting overwhelmed by emotion; a place where rational thinking is very difficult to connect with. Sometimes in those moments the wisest thing to do is to remove the bomb (aka: me) from the room. (Note: getting space is totally fine, as long as its negotiated properly so as to reduce further defensiveness. More on that in part 2).
In considering this topic, I recently read this passage by Jeff Brown, the author of many books in the arena of personal & spiritual inquiry:
“There is a meaningful distinction between inquiry and assumption in personal relationships. Those connections that remain inquiry based - where each person asks the other about their intentions, motivations, and actions - have a tendency to last far longer than those based on assumption.
When we can allow ourselves to remain genuinely curious about why someone behaved as they did, we keep the gate between our hearts open. We co-create an ongoing opportunity to grow individually and together. When we rely on assumptions as our interpretive structure - particularly those lodged in our own issues and limiting beliefs - we are far more likely to close the door to the connection and miss the opportunity for growth. The simple truth is that there are often countless possibilities for why someone behaved as they did. And the assumption that we make is often misguided. Better we inquire - wherever possible - so that the connection has an opportunity to grow in awareness and understanding. Being curious about those that matter to us, keeps the fires of relatedness alight.”
~ Jeff Brown
Judgements are Threats
Assumptions are by nature a judgement, and when it comes to the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS), all judgement and criticism (including those we level at ourselves) are interpreted by the ANS as a threat.
The ANS regulates involuntary physiologic processes which include our heart rate, blood pressure, respiration and digestion. We all know what a 'threat' feels like in our bodies. Our heart rate increases, we start breathing faster, our gut tightens - we are ready for action. All this happens automatically - and the resulting flood of the stress hormone cortisol changes the way we think and how we perceive what is unfolding in front of us. Why are we doing this? The reason we are making assumptions in the first place is that we ourselves feel threatened. It's all happening so fast that by the time we realise it, we've already reacted.
The PFC - Helping you to take a wider context
An important brain structure that we need to remain connected to in order to think well in complex relational situations is the Prefrontal Cortex (PFC).
The PFC enables us to make much wiser decisions about stuff. The most typical psychological term used for the functions carried out by the PFC is "executive function". This refers to things like the ability to differentiate among conflicting thoughts, determine good and bad, better and best, same and different.
Very importantly, the PFC enables us to take a wider context, which is the antidote to making assumptions. The PFC is also one of the most powerful tools we possess for connection and social relatedness. And, when we are connected, we simply function better. So, making assumptions means that we are unable to think properly, logically or rationally. It's funny isn't it! Assumption and Judgement feel so damn logical; the story they present to us always seems to make so much sense. A more accurate truth is likely that we are actually unable to make very good sense of what's happening at all.
If we can stay curious and open, this activates the Social Engagement system and connection and dialogue is much more likely to happen. And not just dialogue with the other - I think we keep dialogue open with ourselves too.
Assumptions shut down many useful thinking processes (in particular those that assist us with healthy relating - to both self and other) and in doing so we will be further challenged to connect with our own personal flow.
So. What to do!
Coming up in Part 2...
~ Hilary Jackson 2021
If you'd like to see a great TED Talk on the value of taking a wider context, I'd like to highly recommend this one by neuroscientist Dr Robert Sapolsky - he's friendly and easy to listen to and may inspire you further in your Resisting-Unhelpful-Assumptions Practice!