When you make an assumption, you tell yourself that something is true without actually having any evidence that it is.
It’s all too easy to lead your life never questioning that you are assuming things to be facts.
Examples of assumptions at work are:
- You don’t get the promotion at work, so you assume you aren’t good at your job
- You assume most people are bad at heart, so don’t trust anyone you meet
- Your partner isn’t very talkative of late, so you assume they are angry with you
- You assume big cities are dangerous so decline a great job offer in a city
- Your mother has never understood your choices, so you assume she does not love you
- A friend with two tickets to a musical asks someone else, so you assume the friendship is faltering
Why do we make assumptions?
In some ways the brain is designed to make assumptions. It searches for patterns, or what cognitive scientists call ‘mental models’, to make it a more efficient machine. For example, you can walk to the station and take the train to the office without paying attention, but assuming it will be the same walk and platform as ever, leaving your mind free to efficiently organise tomorrow’s dinner.
But many assumptions are actually learned behaviour. They come from our culture and our families, and from what we were taught to think as a child. We tend to take on our parents’ assumptions, such as assuming that we do or don’t deserve certain things (a good life, money, love) or we should or shouldn’t do other things (get married, be atheist, wear bright clothes).
Even if we grow up and learn to question the ways our parents think, we might still unwittingly be making assumptions like them because we approach relationships with others using patterning we were taught as a child. For example, you might assume a good relationship means two people must always agree with each other – but does it? And how much would this colour and control your choices of partner if this was your assumption?
Why assumptions can really bring your moods down
Assumptions damage our capacity to relate to others. If you are always assuming you know how others think and feel, you stop listening and communicatingand leave them feeling trapped or misunderstood. And relationship difficulties, whether at work or home, can lead to low self-esteem and depression.
Assumptions also block possibilities. They impede your ability to think creatively and get ahead. If you assume the only way to do a presentation is with a powerpoint and the day comes but there is a technological meltdown at the office and you back out, it’s the employee who makes no assumptions and thinks to act out scenarios the powerpoints describe with the clients and has them all laughing that not only will win the promotion you wanted.
But most importantly when it comes to your moods, assumptions also create spirals of negative thinking.
Assumptions tend to involve such forms of negative thought as doubts and black and white thinking. And given that, as cognitive behavioural therapists teach, our thoughts create our feelings create our actions, if your head is full of negative assumptions it’s highly more likely that you are triggering yourself into repeat cycles of feeling awful.
How to Stop Making Assumptions
1. First things first – learn how to recognise you are making them.
Spend a week really watching for when you are assuming things, even writing them down. The act of writing can often lead to additional clarity, where you might see the other assumptions surrounding the one you’ve recognised.
Look for assumptions of all shapes and sizes. Something small like ‘my spouse didn’t do the dishes just to annoy me’ is just as much a possibly damaging assumption as something big like ‘my partner doesn’t really love me anymore’.
2. Ask good questions of your assumptions.
To break down assumptions you need to ask good, forward moving questions. Try to avoid ‘why’ questions and go for ‘what’ and ‘how’ questions (for more on this, read our article on Asking Good Questions).
Try the following questions:
- What facts do I have to prove this thought is true?
- What facts do I have to prove this thought isn’t true?
- What is a more realistic, in the middle way of seeing this?
- Is this really my own opinion, or did someone else teach it me and I didn’t question it?
- Is this even really what I think or want to think in the future?
- What would life be like if the opposite of this assumption were true?
- What if this assumption didn’t exist at all in my life – who would I then be?
3. Agree to not have control of everything.
A lot of assumptions are about wanting to control life out of a false idea this will make you ‘safe’ (which of course is based around an assumption and core belief that the world isn’t safe in the first place!). For example, because you can’t control what others think, and this might feel scary, you assume that you know what they think. You assume that the neighbours find you lazy, and assume that your teenage daughter hates you.
But what if instead you embraced uncertainty? It’s in fact a great method to drop a ton of assumptions all at once.
Do it by trying this powerful question – what if I don’t need to know the answer about this person/situation? How much stress could I relieve myself of by just agreeing, in this moment, to not know what I can’t know?
4. Look for places you feel stuck.
If you aren’t sure where you are making assumptions, (or are assuming you are too smart to make them!), then look at places you feel stuck. Inevitably there will be an assumption hiding out and holding things up.
For example, if you find it really hard to make friendships that last, what are you assuming about the sorts of people you like? What are you assuming about the kinds of places you want to meet these friends? And what are you assuming friendship involves in the first place?
5. Become mindful.
Assumptions can be tricky, because they are thoughts we are so used to making they can go by without us even noticing. Mindfulness, the act of continuously drawing your attention to the present and how you are thinking and feeling right now, can over time train you to catch more of your thoughts, and thus your assumptions.
The more you know what you are assuming, the more power you have to change what you are assuming into perspectives that open, rather than close, possibilities for you and your life.
Have you changed an assumption and seen real results? Share below, we love hearing from you.
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