Assuming the Worst

We’ve all heard what they say about the word “assume.” Nowhere is that more accurate than when making negative assumptions about other people’s intentions toward us. It’s one of the most damaging habits we fall into in relationships – both with others and with ourselves. In our office we often talk to couples and families about the impact of negative assumptions on communication and the propensity for escalation of conflict. Many of us tend to assume the worst about other people’s intentions toward us, without verbalizing or questioning the assumptions, but responding as if the other person did, in fact, have truly malicious intent. Once these negative assignments take up residence in our minds they become our reality, determining the tone and direction of any subsequent interactions.

Over time, such patterns of response can become so automatic that we are not even aware we’re engaging in them. Several dynamics can fuel negative assumptions: Perhaps we fear being incompetent so we believe other people view us that way and interpret comments from them through that filter. Maybe we’re particularly sensitive about a certain issue so that even a non-critical comment is interpreted as criticism. The underlying, contributing factor is usually some sort of negative self-evaluation that twists incoming information to fit our perception. If not confronted and challenged, such assumptions can completely derail communication and relationships. We first have to become aware we’re doing this before we can rectify it. If we find that we’re frequently becoming hurt or angry when talking about certain things, we might want to examine our thoughts and self-talk to see if we’re falling into this trap. Once we’re aware this is happening, a simple remedy is to simply question the other person’s meaning or motives: “It sounded like you were saying………. Did I interpret that correctly?”

Assuming the worst extends to our assessments of the behavior of other people as well. So often we hear comments righteously declaring that someone meant to offend, she thinks of no one but herself, he is terribly inconsiderate, etc, etc. In some cases there might be some degree of truth in those assessments, but it could possibly be something much less sinister. The field of cognitive-behavioral therapy is based on the theory that what we tell ourselves determines how we feel. So we have a great deal of power over our feelings, just by what we choose to “assume” about other people and their behavior. I often give clients a 3x5 card with the word “OR” written on it in large letters to remind them to consider alternate interpretations for less-than-charming behavior from the people they live and deal with. Maybe – just maybe – they were worried and thinking about something very serious when they ignored you. Maybe, just maybe, they didn’t realize you were already standing there when they cut in front of you. The next time you find yourself feeling hurt or angry by what someone says or does, andassuming that’s their intention, ask yourself “OR…..could it be………..?”

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