The Shelf Life of Assumptions

Shelf Life


You probably think I enjoy listening…I don’t.


(Cue chirping crickets.)


You might also think I’m empathetic, caring, compassionate, a people person, and any other adjectives typically scripted to counselors.  People have lots of assumptions about my professional persona.  I hear them all the time in meet and greets.  “You must really love people.”  “I bet you’re a great listener.”  “People probably hate how you can read their minds.” “You must psychoanalyze your husband all the time.”  The last one is definitely true…you mutter, under your breath.

Assumptions are those things we believe to be true without proof.  Synonyms are presuppositions, conjectures, presumptions, guesses.  Assumptions are insidious.  They’re subtle, pervasive, and destructive.  No sooner do we open our eyes in the morning then we’re making a multitude of assumptions.  Our default mode is to embrace a set of beliefs based on a generalized and often inaccurate knowledge base.  A knowledge spearheaded by our projections.

Have you ever given the “perfect” Christmas gift to a recipient who ended up angry or disappointed?  This happens because of the belief that we understand our loved ones’ likes and dislikes; a belief based on projection–in this case, a bad one.  Projection is our distorted view of another’s thoughts, feelings, and desires as shadowy versions of our own.  This isn’t based on who they are but who we are.   Any follow up interactions reflect these distortions; fertile ground for our assumptions to germinate and grow.

Assumptions are reflexive, as if our brains are met with the doctor’s mallet, bi-focals perched on his nose and tapping rigorously until we jump.  We predict what our co-workers are going to say so we cut them off, mid-sentence, and respond reflexively.  Then we regret.

The problem with assumptions is they have a shelf life.  They spoil quickly and reek of projection.  They turn our relationships sour. 

That souring begins with communication. How often have you ended up in a fight with your spouse that lasted for hours only to realize you weren’t even talking about the same thing?  Most communication breakdowns involve thousands of false assumptions.

Because of these communication faux pas, assumptions are insidious internally and inter-personally.   When we presume we project instead of listening.  This leads to a reductionism that is cruelly felt by the other.  Our assumptions whittle others down into a set of beliefs based on our own biased experiences and unfounded in their characters.

Rather than sentencing our loved ones to live shadowy versions of our own lives, here are a few guidelines to consider about assumptions.  First, know your filters.  Learn more about your own projections.  You can do this by asking family and friends (if you’re brave).  Notice your strong, emotional reactions.  If you believe others are interpreting the world in the exact same way that you are, that’s an assumption based on a projection.

Second, go back to the basics.  Let’s say you have a childhood friend with whom you’ve rendezvoused at the same restaurant for the last twenty years.  Now, let’s say your friend tends to be less assertive than you.  What if your friend doesn’t even like the restaurant but has never told you?  Maybe those beliefs and affinities you’ve associated with a friend or family member are all wrong.  Try going to your loved ones and asking them.  You’ll likely be surprised by the feedback.

This leads to the third point.  When it comes to assumptions, question everything.  As soon as you notice an assumption emerge in real time test your hypothesis rather than viewing it as truth.  You can do this by collecting multiple data points.  Examples would be asking directly, noticing the person’s habits to see if your assumption fits with those habits, paying attention to body language, and noticing how quickly a conversation goes south. As we established, poor communication is riddled with assumptions.

Finally, hold your assumptions loosely.  Accept the fact that they’re unavoidable. We can’t escape forming hypotheses about others, but we can decide whether to embrace them or challenge them.  They are only hypotheses, and we would do well to incorporate twice the data points than usual to confirm their accuracy.  In other words, turn the assumptions on yourself and assume you’re wrong about them until proven right by the data.

As you learn to challenge your assumptions, see what happens to your communication skills. Do your wife, mother, and son feel better understood? Are your conversations more seamless?

So why am I a counselor if I don’t like listening?  I’m sure in the span of time it took you to read this post you’ve developed a subconscious set of assumptions to explain it.  Consider those assumptions consciously for a moment.


Think you’re right?


Musings: How’s It Going?

For those of you working your way through the Fall Reading list challenge, you’re probably about half to three-quarters through by now.

How’s it going?

As you think back on those twenty minutes a day, what are your takeaways? What has surprised you, frustrated you, disturbed you, or enticed you?

I quickly noticed an emergent theme. Those thoughts and feelings I normally tuck into the back recesses of my mind were unearthed quickly. They would surface in different shades and textures with each new word, but they were the same themes nonetheless.

I unearthed problems that I need to make decisions about but would rather avoid, and I uprooted beliefs about myself and others I would prefer to ignore.

Uninterrupted self-evaluation tends to do that. If we allow it to, it acts as a homing beacon, drawing us directly to the source of our inner tension that we’re so prone to run from. It draws us to beliefs like “I’m not okay.” “I can’t handle this.” “I’m a failure.” “I’m helpless.” Etc.

As I’ve been sitting with that tension for an uninterrupted twenty minutes every day, something surprising has happened. Those beliefs, when I face them, begin to lose their power. The distortions they create start to fade away and are replaced by truth. That truth is unsettling and beautiful, simultaneously, and most importantly it’s healing.

We’ll talk more next time about truth and decisions. At certain points in our lives, truth is harder to see, feel, and taste, and we may need guides along the way.

For now, a couple thoughts. If you’re trudging through the list and finding no benefit, or no emerging theme, consider if there are ways that you are blocking/protecting yourself from facing that self-evaluation? What would it look like to embrace what you’re afraid of?

If you’re flying through the list and find superficial interpretations emerging, but nothing of substance, what would it look like to slow yourself down and really savor the list, rather than viewing it as another task to be conquered?

Finally, if you’re savoring the list, facing fears, and are uncertain of how to make decisions with what you’re uncovering, ask yourself, “what’s holding me back from those decisions?” What would it look like to do something different, to allow a break in pattern?

There are many ways we derail ourselves from truly facing the things we fear most. Courage is elusive and intangible at such moments, but it is still available to us.

We’ll revisit truth and decisions after you’ve made your way through more of the list. For now..

I’ll ask again, how’s it going?

Musings: Dusty Books and Dustier Tapestries

IMG_0051.JPGThis post is just an article dump of a few recent readings I’ve enjoyed, with metaphors mixed in. It secondarily adds to the twenty by twenty challenge, if interested.

A close encounter with multi-colored threads is anarchy–chaotic and free
form. But from a distance, the emergence of shapes and the convergence of colors create structured images…tapestries.

Since last week’s post initiated our journey into word associations, here’s one of my favorite associations with the word tapestry:

Butler: [Answering door] Yes?
Indiana Jones: [In Scottish accent] Not before time! did you intend to leave us standing on the doorstep all day? we’re drenched
[sneezes in butler’s face]
Indiana Jones: Now look, I’ve gone and caught a sniffle
Butler: Are you expected?
Indiana Jones: Don’t take that tone with me my good man! Now buttle off and tell Baron Brunwald that Lord Clarence McDonald and his lovely assistant
[Drags Elsa towards him]
Indiana Jones: are here to view the tapestries
Butler: Tapestries?
Indiana Jones: The old man is dense, this is a castle isn’t it? there are tapestries
Butler: This is a castle and we have many tapestries, and if you are a Scottish lord then I am Mickey Mouse!
Indiana Jones: How dare he?
[punches butler in face]

–The Last Crusade

Who doesn’t like tapestries when they’re paired with dusty fedoras and boyish wit? It’s better than the usual effeminate associations.

Another association with tapestries is what I like to call “tapestry moments”. Those moments where extraneous details converge and eerily make sense together to form a bigger, connected picture. This happened recently with some seemingly extraneous details in my blog posts. I found an interesting article on personality questionnaires that suddenly forced these details from previous posts to converge:

The article is about Joan Didion, who inspired my musing on surrender. She’s responding to a questionnaire made famous by Marcel Proust, referenced in my post on beauty with his prologue quote. And that questionnaire, referenced in this article with creative repurposing, represents a Victorian version of personality assessments, ones that are essential to our work at Wellspring.

Furthermore, one of the points made on the questionnaire is useful to the twenty by twenty challenge: “Which words or phrases do you most overuse?”

As you’re working your way through the “reading list,” you may have noticed unexpected, surprising, and possibly emotional associations have emerged. If so, you’re on the right track.

In the same way, the associations you have with your well-worn words are significant. Those favorited words that we over-use represent a particular angle from which we view the world, as well as a set of positive reinforcements we’ve received for using them (a nod, a smile, increased interest in conversation, etc.). They’re carefully chosen and intentional, and often well-received, which reinforces their value to speaker and audience alike. Plus, they’re contagious. We have all enhanced our vocabularies from stealing others’ favorite words. This is why the best readers often make the best writers. They’re born to plagiarize. In the best possible way, of course.

Noticing your favorited words could be a way to deepen the benefit gained from the reading challenge. How do your associations with your over-used words fit with the emerging themes of twenty by twenty? How do the connections converge with other associations to create a significant theme, or life theme?

My takeaway about the extraneous details that converged in the Didion/Proust article?

Tapestry moments are. You can miss them or you can spot them, but they’re tangible nonetheless. If you do spot them, what next?

Oh, and by the way, for those “Fall reading list” followers who favor old, dusty books, check out the chemical romance that inspires this affinity.