Many of us decide what things mean without all the information. Then we use unconscious filters to fill in the gaps to decide what they mean. That is, we make assumptions about what things mean. For example:
- it’s about me, not about them
- it means something negative, not something neutral or positive
- assuming the worst of intentions on the part of the other person rather than the best of intentions.
We make matters worse by not asking questions when we’re unclear what something means or if someone is mad at us. Asking, “Are you upset with me?” or “what did you mean by that?” will help tremendously. You could also try saying “help me understand why you did that.” Assuming the best of intentions on the part of others will also help, as will assuming it’s not always about you!
Marking assumptions prevents intimacy.
Living under such assumptions makes for very difficult and unsatisfying relationships. We’re not having real relationships with real people when we make such assumptions. We’re not living in authentic relationships with others because we have false beliefs about them, their motives and their actions. That means your relationships are not based on who people really are, but who you think they are. Often, who you think they are is based on your negative assumptions.
How false assumptions can impact us and why we should care.
I find that clients often do something I call, “living into the wreckage of the future.” That is, they spin out a whole story in their heads about how events are going to play out. And it’s usually negative. For example, they’ll think, “I’m gonna say this, then she’s gonna say that, then I’m gonna say this…”
Then they get pissed off about the “outcome” of their supposed argument with the other person! But it was all in their head! This is an example of making assumptions — that they know how others are going to respond and how events will play out. What’s damaging about this is that they feel all the negative emotions as if the scenes in their head were real. And those negative emotions impact their relationships.
Making things means things that they don’t.
Another way we make false assumptions is by making things mean things that they don’t. Here’s a case in point. Years before I got into 12 step recovery, I lived with a guy who’d leave a crumpled paper towel on the counter each day. I’d get infuriated because I assumed he left it there for me to throw away. I thought he was thinking something like, “She should clean up after me.”
When I finally got up the nerve to confront him about this he said, “I use a paper towel to clean my glasses every morning and I leave it there so I can use it again the next day. It’s still perfectly good and I don’t want to waste paper towels.” WOW! Talk about weaving a whole story about assumptions AND the nature of our relationship!! I made this benign event (or even noble, if you care about not wasting paper towels!) mean things that it didn’t!
These kinds of assumptions have an emotional impact on our relationships. Even though our assumptions are way off! In the case of the paper towel incident, even though I found out my assumptions were false, it didn’t take away my negative emotional experience. And I carried that into my relationship with him!
Here’s what can happen when we STOP making assumptions — true intimacy.
At Christmas one year, I got a gift from my sweetheart and he told me he didn’t have time to wrap it before he gave it to me. I was completely OK with that. But I know for a fact that in the past I would have made that mean, “He doesn’t love me…he doesn’t care about me.”
What’s cool about 12 step recovery is that I don’t make something as benign as an unwrapped gift mean that someone doesn’t love or care for me. And I can also see that that’s how I used to think! That helps me see “my part” in the dysfunction of my life. Before recovery, I wasn’t even aware that I made assumptions like that! Recovery revealed that I had all kinds of distorted thinking like this.
Patterns of behavior are more important then specific incidents.
Now I understand that the way for me to know how people feel about me is by the way they treat me over time. It’s not contained in one simple act, it’s their pattern of behavior that matters. I also know that my ego (or “my diseased thinking” as some of us in recovery say) wants me to be miserable. One of the ways it tries to make me miserable is that it tells me things that make me want to keep others at a distance (like “he doesn’t love me or care about me”). My brain still tells me f-d up stuff about people sometimes, I just know not to listen to it anymore!
Let me tell you a little more about that unwrapped Christmas gift. The gift was a microphone with its own speaker. I can magnify my voice with the flip of a switch. What’s incredible about that is that much of my life I’ve been told I’m too loud. I internalized that message (among others) and came to believe that “I’m too much.” That belief meant I often felt the need to shrink back, tone down, hold back, be quieter. To have my sweetheart give me a gift that validates who I am and gives me the message that I need to be heard — and not only heard, but my voice needs to be magnified — THAT is an incredible gift!!
Yet if I had allowed the unwrapped present to mean he didn’t love me, I would have had no appreciation for the value of the gift. That gift showed that he truly knows me — who I am, what my wounds are, and what might be healing for me. THAT is true intimacy.
And this, dear reader, is what life is about — it’s about relaxing and having fun in our lives with the people that we care about.
Here’s a little more about that scenario. After telling me he didn’t have time to wrap my gift, he grabbed some used wrapping paper off the floor and very sloppily wounded it around the present and handed it to me.
I laughed and said, “Did you get that wrapped at Macy’s?!” We both laughed and laughed and laughed at the absurdity of that statement. And this, dear reader, is what life is about — it’s about relaxing and having fun in our lives with the people that we care about.
It’s not about holding people to impossible standards, especially if they’re standards we don’t even tell them about!! In the past, I wanted beautifully wrapped presents. There’s nothing wrong with that, except for the fact that I never told anybody that! I assumed they’d “know.” If they didn’t give me beautifully wrapped presents, or if they put very little effort into gift wrapping, I made it mean “they don’t really love me.” I assumed beautifully wrapped gift = love.
More unspoken standards.
This still happens to me sometimes and I need to be reminded not to make things mean things that they don’t. I’ll send somebody a text message to let them know that I’m thinking of them. Consciously, I was thinking of them and want to let them to know. But if they don’t respond in the next couple of days, my distorted thinking might kick in and make it mean “they don’t love me.” Or they’re not my friend, they don’t care about me, I’m much less important to them than they are to me or they’re mad at me.
Then, they’ll text me back a few days later with something like, “Love you! I’m so happy to get this message!” What was really going on is that they were busy. So I made this delayed response (which I assumed was a non-response) mean they don’t love me. I don’t matter.
Are you doing that? Is there anybody that you’re doing that with?
Uncovering our assumptions — check the facts.
There are a variety of ways we can uncover our assumptions. One is to make an assumption — that you don’t have all the information! To get clarity, start by checking the facts. Here are some ways to do that.
The best way to clear up this kind of thinking is to directly communicate with people. That is, if they say something that you’re unclear how to interpret, ask them what they meant. Or you could say, “I don’t know what that means.” I’ve found myself saying that pretty regularly since I’ve been in recovery. It’s such a relief to get clarity when I’ve been unclear about something.
If you think someone is upset with you, you could say, “You seem upset, is everything okay?” There’s no need to say “upset with me,” leave it open for them to respond.
You can also ask people about their motives. “Help me understand why you did that,” or “I’m having a hard time understanding why you did that.”
If you’re just confused about something, you could say, “I’m not sure what that means, can you please clarify?” or even, “I’m confused, I’m not sure what to make of this.”
Assume the best of intentions on the part of others
Think about yourself and how something you’ve done was misinterpreted in the past. Chances are that someone made an assumption about why you were doing something. Take another look at the scenario that’s got you troubled and try assuming the person has the best of intentions. Brainstorm possible, positive reasons they did what they did. How would those reasons change the meaning of that scenario for you? If you really don’t know what their intentions are, ask.
It’s not always about you!
People’s behavior is guided by many, many factors, including a long history of life experience that has nothing to do with you! Their behavior is WAY more often about them and their life history than about you.
Think about your own behavior — your patterns of behavior are likely long-standing. The people who are currently in your life, especially if you’ve only known them for a short time, have nothing to do with those patterns. The same is true of others — their behaviors have been shaped over decades.
Stop trying to read people’s minds!
I had a lack of clarity about a lot of things before recovery. I somehow grew up with the notion that I was “supposed to know things.” I also internalized the belief that I wasn’t allowed to ask questions and (somehow) I was supposed to read other people’s minds!
The first time I did the 12 steps it was with a small group. We realized as a group that the reason we wanted people to read our minds was because we thought — that’s how it works! We’d been “reading other people’s minds” our whole lives, so why weren’t people reading ours?? Who cares if we were wrong about what we “read” in people’s minds?!!
This is yet another way in which my life before recovery has become crystal clear. While I was in it, I had no idea this was how I was thinking. I didn’t know I thought people should read my mind, but I obviously did. And I didn’t know that I was making things mean things.
If someone did something that could possibly have been interpreted as against me, that’s how I interpreted it. Sound familiar?
Uncovering my own assumptions.
Before I got into 12 step recovery, I’d often do that kind of thing. Then I’d act as if the meaning I placed on the situation was THE TRUTH. For example, if someone didn’t return a text in a day or so, I’d make it mean, “She’s mad at me.” Then I’d play out a whole scenario in my head about why she was mad at me, then I’d become mad at her and it would impact our friendship. Even if she texted me the next day to say, “Love you!” I’d still have the emotional baggage from the scenario I played out based on my false assumptions.
Recovery taught me that I was doing this. That helped me realize that I don’t always have all the information about a situation. I only have my own personal perspective about it. I really don’t know what other people’s motives are. Hell — sometimes I’m not even sure what my motives are! So how can I possibly know what other people’s motives are??
This is like comparing our insides to other people’s outsides, an oft-used phrase in recovery. We decide something about others such as they’re strong or courageous, or healthy, or successful — whatever. Or maybe even that they’re an ass.
Being in the rooms of 12 step recovery taught me how frequently I was doing that. And that it doesn’t serve me. For example, I might see someone who looks on the outside like they have their shit together, like they’re calm and contented with their life. Then they proceed to talk about the pain, drama, dysfunction and suffering they’re going through. This reminds me, “Oh yeah — don’t judge a book by its cover!”
Or, maybe I think someone’s an ass and then some brilliant wisdom about how to live a life of meaning comes out of their mouth. And again, I remember, “Oh yeah! Don’t judge a book by its cover.” Which is another way of saying “don’t make things mean things that they don’t.” Don’t make their outer appearance be a representation of their inner experience.
I should know this, because *I* looked on the outside like I had my shit together before recovery. But I was a mess! I had a string of dysfunctional relationships behind me, years of substance abuse and debt problems, I was carrying around over 100 pounds of excess weight, family estrangement and years of codependency. But most people didn’t know all that. They saw that I had a career, own a home, have a Master’s degree, volunteered, went to church, etc.
Stop the false assumptions and communicate directly to increase intimacy.
Now I know that I don’t need to make things mean things. I get to ask what things mean if I don’t understand. And I question when my brain tells me things like, “He doesn’t love you” or “she doesn’t care about you” or “you don’t matter.” This is especially true when those thoughts occur after one incident and the rest of my relationship with that person has been wonderful. It’s their pattern of behavior that matters.
If you truly want to have intimate relationships, stop making things mean things that they don’t. Stop making false assumptions about others. Ask people why they did things or what they mean. The negative emotional impact from your false assumptions impacts your relationships. If you’re making false assumptions about another person, you’re not really in a relationship with that person. You’re in a relationship with your false assumptions of who that person is. And you can’t have intimacy with someone you don’t really know.
This essay was originally a podcast episode called, “Making Things Mean Things That They Don’t.”
If you like this article, you might want to check out this page on my website that has a bunch of free resources for those who need help with relationships.