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Have you ever been in a situation where you’ve assumed something about someone else’s words, actions, or intentions, only to be completely wrong? Maybe you’ve damaged relationships and friendships by assuming the worst about people and their motivations?
Or you’ve worked yourself into a lather assuming that you’ve failed an exam, or are suffering from some terminal ailment, only to discover that everything was all well and good?
So many difficult situations can be avoided if we learn how to stop assuming that we know what’s going on.
You’ve probably heard the phrase, “When you assume, you make an ass out of u and me.” But making assumptions goes beyond just looking (or behaving) like an ass. Sometimes, you can cause real damage to relationships or situations by jumping to conclusions and acting upon them before you have tangible details to work with.
Fortunately, you don’t have to be trapped by your own negative thought spirals. You can take steps to be more aware of how you react to things and choose to respond accordingly.
What follows is a list of things you can do to stop making assumptions, and thus to avoid the negative effects of those assumptions.
Speak to an accredited and experienced therapist to help you if you make a lot of assumptions that you’d prefer not to make. You may want to try speaking to one via BetterHelp.com for quality care at its most convenient.
How To Avoid Making Assumptions
It’s easy for someone to suggest that you just stop doing what you’re doing, but certain ingrained behaviors take time and effort to undo. Still, you can do certain things to rein in your tendency for making assumptions.
This is first on the list because it’s the most important thing you can possibly do.
Think about a time when someone assumed something about you instead of asking you whether it was true or not. Were you upset by that situation? Did you feel frustrated or even hurt because they didn’t bother to find out your side of the story? Now consider how others feel when you’re on the other side of this scenario.
We can never know what other people are thinking or feeling unless we have the courtesy to ask them. In fact, 99.9% of the time, what we assume that another person is thinking or feeling is usually dead wrong, if not the complete opposite of what’s actually going on inside them.
Have you ever been on the receiving end of someone informing you of what you’re thinking? For instance, have you ever heard someone say to you, “You think you’re better than me!” or “You think you’re so smart,” and so on?
Chances are that couldn’t have been further from the truth, but they were so focused on projecting their insecurities onto you that what was actually going on with you didn’t even come into the equation.
As a result, file this one under the whole “treat others as you would like to be treated” umbrella. If you would prefer someone to ask you what’s going on in your heart and mind instead of assuming and accusing you, then grant them that same courtesy.
2. Work with facts, not emotions.
People who lean toward hypochondria will often fall into emotional maelstroms due to their assumptions. They might have a symptom or two that may possibly be associated with some awful, potentially terminal illness, and then they start spiraling. They’ll think about all the treatments they’ll need to go through, how much that’ll hurt, and how they might only have a short amount of time left with their loved ones.
From there, they’ll freak out about the possibility of not seeing their children grow up or feel anguish at not accomplishing all they wanted to, and so on. This will just keep getting bigger and bigger until they’re experiencing full-on panic attacks… and then they get test results back from the doctor and find out it’s absolutely nothing to be worried about.
As soon as they get that information, all the panic and despair simply stop. Why? Because they had solid answers to work with rather than wild assumptions veering off in all directions. I’ve literally seen someone stop hyperventilating mid panic attack because they suddenly had tangible details to work with.
The same thing often happens when we assume things about a person (or situation) rather than working with tangible facts.
Let’s say you’re in a raging fury because your favorite bento box is missing. You assume that your housemate has taken it and put something you either don’t eat or are allergic to into it, and now it’s going to be ruined forever, and you’ll have to either bleach it or get a new one, and how could they be so awful, and, and, and…
…and then you find it in your bag, where you left it on Friday when you came home from work.
Take a moment to look at how angry you got over absolutely nothing. You were likely incandescent with rage over what you’d ASSUMED had happened, and were full of blinding hatred toward a person who had done absolutely nothing wrong. Imagine what could have transpired if you’d unleashed a torrent of abuse at them over their lack of consideration, only to discover that the transgression was your own: not theirs.
This is why it’s so important to work with facts rather than feelings. When we make assumptions about others, we’re showing them an immense amount of disrespect and discourtesy.
Things get even worse if we attack them because of our feelings, rather than anything tangible. The end result is akin to executing someone because we think they’re guilty, not because we have solid facts proving that they are.
3. Ask yourself if you’re certain that you know what’s actually occurring.
The best questions you can ask yourself in situations like those described above are: “Do I know for a fact that this is true?” or “Do I have enough evidence to prove that this is the case?”
Think of it like being in court, having to prove a case. Unless you have X number of facts that can prove that this situation is in fact what you assume it to be, the case would be thrown out due to lack of evidence. Assumptions are not reality: hard facts and evidence are.
It’s also important to note that just because you’ve experienced certain things in the past, that doesn’t mean that new circumstances will unfold the same way—even if they share certain traits.
As an example, let’s say your partner told you that they’d call you on their lunch break, but by 12:15 you haven’t heard from them yet. Depending on what you’ve experienced in the past, your heart and mind may leap in several different directions.
For instance, you may worry that something horrible has happened to them and fly off into a panic spiral. Alternatively, you might assume that they’re banging one of their coworkers in the supply closet and start to get enraged about all the details you’re envisioning.
When and if you feel your mind spiraling, take a deep breath and come back to this moment. Can you say with complete certainty that you know what’s going on? If you can’t, then focus on something else until you hear from this person. They might have been pulled into an emergency meeting before they could get to their phone. Or they were seized with an intense bathroom issue and couldn’t get reception to text you from the stall.
Wait for information and then respond accordingly, instead of assuming and reacting to your own assumptions.
4. Be aware of your own projections.
This touches upon the previous tip with regard to assuming things based on prior experiences.
Many people fall into the habit of assuming things of others because it’s what they have (or haven’t) experienced themselves. For example, if you’ve been cheated on in the past, you might assume that the partner who’s late calling or texting you is cheating, because that’s what you’ve been wired to brace yourself against. Or, if you had someone close to you die in a car accident, you may assume the worst when your partner is late coming home.
These assumptions are projections from previous experiences, and can cause far more emotional strife than necessary.
On a similar note, people who have experienced certain things will often assume that others who go through similar circumstances will feel and behave the same way they did. Furthermore, if that other person behaves differently than they did, they might not believe that the experience was as difficult or traumatic, simply because the response was so different from their own.
Here’s an example: years ago, I worked with a group of people who liked to chat about their personal lives in the lunchroom. One person, “A” was talking about some difficulties she had, and how they’d been caused by a trauma she’d experienced in the past.
Another person, “B” offered their perspective, and A lashed out at them saying: “You wouldn’t feel that way if you’d gone through what I have.”
Then, when she found out that B had actually been through the same thing, she refused to believe it because B’s emotional and psychological reaction hadn’t been the same as hers.
Different people will be affected by their experiences in different ways. Something that damages one person will simply roll off another, and vice versa. We’re all wired differently, and as such we’ll be affected by things in our own ways.
We cannot expect that the other 8 billion people on this planet will respond to things the exact same way that we do, even though this is one of the most common assumptions we make.
One person’s trauma is another’s empowerment, and so on. As such, never assume that your own experiences are going to be mirrored in everyone else you come across. All are on their own paths, and their experiences are just as valid as yours, even if you can’t relate to them.
It may help to read our guide that tells you how to know if you are projecting onto someone.
5. Refrain from assuming that others have the same abilities that you do.
When and if someone doesn’t do something the way you expect them to, take a moment to regroup and analyze the situation. Recognize that you’re processing the information in front of you based on your own abilities, rather than acknowledging that the others around you are not you. This will help you to stop making assumptions about them.
You might be able to change a tire as easily as you can code a website, but that doesn’t mean that the person standing next to you can do both of those as well. Similarly, there are undoubtedly things that you don’t know how to do, but others take for granted as almost second nature.
If you find yourself making a snap judgement about another person’s competence, stop and take a breath. Then ask yourself if you know for certain that they’ve had the same amount of training that you have. Was this person taught the same way that you were? Do they have the same level of executive functioning that you do?
Everyone is wired differently, and what’s easy for one person might be incredibly difficult for another. That doesn’t mean that they’re incompetent or stupid: just different. This is especially true for those who are neurodivergent or who may suffer from PTSD, fetal alcohol effects, or countless other developmental differences.
“Different” doesn’t mean “wrong.” Furthermore, the people you may assume to be sub-par in an area that you consider important might outshine you by miles in other areas.
On a similar note, please don’t assume that someone who’s nonverbal or has difficulty communicating doesn’t understand everything that’s going on around them. Many people with cerebral palsy, autism, or traumatic brain injuries are completely cognizant of their surroundings. They just can’t express themselves verbally the same way that you can.
When in doubt, choose to be kind and respectful.
6. Examine your preconceptions and personal biases.
Let’s say you’re starting a new job, and there are two people chatting in the lunchroom. One of them is older and conservatively dressed, while the other is younger and a bit more wild in appearance. You know that one of them is your boss and the other is the secretary, but which one is it?
Chances are you’d assume that the older person is your superior, but that isn’t necessarily the case. If you were to go up to that one and speak to them with the assumption that they were the boss, you could end up embarrassing yourself rather thoroughly. Furthermore, this would start your new career there on a sour note.
The same type of embarrassment can occur if you assume that others around you don’t speak your language and say something disparaging right in front of them. A person’s appearance (e.g., skin color, mode of dress, etc.) does not necessarily denote the languages they’re capable of speaking. As such, it’s best to err on the side of politeness and never say anything in another language that you wouldn’t say to someone directly.
Take some time to think about situations in which you may have embarrassed yourself by doing or saying things because you’d made assumptions or jumped to conclusions instead of finding out the facts.
Have you made social gaffs because of your preconceptions based on a person’s race, gender, or assumed sexual preferences? Perhaps you’ve made assumptions about people and spoken out before finding out further details and then felt like an ass about it.
As an example, many people with invisible disabilities have been yelled at in public for daring to take a priority bus seat or park in a disabled space. Since they didn’t use a wheelchair or similar mobility device, others assumed that they were able-bodied, since they “didn’t look” disabled.
Then, once the person explained that they had cerebral palsy, Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, or similar, the one who virtue signaled by shrieking at them would be left feeling mortified.
You can avoid that type of mortification—and public humiliation—by never assuming that you know what’s going on in other people’s lives. Give them the benefit of the doubt, and if it’s appropriate to do so in the moment, ask them about themselves. Or ask how you can help them.
7. See the big picture to understand someone’s motivations.
Many of us have knee-jerk responses to things that people say or do because of our own history, so it’s important to be able to see where people’s behaviors are coming from. This can be difficult to do, especially if you’ve been through harrowing circumstances in the past.
For instance, if you had an abusive partner or family life before, there were likely things that your abusers said or did that were associated with verbal or physical mistreatment toward you.
As a result, if and when other people say or do similar things—albeit innocently and innocuously—you’ll be triggered into responding the same way you did when you knew that you were about to be yelled at or smacked around.
This is rather like a situation in which a dog got repeatedly kicked by her owners who wore black rubber boots. Even if that dog is rehomed and spends years with a new family that shows her nothing but love, she’ll still flinch when and if black rubber boots come anywhere near her. Furthermore, she might get aggressive toward those who wear said boots as a pre-emptive defense mechanism.
I’m guilty of this kind of reaction, and I’m still learning how to reprogram my own mind so I don’t immediately: A) assume the worst of people, and B) react poorly as a result.
An example of this happened just this afternoon. I was eating a bowl of soup for lunch, and my lovely partner smiled and said: “Wow, you really seem to be enjoying that!” My instant response was anger, guilt, and resentment, and I was inclined to stop eating and go do something else immediately.
Why was that? Because I’d grown up with a vicious narcissist mother who had tormented my sibling and I into eating disorders. Any time we ate or drank anything in her presence, she’d find a way to mock or shame us for daring to consume anything.
As a result, hearing someone comment on how I’m apparently enjoying food caused an instant defensive response. I **had** been enjoying said soup until he commented on it, and then I was hit with a wave of guilt, self-loathing, and anger.
I assumed he was being negative toward me as well, because that’s how I had been programmed… when in fact, the opposite was true. He was delighted to see me actually savoring food instead of picking at a crumb or two and eating just enough to keep me alive.
When and if you find yourself in a situation like this, pause and consider what’s going on around you before allowing yourself to react emotionally. Take stock of where you are and whom you’re with. Then remember what your relationship is like with this person, as well as who they are as an individual.
Ask yourself whether this person has treated you poorly in the past or if you’re reacting to someone else’s behavior. Then determine what is influencing the current situation.
Finally, if you’re uncertain about why they’re saying or doing a certain thing, go back to tip #1 and ask them. Once you recognize and understand their motivations, you can then respond in a healthy way that shows honor and respect to both of you.
8. Make open, candid communication a priority.
Another area in which many people make too many assumptions (and then end up frustrated and/or disappointed) is when it comes to other people knowing your needs.
For instance, just because you do things a certain way—and want others to do them that way too—doesn’t mean that others will know that about you or about the thing in question.
You might feel that you don’t need to communicate your needs or expectations to others because you assume that they’ll just know what’s needed. Then, when they fail to live up to your expectations, you get disappointed or angry with them.
The best way to avoid this kind of scenario is to communicate openly. Now, this doesn’t mean that you can be condescending or rude to others because you might be more experienced or well-versed with the subject at hand. It simply means communicating needs and expectations in a clear, concise manner, while also ensuring that all the details are properly taken care of.
Here’s an example: The board of directors at a company I once worked for was primarily comprised of Jewish men and women. One of our young interns was assigned the task of sorting out the catering for an upcoming board meeting, so she made several calls to make those arrangements.
On a whim, I asked her to please run the order forms past me to approve before confirming them. Well, it’s a good thing I did, because the foods she had ordered included ham sandwiches and crab cakes—both of which are wholeheartedly non-kosher. Furthermore, she hadn’t made any allowances for several board members’ food allergies and intolerances, despite them being listed in the directors’ files.
We had assumed that she knew that the board members were mostly Jewish (which she did not), as well as what kosher food was (she didn’t), and that dietary details were kept in that particular file (which hadn’t occurred to her). This assumption came from our combined years of experience with event management, which made these checks second nature to us. But this 18-year-old girl didn’t have a clue, and nobody had taken the time to explain it to her.
Had we not checked, everything would have gone very badly, with long-lasting negative repercussions all around.
This is why it’s so important not to assume, but to communicate clearly with everyone involved. It’s no failing of theirs that they’re not mind readers and don’t have the same life experience that you do. Nor should anyone feel put out by having to go through the drudgery of explaining things that “should be obvious.”
They may be obvious to you, but they aren’t to other people. And vice versa. You probably don’t like feeling like an incompetent tool if and when you have to do something you’re unfamiliar with.
Ask questions and discuss things clearly rather than assuming, and things will go much more smoothly for everyone. We promise.
Ultimately, the best way to stop making assumptions is to ask questions and then work with the facts in front of you. Follow those two rules and you’ll spare yourself (and others) an incredible amount of potential embarrassment and grief.
Still not sure how to avoid making assumptions?
Speak to a therapist about it. Why? Because they are trained to help people in situations like yours. They can help you to manage your thought processes so that you don’t jump to conclusions too quickly.
BetterHelp.com is a website where you can connect with a therapist via phone, video, or instant message.
While you may try to work through this yourself, it may be a bigger issue than self-help can address. And if it is affecting your mental well-being, relationships, or life in general, it is a significant thing that needs to be resolved.
Too many people try to muddle through and do their best to overcome issues that they never really get to grips with. If it’s at all possible in your circumstances, therapy is 100% the best way forward.
Click here if you’d like to learn more about the service BetterHelp.com provide and the process of getting started.
You’ve already taken the first step just by searching for and reading this article. The worst thing you can do right now is nothing. The best thing is to speak to a therapist. The next best thing is to implement everything you’ve learned in this article by yourself. The choice is yours.
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