Challenge Assumptions

Assumptions: A Phantom Menace

“You assume too much.” – Nute to Amidala, and Padme to Qui-Gon, Star Wars, Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999)

In a previous blog post, Through a Glass Darkly (2013), I proposed the notion that all of us go through our lives wearing pairs of invisible eyeglasses. The lenses in these glasses, which impact what we see, are made up of the thoughts and beliefs that we have come to hold about ourselves, other people, and the world. Some of the thoughts and beliefs, I submitted, are helpful to us — they have an anabolic or positive influence on our mood, energy, and actions, and so expand what is possible for us. Others can limit our view, and so our experiences of life — these thoughts and beliefs resonate with catabolic or negative energy that can have distracting, draining, and even destructive effects on our sense of ourselves; our physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual health; our work lives; and our relationships. In Energy Leadership: Transforming Your Workplace and Your Life from the Core (2008), Bruce D. Schneider identifies what I’m describing here — the thoughts and beliefs of dirty lenses — as four kinds of “energy blocks” that prevent us from making conscious choices in our lives and reaching our potential; he calls them limiting beliefs, assumptions, interpretations, and gremlins (with “gremlin” being another way to reference what we often call our inner critic) (129). In my last blog post, I explored limiting beliefs; today, I’m turning our attention to the next menace in the list — assumptions.

Schneider defines an assumption very specifically as “a belief that, because something [has] happened in the past, it’s going to happen again” (134). To provide an example, Schneider references a scenario in which he has asked someone on a date, and that person has declined; he believes (assumes) that because this one person has said “no” that anyone else he may ask will also turn down his invitation. As a result, he may either decide not to try again (since he already “knows” what will happen), or to allow his expectations of “rejection” to affect the energy with which he asks the next person, potentially setting himself up, then, for the very experience that he fears — a kind of self-sabotage. When we permit our assumptions to determine what we decide to do in our lives, we let a past experience control what is possible for us in our present and future. With this idea in mind, I have come to think of an assumption as a ghost or phantom of a past “negative” experience that we allow to haunt us, to intimidate us out of taking positive action in our lives.

There are several ways for us to challenge any assumption that we make. These ways may sound very familiar to those who are already acquainted with cognitive-behavioral responses to kinds of anxious thinking like catastrophizing and probability overestimation. The first step, I suggest, is to remind ourselves that we do not have to believe everything that we think, that our beliefs are not facts, though we often proceed, of course, as if they do reflect a natural order of things (when we say to ourselves, for example, “That’s just how it is!”). When catching ourselves in the midst of making an assumption, then, we can ask ourselves, very simply, “‘Just because that happened in the past, why must it happen again?’” (136). In posing this question, we open space for ourselves to examine the evidence for the assumption that we have made, and to find evidence that contradicts it, that reminds us that other outcomes are possible. We actually give ourselves the chance to think more realistically, I contend, in being less unconsciously dominated by our anxious thinking (see also Thanks, Not Angst, 2012). If, after we have examined the evidence, we decide that our assumption still has merit, we can then shift into strategies of response that echo those that are useful for countering catastrophic thinking. We can ask ourselves, “So what if that happens?” and “How would I like to respond to that, if it does occur?” In the process of responding consciously to an assumption, whatever tactic we take, we may want to keep in mind that we have been seeing through the particular set of lenses that supports this assumption for a long time, and we may still initially tend to see (or even look for) what we are used to seeing. Schneider notes that because assumptions are based primarily on personal experiences, they are “internalized” and more “emotional” than limiting beliefs; as a result, they can be difficult for us to release (136). He suggests that validating our own perspective as absolutely “normal,” given what we have experienced and how we have learned to think about what we have experienced so far in our lives, can help us loosen our grip on the belief that is holding us back (136).

Over the next couple of weeks, I invite you to examine the lenses in your own invisible eyeglasses of perception for the “phantom menace” of assumptions. Look for thoughts and beliefs related to what has happened in the past that you expect to happen again, that restrict rather than expand your sense of what is possible for you and in your life as a result. These thoughts and beliefs will be ones that contribute to moods and behaviors that resonate with catabolic or negative energy, which breaks you down, instead of anabolic or positive energy, which builds you up. Once you notice an assumption, question it, ask yourself what thoughts and beliefs would be more helpful to you, and decide how you want to “clean your lenses” so that your invisible eyeglasses of perception work for you rather than against you. These glasses can support you in taking positive action with a sense of calm and confidence — in whatever direction you want to go.

Bon Voyage!

“The Force will be with you, always.” — Obi-Wan to Luke, Star Wars, Episode IV: A New Hope (1977)

Featured image credit: pixelsaway / 123RF Stock Photo

For more ideas about anxious thinking and responses to help us foster a greater sense of calm and confidence for ourselves, feel free to see other Thought Tonic posts by Scott Burns Kahler, MA, LMFT, ELI-MP, at thoughttonic.com; you can follow Scott Burns Kahler and this blog via e-mail, Google+, Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter, or RSS feed. So many possibilities! Thank you for reading.

Young Man Thinking

Don’t Believe Everything You Think!

If you have ever been in the market for a new car, you might have noticed how, once you started thinking about what kind of car you wanted – what make, what color – you began to see that car everywhere you went.  Because the car was on your mind, you were inclined to see it, more apt to see it than you would have been otherwise.

If you worry about rejection, you might well experience a similar phenomenon.  When we have rejection on our minds, we also tend to see it, or at least the potential for it, everywhere.  And why wouldn’t we?  After all, we are trying to protect ourselves from what rejection means for us – loneliness, perhaps, or “proof” that our negative core beliefs, the declarations of our inner critic, are true.  However, the threat of rejection – in the form of other people thinking negatively of us, for instance – is something that we often interpret, and even overinterpret, into situations and what other people say and do.  We indulge in what cognitive-behavioral therapy calls mind reading.

In our context of social anxiety, shyness, and performance fears, we can talk about mind reading as another kind of anxious thinking (two weeks ago, we looked at personalization as our first example).  When we engage in mind reading, we make anxious assumptions not only about what other people are thinking, but that they are thinking negatively of us.

Let us say, for instance, that I am aware that I begin to sweat and blush when I feel nervous.  I may assume not only that others notice my physical responses, but that they view me as strange or weird as a result.  In making these assumptions, I am engaging in mind reading on two counts.  First, I am assuming that others can tell as clearly as I can that I am feeling nervous, which may not be true; then, I am assuming that others are judging me negatively, which may not be accurate, either.  In both cases, I am very likely overestimating the probability that my fears represent what others really have on their minds.  From a cognitive-behavioral perspective, probability overestimation is yet another kind of anxious thinking, one that often goes hand-in-hand with mind reading.  For many of us, the idea that we overestimate the likelihood of what we fear is both a relief and difficult to believe.  Don’t forget – we are trying to avoid the pain of what rejection means to us.  Why wouldn’t we overestimate the danger?  We think that doing so will keep us safer.

The trouble is that in being so vigilant against the threat of rejection, and seeing it everywhere, we actually set ourselves up for more frequent chances of having the very kinds of experiences that we want to avoid.  For example, if we speak too softly or avoid eye contact in social situations on account of our fears, others may “reject” us not because they are actually thinking negatively of us, but because they interpret us as not interested in them.

The good news is … we do not have to believe everything that we think!  Our perception of rejection, or its potential, is open to challenge.  We can approach our thoughts like a purchase we have made; if one doesn’t work for us, we can take it back!

To the extent that you feel comfortable sharing, what have been your own experiences of mind reading?  How do you keep yourself from believing the negative things that you imagine others are thinking about you?

I will be continuing to write about kinds of anxious thinking in the coming weeks.  If you are interested in following this blog, you can do so via e-mail; please feel free to subscribe!

For more information and resources, visit scottburnskahler.com.

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