“If we work on the assumption that what is accepted as true really is true, then there would be little hope for advance.” — Orville Wright, American inventor and aviation pioneer
“I was so humiliated,” Jane declared. “I just wanted to crawl under a rock.”
“What happened?” I asked bracing for what I knew would be a 10-minute tirade.
“Dick came up right in front of everyone and started berating me!” I knew Dick was a colleague of Jane’s from work and a constant source of stress and frustration for her.
“Dick is a hothead, for sure,” I replied. “But that’s pretty low, even for him.” I asked Jane if she knew what had gotten Dick so “fired up”. She seemed reluctant at first to answer.
“He said if I had something to say to him, I could say it to his face!”
“And did you have something to say to him?”
“I sure felt like it when he started jabbing his finger in my face!”
“What did you respond to him?”
“I just shook my head and said, ‘We’re not having this discussion here!’”
“That was probably the best strategy,” I said. “Let him cool down before you talk.”
“I’m not ever talking to him again!” Jane declared, “And I’m not talking to Sally, either.”
I knew Sally and Jane were good friends. “How does Sally figure into this?”
“I had one confidential discussion with her about Dick and she ran straight to him!”
“I didn’t know Dick and Sally were friends.”
“Obviously,” said Jane. “How else could he have found out?”
You can see the drama being created and stress generated as the result of a number of unfounded assumptions by Jane. Here’s the upshot: Jane believed the assumptions she had formed were true and proceeded accordingly. She was so convinced, in fact, that she was willing to sacrifice her longtime friendship with Sally.
Sadly, Jane was not alone in her conviction. Many of us proceed from false assumptions and thus create a frightful amount of unnecessary stress for ourselves and others.
Why do we do this, and what possible benefit could we imagine we are gaining? On the surface it would appear there is no benefit, but let’s dig a little deeper. We hang onto certain self-defeating ways of thinking and being because — at some level — there is a payback.
Considering the fictional example above, let’s ask, “What is the greatest benefit to Jane of assuming Sally knows Dick and told him about the conversation?” One benefit to Jane is it removes her responsibility for clarifying the situation — she is free to draw an unproven conclusion and act upon it. It appears to let Jane off the hook for the things she said about Dick by diverting all of the blame for the subsequent fallout on Sally. It relieves Jane of the need to accept responsibility for her part in creating the scene. As Dick failed to handle the situation in a mature and appropriate manner, he now looks like a belligerent bully in the eyes of his peers. Jane, in turn, appears to be the one who is exercising maturity.
Let’s say Jane had been venting to Sally while at work about Dick and within ear-shot of co-workers. If so, Jane has even more grounds to drop the assumption that Sally “spilled the beans” and to clarify the situation.
I call these perceived and sometimes unconscious gains “negative benefits” as they are typically founded upon fear and a desire to avoid confrontation or honest self-examination. The term “negative benefits” may sound like an oxymoron but think about it: running away from that which frightens us seems like a safer alternative than standing up and facing it.
Understand now, I’m not talking about a grizzly bear in the woods or a knife-wielding bandit here. I’m talking about situations at work and in our personal lives that cry out for clarity and resolution.
By avoiding them we stall our personal development and further damage our self-esteem.
We can ask the same question of any issue in our life. “What is the greatest benefit to staying with a job I hate?” or, “to continuing in a destructive relationship?” or, “to reining myself in and not living the life that I want or feel I deserve?” or, “to buying into assumptions?”
The question “What is the greatest benefit to . . .” is designed to raise awareness around a specific thought or behaviour. You may find that when you ask the question, the answer is positive and life-affirming.
If so, carry on! If not, stop and reconsider. The question should challenge you to dig deeper and look at what motivates you – fears, prejudices and yes, assumptions.
American paleontologist, evolutionary biologist and historian of science the late Stephen Jay Gould expressed it this way: “The invalid assumption that correlation implies cause is probably among the two or three most serious common errors in human reasoning.”
Remember, the harder you battle to defend a self-defeating behaviour, the more likely it is that you need to drop it.
For any situation that — upon greater scrutiny — demonstrates a negative benefit, be willing to ask the tough questions and be open to the insightful answers that come your way. You might be become inspired and, with an open mind, enlightened.
Murray Fuhrer is a local self-esteem expert and facilitator. His new book is entitled Extreme Esteem: The Four Factors. For more information on self-esteem, check the Extreme Esteem website at www.extremeesteem.ca.