“The reason we struggle with insecurity is because we compare our behind-the-scenes with everyone else’s highlight reel.”
- Steve Furtick
Everything is perception. We are raised in different families. We come from different economical backgrounds. We are born into different cultures. Everything is perception because we all have a set of life experiences unique to us which then informs our worldview. When we can accept this, we realize that most everything we conclude is an assumption or based upon an assumption. This includes assumptions about people.
We make assumptions about people all the time. What’s important is to notice when we do this. It’s even more important to understand why.
Why do we make assumptions about people?
Charles Darwin might say that assumptions are biological—fundamental to human survival because of the need to immediately and accurately communicate our emotions (and thereby our intention). The way we perceive body language and interpret facial expressions is one of the primary ways we ascertain a stranger’s objective.
Yet there is a distinct difference between what we perceive and what we assume. Perception is a way of regarding, understanding or interpreting—a mental impression. Assumptions are things that are accepted as true or as certain, without proof. When you link that to what neuroscientists have discovered—that all the brain needs to make something true is to be certain of it, you can perhaps see how we are getting into an area of real significance.
Think about this…
If our brain is certain of something—whether that “something” is real or not—it considers it to be true—a conclusion we make without proof. As this relates to making assumptions about people, we use what are most often false truths as a way to interpret the behavior of others with generally no consideration that these truths are flawed. You’ve probably heard the old adage of what happens when you assume, suggesting the importance of not only noticing when you are making an assumption but also checking out whether what you are assuming is accurate.
Linking to the quote at the beginning of this post, comparing yourself to your assumptions about another can become toxic with what Bohm calls “a virus-like nature.” Let’s consider the extreme and recent example of millennials getting plastic surgery, driven by the demands of social media and desire to gain an edge in the job market. According to Long Island-based cosmetic surgeon, Dr. Stephen Greenberg, “people are looking to be more competitive in an already competitive job market. They want to be able to compete with their own generation and also older people, so they are getting either minor or major procedures to give them an advantage in the workforce.”
In this same connection, Silicon Valley men are also reportedly turning to plastic surgery to get ahead at work, using vacation time for a secret cosmetic getaway in addition to juice cleanses, Botox and cold body sculpting—all in an effort to conceal their “advanced” age. Apparently, from an article in the Washington Post at the beginning of this year, in Silicon Valley, “it’s commonly believed that if you are over the age of 35, you’re seen as over the hill…People here value the young for their passion and their ability to look at things in new ways.”
Can we prove that 35-year-olds have little to no value in Silicon Valley—especially when it comes to innovation in the tech industry? Frankly, it doesn’t matter. If the assumption that you are over the hill at age 35 holds true for you and that you will not be able to compete with youthful professionals, that is the place from which you will be consciously and unconsciously making your assumptions about people.
As you can see from these examples, assumptions can have a strong hold on parts of us, especially when linked to our identity. The bottom line is that if you feel certain you are not good enough; you are not good enough.
In his book, On Dialogue, David Bohm saw Dialogue to be a “multi-faceted process, looking well beyond notions of conversational exchange.” Dialogue explores the human experience at deeper levels, calling into question our deeply held assumptions regarding culture, meaning and identity. “In its deepest sense, Dialogue is an invitation to test the viability of traditional definitions of what it means to be human.” In paying attention to our own personal assumptions, we begin to recognize “the power of these assumptions and how attending to their ‘virus-like’ nature may lead to a new understanding of the fragmentary and self-destructive nature of many of the thought processes” we have about things and people. With such understanding, defensive posturing diminishes, and a quality of natural warmth toward one another can prevail.
Drawing attention to our thoughts by noticing our assumptions makes room for possibility because it makes space for diversity. In creating an opening for different thoughts to be held, opportunities for challenge become more present, helping us to take ownership of our own story. Authentically sharing our own stories builds connection and deepens relationships in ways that are meaningful. This is why it is so important to notice our assumptions and the thoughts that underpin them.
You’ve heard me talk about opinion and what it means to suspend versus defend. The same applies to our assumptions about people. Bohm often interchanged assumptions and opinions and felt it possible to suspend them—not to repress them—but to attend to them. For example, if you feel someone to be a foolish person, “to suspend, you would (a) refrain from saying so outwardly and (b) refrain from telling yourself you should not think such things. In this way, the effects of the thought, ‘You are an idiot’ (agitation, anger, resentment) are free to run their course, but in a way that allows them to simply be seen, rather than fully identified with. In other words, suspending an assumption or reaction means neither repressing it nor following through on it, but fully attending to it.”
In my professional experience, most of us are not really open to questioning our fundamental assumptions. For those of us who have perhaps not yet embarked on the path of personal development, we are much more accustomed to telling people what we know through a series of monologues, discussions and debates with a need to be right or wrong where the one who is the strongest will win. Bohm felt that a great deal of what we call “discussion is not deeply serious, in the sense that there are all sorts of things which are held to be non-negotiable and not touchable, and people don’t even want to talk about them. That is part of our trouble.”
This is why Dialogue is so critical—not just as a process of conversation, but as an attitude and way of being.
We all have assumptions about people at both a superficial and basic level. Basic level assumptions typically stem from society and our view about the person we “should” be—existential assumptions we have about the meaning of life and things we feel to be of supreme importance—and which underpin our superficial assumptions. Because they are linked to self-importance, these “assumptions are defended when they are challenged. People frequently can’t resist defending them, and they tend to defend them with an emotional charge.” So, in effect, we defend something because we believe it to be true—even without proof—and more deeply, we identify with that belief unconsciously tying ourselves up in an “investment in self-interest.”
Herein lies one of the gifts of Dialogue...
Think of an iceberg. What we see on the surface does not always inform us as to what lies below. What is visible (superficial) does not tell us what is murky or even hidden. Dialogue helps us to get to the root of our opinions, judgements and assumptions about people. In authentically attending to our differences, we breakdown self-imposed boundaries, discover root causes and move beyond habitual frames of thought in order to create fundamentally different results and lasting change. It is for this reason that “Dialogue has to go into all the pressures that are behind our assumptions. It goes into the process of the thoughts behind the assumptions, not just the assumptions themselves.”
When we defend; we divide. When we heal, we move toward unity through wholeness. In discovering the associations we have with our assumptions and, more importantly, why they have become attached to our identity, we become less emotionally charged around them. In feeling less emotional charge, we set ourselves free, because we no longer have to repress or react or follow through. It is from this place that we can be more fully present to our unmet needs. In attending those needs, we heal. In healing, there is a felt sense of wholeness. In wholeness, there is unity. It is for this reason that Bohm believed in the power of Dialogue and its significant potential to move individuals and groups toward global peace.