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Trapped by Assumptions

by Beata Bishop(more info)

listed in holistic psychotherapy, originally published in issue 130 - December 2006

My client had spent ten minutes telling me bitterly how certain habits of her flatmate were making her life a misery, when I asked her whether she had ever discussed the problem with the person in question. “No, it would be useless, she wouldn’t take any notice,” came the reply. How do you know if you’ve never tried, I persisted. She shrugged, firm and secure in her conviction. She just knew. Except, of course, she didn’t. The way I saw it, she was firmly stuck in the Assumption Trap, a powerful fallacy that makes us reach cast-iron conclusions about a person or a situation, without testing what the reality might be. My ultra-tidy, meticulous client was deeply irritated by her flatmate’s slovenly habits, and viewed them – and her – through the distorting lens of her irritation. Yet, who knows, maybe a calm explanation of why leaving the kitchen in a mess, or not cleaning the bath was a bad idea, might have cleared the air (and the kitchen sink.)

Making assumptions is a universal human habit. We are all guilty of it at one time or another. To paraphrase a well-known saying, we don’t see others as they are, we see them as we are. The mechanism is simple. Each one of us carries a bundle of views, habits and principles, which we consider correct, and we unconsciously expect others to carry a similar bundle, allowing only for minor differences. Much of the time this works. When it doesn’t, an amazing degree of intolerance can emerge, like in the case of another client, who couldn’t understand or forgive why her mother held different views and acted in different ways from herself. “She is my mother, why isn’t she like me?” she asked, half angry, half petulant, and was taken aback when I reversed her question: “She is your mother, why aren’t you like her?” I don’t think she liked me a lot at that moment, yet standing a problem on its head, so to speak, is often salutary – besides saving a lot of therapy time.

Not all assumptions are negative, but the positive ones also have their risks. In that scenario, for all kinds of reasons, we assume that a person has excellent, lovable or admirable qualities, and expect him or her to behave accordingly. This time it’s not irritation or resentment that colours our view and sets the trap, but our needs, longings and aspirations. And so we project the desired qualities and character traits onto the unsuspecting other who may possess some, but certainly not all of them, and feel very happy about it. This age-old mechanism works powerfully when people fall in love (it’s the wisdom of the language to call the experience ‘falling’, which suggests a helpless tumbling into the depths), and see ultimate perfection in each other.

It is great while it lasts. But eventually the projection fades, just as the decorations have to come off the Christmas tree, and the equally age-old recriminations begin. “You’ve changed, you aren’t the same any more,” goes one partner. “No, I haven’t, you’re imagining things,” replies the other, who may have similar misgivings about his or her loved one. The truth is that neither of them has changed to any great extent; only the projections have become thin and threadbare, allowing the real person to emerge. What happens next is a matter of luck. The disenchanted partners may actually come to love each other’s true self and establish a realistic relationship, free from assumptions and projections, or they may go their separate ways, unconsciously looking for the next suitable person to act the part of the Perfect Lover. The latter choice normally leads to serial disappointments, until experience and common sense prevail.
I vaguely recall a recent newspaper report on a research project that claimed that passionate love can only last for a maximum of six months, because the biochemical process that had started it off runs out after that length of time. With due respect for biochemical processes, I find that explanation strongly reductionist. Surely there’s more to sky-high passionate love than the dance of hormones? Can it be the other way round, so that the hormones run out because the projections no longer fuel them? I leave that question open.

So how can we avoid falling into the Assumption/Projection Trap? Once again, the price of freedom is eternal vigilance. In other words, we need to monitor and catch ourselves when facing people or situations – are we seeing this person or situation, or are we fantasizing about them, peering through the subjective screen of our pet prejudices? At first this permanent alert may feel demanding, but in time it becomes second nature. That’s when the fun begins, provided we have a sense of humour. For we need that, to cope with the not always flattering discoveries we make about ourselves while trying to see others clearly, without either unkind distortion or wishful thinking. And that’s an enormous bonus in itself.


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About Beata Bishop

Beata Bishop is a writer, lecturer and psychotherapist in private practice, working along Jungian and transpersonal lines. Her special interests include the role of the spiritual dimension in all kinds of healing, and the body-mind link in sickness and health. Her book, A Time to Heal (First Stone Publishing, 2010), describes her journey from life-threatening cancer to robust health using an unorthodox nutritional therapy. She can be contacted on e-mail:

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