On Assumptions, Judgments, Beliefs
We all love a good story, especially the ones we make up. Other stories we buy retail from a respected authority, like our parents, teachers, or church. Stories become our assumptions, judgments about ourselves and others, and our beliefs. There are the some strong similarities among assumptions, judgments and beliefs. All of these entail some interpretation and summation of Reality in our minds. They can be ‘negative’ or ‘positive’ in perception, like the glass half empty or half full. We appear to need them to help us negotiate our world. If I assume some neighborhood is not safe for me to be in, I’ll look for an alternative route, for instance. In fact, (it is my belief) that the human, and many animal minds create mental maps based on assumptions, judgments and beliefs that we use consistently not just to get around physically, but to guide or regulate our relations with others (“I better not talk to her now, she’s crabby in the morning”) and our own behaviors (“I don’t think I can do that”). I have often watched my cats very cautiously slink up to some new object that they have not ‘mapped’ into their territory, like a plastic garbage bag that blew into our yard. I assume that they sense possible threat or danger in anything out of the ordinary. After investigating by smelling, vision, and whacking at it a few times with her paw, my can maps the new object “not harmful or threatening, and this is where it lays”, and the bag can be ignored.
The old reptilian part of our brains is much the same as an animal’s. The unknown evokes in us a fear response. With practice, we can learn to pay less attention to the “flight-fight-freeze” response, and use higher-functioning regions of our brain to create greater possibility and choice. It is as if we can use belief to overpass our original, subconscious assumption that something new is a threat to our survival.
So what makes assumptions, judgments and beliefs different from one another? It seems to me that there is a sort of hierarchy here among these. When I make assumptions, I don’t have a lot of specific information to interpret to create a thought. I assume things based on my past experiences, and extrapolate out to the present moment. I also don’t have a lot invested in my assumptions. For instance, I assume that a stranger I meet socially in a safe place, like a hotel lobby or grocery store, is willing to help me with directions if I ask them politely. If I get a scowling response from him, and hear, “Don’t bother me, I’m busy”, I can easily abandon my assumption of willingness. Assumptions are often our default starting place, and any new information that we receive that contradicts our assumptions can help us let go of them, because assumptions are held lightly. So, when we clear our assumptions about our relationships, it can help greatly to get on firmer footing with the person we hold the assumption with. One way to do this is to clear it directly with the person by asking if you can share an assumption you hold with them. If they answer ‘yes’, then you can respond with something like, “A story I make up about you is that…(you are smarter than I am) “. Notice how this wording makes me the owner of the assumption, and there need be no response from the other person. What often happens when we state our assumptions aloud is that we can let them go. At the least, being conscious of the assumptions that we hold makes the relationship much easier by not being subconsciously guided along the rails of the assumption, and thus opening up more possibilities in the relationship.
Not so with judgment: judgments are held at a deeper level than assumptions. They are more persistent. When I hold a judgment about someone, I have interpreted data I have received by witnessing, hearing from others, or reading about the other. I have more of my ego involved, and it is harder to let go of the judgment thought. I make choices in my behavior both consciously and unconsciously to minimize the ill effects to me and maximize my own position. An example: I hold a judgment that my boss doesn’t like me and has it in for me. I might thus avoid her, and keep conversations with her to a minimum. I might also say things to my coworkers to put her down in others’ esteem. Interestingly, such behavior, based on judgment, will often bring about events that give further evidence that the judgment is held ‘correctly’, like when I get passed over for a promotion because (from my boss’s perspective) I am aloof and a rabble rouser. To me, being passed over will reinforce my original judgment that I am being victimized. How much things might change if I were to ask my boss, “Can I check something out with you? Do you have any performance issues with me?” Or, “Is there something I can do to help your program succeed?” Even if I get a negative answer to my questions, I have communicated a desire for a better relationship. That is a step toward loosening my ego’s hold on that judgment.
When we hold judgments that don’t serve us well, like the example above, it takes some work to let it go. Contradicting the judgment with an investment in relationship is the best way, but not always possible. Another approach is to say or write your judgment, along with words that release it, like “I have held a judgment that I can’t trust Carl. I let go of that judgment now”. Say or write it every day, and put it into practice in your behavior until it no longer has power over you. Note that you will want to do this if it serves you and the relationship. If Carl is, for instance, a compulsive gambler, you won’t want to be loaning him money until he gets help to change his behavior. It still makes sense to visualize the whole person, the trustworthy Carl, who stands behind the compulsive behavior.
Beliefs are thoughts that we don’t just hold, we identify with them. Typically, beliefs relate to how we see ourselves and the world; they are the foundation of our concept of reality. We invest heavily in them. Like monetary investments, we receive dividends from them, and occasionally we feel the acute pain of loss when they lose their value for us. You might recall your childhood when you learned there was no Tooth Fairy. For most of us, giving up that belief was not easy. When my children got the knowledge, they continued for several years to put their teeth under the pillow and write earnest notes to the Tooth Fairy. They required a transition period, where the new knowledge was received that better fit with observed Reality, but there was not yet enough evidence that the new or updated map of reality could be trusted.
When we hold self-limiting beliefs, such as, “I don’t have the self-discipline to be able to run a successful business on my own,” all I can see is the evidence that this belief is true. The belief filters my reality. When I see clearly how this belief is limiting my choices and fulfillment in life, I still need to get enough contradictory messages that I am capable, before I am truly willing to let go of the chains that bind me with my belief. The only way I know to get these new supporting messages is to begin acting from the new belief or paradigm, and to be open and curious about what happens when I do so. That means stepping into unknown territory, parts of the map that are yet unmapped. It’s scary, and always worth it. And so much easier to do when we have a reliable guide as we traverse virgin territory on our life’s path.