Rachael ran into her friend, Jennifer in the grocery store.They both smiled and talked briefly, but Jennifer seemed a bit distant.Jennifer ended the conversation by saying she had a lot to do. After they parted, Rachael questioned why Jennifer seemed distant and why she left so quickly. In her mind, Rachael told herself a story that Jennifer must be upset with her about something. She recalled that two weeks earlier, she had declinedJennifer’s invitation for lunch because she had other plans. She reasoned thatJennifer was upset with her because of that event.
Todd was competing with several co-workers for a promotion. His interview that morning had gone fairly well. Later in the day, he noticed the boss talking to one of the other candidates in the hall. They were laughing about something. Todd began telling himself a story that this co-worker was going to get the job. He became angry as he concluded that the interviews were just a formality, and that this company followed a good-ole-boy mentality and always would. He began thinking about looking for a job with another company.
Both situations illustrate that we tend to operate on a combination of facts and assumptions. Rachael and Todd did observe some facts. Jennifer did end the conversation fairly quickly. Rachael had turned down the earlier invitation. Todd did see the co-worker and boss laughing together. That’s all they really knew, but then they began to tell themselves a story. They formed conclusions based on their combination of facts and assumptions.
We do this all the time. We observe events and then begin generating our stories. We make assumptions about other’s underlying thoughts, feelings and motivations. We make assumptions about future events, failures and successes. Our emotions and actions are determined by the stories we tell ourselves, not the actual facts.
The human brain actively seeks resolution. Our brains constantly work to make sense out of incomplete information. For example, when you look at a flower, you don’t actually see the flower. Your eye sends data signals to the brain about color and shape, contrasts between light and dark, texture and depth. The brain then fills in the blanks to create an image of the flower in your mind.
Our brain also seeks resolution as we experience life events. We see certain facts, then our brains work to fill in the blanks to form conclusions. By filling in the unknown pieces of information, the brain achieves resolution. We feel a sense of satisfaction with this resolution, even when the conclusion is negative.
Unfortunately, our stories are often wrong. Our assumptions reflect our pre-existing beliefs more often than objective truth. When we believe we are inadequate, we tell ourselves stories of failure, mistakes and other’s being critical. When we believe we are unlovable or unimportant, we tell ourselves stories of others rejecting or backing away from us. When we believe that people are mean and hurtful, we tell ourselves the story that others will hurt us.
Sometimes, our stories may be true, but often they are not. Just pay attention to the times when you are adding to the facts you know with a story. You might think something like this, “This event happened, then the story I told myself was ….” It might help you distinguish between fact and assumption.