You’re walking to work, and suddenly see a friend of a friend heading your way. You’re about to say hi, but they pass right by, without even acknowledging you. Obviously, they don’t like you. You keep asking your friend to get together, but they ignore you. Obviously, they’re mad at you or don’t want to be around you. Your spouse gets home from work, and barely says a word. Obviously, they’re annoyed that the house is a mess, and the baby is screaming—and they think it’s all your fault. Your boss has yet to return your call or email. Obviously, it’s because they’re disappointed with your latest presentation or overall performance.
We leap to conclusions all the time in all sorts of situations with all sorts of people, from strangers to supervisors to spouses. We spin all sorts of stories from a single interaction with someone. Sometimes, we don’t even realize we’re doing it.
It’s understandable that we regularly leap to conclusions. Leaping to conclusions is adaptive and convenient. “Modern neuroscience tells us that the brain/mind takes ‘shortcuts’ to save time, energy, and neural real estate,” said Bob Gordon, MSOD, MA, MS, a psychotherapist, Imago relationship counselor, and faculty member at the Maryland University of Integrative Health. “We don’t take the time to examine the whole picture, because that would often be an inefficient use of time and resources.”
Plus, our brain has a negativity bias, Gordon said. As a survival strategy, we constantly scan our environment, both interior and exterior, for bad news.
We leap to worst-case scenarios because we’re trying to protect ourselves—from potential rejection, sadness, failure. “[W]e think worrying can either prepare us for the worst to happen or we will be less disappointed if we expect the worst to happen,” said Lena Aburdene Derhally, LPC, a psychotherapist, writer and speaker in Washington, D.C.
Another reason revolves around our past experiences and personal insecurities, Derhally said. “We can take [negative] experiences or [negative] messages that bred [our] insecurities and project them on to all our future situations and interactions.”
In other words, we think that our past will repeat itself. If you were rejected by people you thought were your friends, you think that others will reject you, too. If you were in a toxic marriage that made you feel worthless, you’ll bring those beliefs into other relationships. And you’ll assume that others’ actions are just evidence of your inherent inadequacy and defectiveness.
Thankfully, we can override our natural inclination to leap to conclusions—or rather we can intervene once we’ve made an assumption. The below tips can help.
Ask yourself, what am I making it mean? It’s a phrase that San Francisco therapist Kat Dahlen deVos, LMFT, finds herself repeating all the time in therapy sessions and to herself. Because our creative minds generate many, many tales to explain others’ actions. Essentially, we try to fill in the missing information with our own information (again, information that’s based on our past experiences and beliefs about ourselves).
She shared this example: You send your friend a vulnerable email or text. You don’t hear back, which leads you to feel incredibly hurt and confused. When you explore what you’re making your friend’s lack of response mean, you realize: “you have a deep belief that you are unworthy or unloved, and the silence confirms this” or “it’s useless to be vulnerable because no one can handle your true feeling” or “she’s mad at you, and the friendship wasn’t as strong as you thought,” according to deVos. What are you making someone else’s actions mean? What stories is your mind inventing?
Ask yourself, am I being objective and seeing the bigger picture? There are often multiple explanations for others’ behaviors. For instance, the person you passed on the street who seemed distracted—who you assumed dislikes you—might’ve just gotten some bad news, said Derhally, who co-hosts a psychology podcast with Gordon. Or they were exhausted from taking on an extra job. Or they were running late to an important appointment. Or they were deep in thought about everything they have to do.
Check with the other person, when possible. Gordon stressed the importance of understanding the difference between a phenomenon and a story: “A phenomenon is a fact, an occurrence, something that can be observed and substantiated by the senses—something about which any two people would agree. Anything else is a ‘story,’ an interpretation.”
In other words, try to recognize when you’re observing a fact versus creating a story. Then check your story with the other person. For instance, according to Gordon, you might tell your spouse: “Can I check something out with you? I notice you haven’t said anything for the past hour or so. I’m in a story that you’re mad at me. Is that true?” Your spouse might say they didn’t even realize they were being quiet. They’re just focused on something with work. “Or, if they are in reaction to something you did, you’ve just kindly and compassionately given them an opening to talk about it,” he said.
When you find yourself making any kind of conclusion, consider if other possibilities are possible. Examine your thought process. Are you assuming something based on a past experience? Are you assuming something based on your self-doubts and insecurities?
Of course, these questions can be hard to answer. Journaling about your thoughts and feelings is a powerful way to self-reflect. Seeing a therapist also can be illuminating.