So What Happens When We Assume?
By Daniel Held
Why we cannot heal without first challenging our prior assumptions.
I have a few old classic movie scenes and lines that are impossible for me to forget, even if I wanted to do so. One that stands out in my memory involves Cool Hand Luke. My favorite line from that movie? “What we have here is a failure to communicate.”
My memory of this infamous line is triggered in my mind whenever I feel misunderstood after repeated attempts to communicate with another person. What I find about myself is that understanding and being understood carries extreme value in relationships with those I love. I rarely experience love and misunderstanding at the same time.
In tracing my own failure to effectively and accurately understand others, who may in turn then question my love for them, the fault most often begins with my having made a hasty assumption. Assuming the wrong thing about someone gets me into a world of hurt, especially in an otherwise loving relationship.
In my personal as well as professional experience over 76 years now, I’ve found the #1 ingredient in a loving and helpful relationship to be accurate understanding as produced by successful communication. And the #1 cause of a failure to communicate is an unquestioned assumption. Assuming an untruth about another, be it a spouse, a child, or anyone else is anything but loving and helpful.
This pertains to self-love as well as other-love. We all make assumptions about ourselves that are also untrue. We believe lies about ourselves. We misunderstand ourselves in ways that threaten our ability to love ourselves. Yet, if we learn to question our assumptions and change our inner self-talk to better know and understand ourselves (the object of a great deal of our psychotherapy experiences), we then grow to love and appreciate ourselves far better than before.
Now let me test this out by asking you a question about another type of assumption. Is it possible to assume something about God that is untrue? To actually believe a lie about God. To misunderstand God enough to actually threaten our love relationship, at least on our end?
Let’s say, for instance, that we assume that a loving God would stop bad things from happening to good people. Have you ever made that assumption? If so, what happens to your love for God when bad things do happen to good people? People you’ve even prayed for and counted on God to protect or bless or perhaps heal? If we make such an assumption about what a loving God would or should do, then what happens when God doesn’t comply with our assumptions? What then happens to our faith? Our loving relationship? Our communication? Our prayer life?
Looking back over my many years as both a licensed therapist and ordained pastor, the best healing work I’ve ever achieved has been in areas where old assumptions were questioned and replaced on the part of my clients and parishioners. Over time, I have gathered what amounts to a top ten list of wrong assumptions harmful to relationships, communication, and mental health.
Assuming that our human brains are completely rational. In reality, much of our brain function is not rational. The part that is, our frontal lobe, doesn’t begin developing until we reach our adolescent years. In fact, the first part of our brain to develop is the limbic system that surrounds our amygdala, which lacks the capacity for reason but is our brain’s first responder to every event of our lives in between womb and tomb.
Assuming that our first response to life’s events is typically correct. In fact, our first response is overly cautious especially where any change of circumstance is concerned. Our brain’s first reaction to any change is to more often perceive danger and initiate stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol pumping to our muscle groups, preparing us for survival by means of fight or flight.
Assuming that all change is dangerous and threatening. In fact, some change is and so it is wise to exercise caution. But most change is merely difficult, not dangerous, and is far more likely to contain opportunities than threats. Progressive change is more often a friend than it is an enemy.
Assuming that changing our mind is a sign of weakness. In fact, it is a sign of strength. What is a sign of weakness is our inability to change and adapt to changes going on around us. This is why in scripture even God is noted to have a change of mind on the occasion of our changing human circumstances.
Assuming that another person’s behavior means anything at all about us. In fact, it means a lot about that person but next to nothing about ourselves. For the most part, it’s simply not about us.
Assuming that anyone else can cause our feelings to change. In fact, we cannot cause another person’s feelings or vice versa. Feelings are caused by our own thoughts or actions. They come and go based on what we are thinking or doing at that moment. It might be nice if we could make each other happy or unhappy, but reality just doesn’t work that way.
Assuming our parents and others in authority knew or should have known best. In fact, what we humans know or believe is often ignorance or distortion of truth passed on from one generation to the next. It’s probably safe to say we do the best we can at the time based on what we then think we know. What we think is right at any given time may be known to be wrong years later.
Assuming that being unloved means being unlovable. In fact, everyone is lovable, but many people have not been loved and, as children without rational brain functioning yet developed, do assume they are then unlovable. That is what interrupts their ability to love either themselves or others, even their own lovable children.
Assuming that love is a feeling. In fact, “like” is a feeling, and pleasing others is something we and others do “like,” but it has nothing to do with love. Love is a decision to help others or ourselves get whatever is needed for personal empowerment. Getting whatever is wanted, even if opposite that which is needed, may feel like “love” but is actually just “like” pretending to be “love.” Helping others and pleasing others can be quite the opposite, as every parent has easily discovered.
Assuming that love is controlling others. Love empowers others by means of influence. It informs others’ decisions with truth as a better alternative than a lie. It will never decide for others who, by God’s creation, are already capable of deciding for themselves. Love’s power is in its ability to multiply itself by empowering others to better control themselves.
I could go on and on here with any number of different assumptions many of us carry around unquestioned in our minds. My point is simply this: failure to challenge and correct wrongful assumptions is the root cause of hurtful emotions and relationships. They are the root cause of failed communication. A failure to communicate with ourselves, others, and even with God is hurtful and in need of healing. A failure to accurately understand ourselves, others, or God is a failure to be fully loved and loving.
As a Christian therapist who seeks to follow Jesus into the healing work of restoring a right understanding of God, neighbor and self, I challenge assumptions. I challenge my own assumptions first through my own prayer for right understanding, successful communication, and loving influence. Then I challenge my client’s assumptions for the sake of their own healing in order to save them from their own failure to love, and to communicate their own accurate understanding in relation to themselves, others, and God.
Why do I do this? Because if I understand Jesus accurately through Christian scripture, he came challenging our assumptions from womb to tomb. And by faith I believe he did so for the sake of our own healing. Healing that saves us from our own failure to love in relationship with ourselves, others, and God. And because, without Jesus, what we may have here is a failure to communicate.
Daniel K. Held, M.Div., M.S.W., LISW is a licensed therapist in Ohio and the author of Love’s Resurrection: its power to roll away fear’s heaviest stone (Higher Ground Books & Media, 2018) and Redeeming Gethsemane: when our age of loneliness meets the woke church (HGBM, 2021). Find his blog at More Love Less Fear, www.danielkheld.com.
To purchase the book from which this essay comes, see Love Does Not Control: Therapists, Psychologists, and Counselors Explore Uncontrolling Love