Last week my dear 2009 Subaru “Maggie” underwent major surgery, conducted by our local dealership. Beth and I have found these folks to be honest, courteous and very interested in saving us money, so when Josh the service advisor announced that Maggie’s hospital stay would be three days and added “and we’ll give you a loaner car,” I rejoiced at this further evidence of their generosity. No one had ever offered me a loaner car before!
So I brought Maggie to the service center, at that magic early-morning hour when a host of Subaru owners converge to drop off the day’s vehicular patients. In other words, it was their run-off-your-feet busy time. Josh was playing octopus with papers in one hand, car keys in another, a pen in his third hand, the phone held to his ear with a fourth, and more calls and people waiting than you could shake a dipstick at. So when my turn arrived, we went fast.
Josh took down my license and insurance data, then had me sign an agreement about the loaner car, taking particular care to be sure I understood and initialed all of the ten reverse-side provisions about my liabilities. I didn’t look very hard at the front of the paper; after all, I knew there was no financial transaction involved. Josh then ushered me out to “my” 2018 Subaru Forester, which announced “Courtesy Car” in large letters on the back window. I tossed my copy of the loaner agreement into the glove compartment, and after a cautious ten minutes working out what those fancy displays actually meant, I made my way home. I had a busy schedule that day myself!
It wasn’t until early evening, while checking the glove compartment for an owner’s manual, that I ran across the loaner car agreement and actually read it. Imagine my surprise to discover that the document said very clearly across the top, “CAR RENTAL AGREEMENT,” and the numbers at the right said I was paying $40 a day for my loaner car!
Now here is where it gets interesting. Because I had assumed I knew what the sentence “We’ll give you a loaner car” meant, it had simply never occurred to me to look more closely before signing the agreement. Normally I’m pretty careful about such things; this time I wasn’t, because I already knew what I would see (or not see).
What was fascinating was my reaction. In the past, my psyche would have imploded in guilt and self-accusation about having been stupid enough to waste a week’s worth of grocery money on a car I didn’t really need. (Beth would have been quite happy to chauffeur me around as necessary for three days, after all.) Then, at the speed of light, that self-judgment would have exploded into outrage at the dealership. A host of new assumptions would have crowded in to replace the old one: Not only had I been unbearably stupid and wasteful, the dealership had betrayed me! They had led me into this! Josh, whom I’d always trusted, wasn’t trustworthy after all! He hadn’t pointed out the “rental” column or told me what I would be paying! Et cetera, et cetera, et very noisy cetera. I’d have spent all night thinking about the earful I was going to hand them as soon as the doors opened.
This time, though, I simply thought: “Okay, I made an assumption. My problem, not theirs. I think I’ll call them tomorrow morning and see if I can return the vehicle and only pay for one day’s rental.” Instead of stewing all night about “their” perfidy, I filed the experience under Still More Learnings (a huge file, that one!), and went calmly off to bed. And to sleep.
Next morning early I made my call. I assured Josh I’d take very little of his time; I had just read the agreement I should have read earlier, and due to my inexperience I hadn’t realized I was renting a car, not getting a freebie, so I was wondering if…
He interrupted me. “You ARE getting a freebie.”
“But it says here that I’m renting the car for $40 per day.”
“I know. We have to do that for some bookkeeping reason. But we just back that amount out. Not to worry, it really is free.”
“Thanks, Josh, so good to hear that!”
All of which, of course, started me thinking about assumptions. The fact that my original assumption had turned out to be true was actually irrelevant. The important step forward was that I had recognized my original assumption—and refused to indulge in the diversionary activity of adopting even more assumptions and acting on them. And thereby I had saved myself considerably more than a night’s sleep.
Had I gone roaring in (telephonically at least) with accusations of betrayal, I would probably have irreparably damaged my relationship with Josh and the dealership… for nothing. I would also have damaged my relationship with my psyche, creating completely unnecessary mental and emotional suffering—and with my body, as the toxic chemicals of guilt, self-hatred, outrage, resentment, loss and betrayal sloshed around in my innards. Ouch!
Over the years, I’ve found that my assumptions—the beliefs I don’t recognize as beliefs, accepting them as actual, hard facts—have brought me more grief than any other kinds of stories I tell myself. I certainly can’t count the number of times I‘ve rushed into action based on an “obvious fact” that has turned out to be simply my own biased, often trauma-based belief. I find assumptions to be very sneaky customers, creeping up out of my subconscious to distort and influence my responses to life—all because they are invisible to me.
My unconscious assumptions are quite different from the beliefs I am aware I hold. I know, for instance, that I tend to believe other individuals always tell me the truth, so I try to counterbalance that generalization by remembering to read all documents before signing them! Conversely, and most irrationally, I know I tend to believe extremely handsome men are untrustworthy (sorry guys! Blame two early boyfriends), so I remind myself of that bias when I meet a particularly physically gorgeous male, deliberately opening my heart and coming back to neutral.
But how can I make allowances for things I don’t see as beliefs at all? How do I avoid getting seduced into rash action by the “known facts” that are really acquired beliefs stored as frozen, unconscious assumptions?
Well, I can’t, actually. Not on a wholesale basis, at least. But what I can do is take the piecemeal approach. Over the past several years I’ve been chipping away at my assumptions by the simple process of noting when one trips me up, bringing the underlying “accepted fact” up into the light of day for examination, and then making a choice: Does it serve me to believe this is true? Or do I choose to discard the assumption and the “auto-response rules” it generates? Instead of operating on autopilot, do I choose come back to neutral, consciously observing the flow of my life and responding to each unique situation as it shows up?
That said, there are some very important assumptions I have examined and chosen to retain as consciously held beliefs. But “chosen” is indeed the operative word here. I now know these biases are there and am not being driven by them unawares. Here are some examples:
Assumptions I have chosen to keep/adopt:
That there is a gift hidden in every difficult situation.
That there are more than two solutions to a problem.
That Life has my back.
That my stories deserve to be examined.
That there’s a deeper wisdom than my conscious mind—and I can access it.
That there are many, many things I do not know about myself.
That there are many, many things I do not know about others.
That most people are doing the best they can come up with right now.
That love, in the long run, wins out.
The vast majority of what I uncover, though, I choose to set aside. More examples:
Assumptions I have chosen to discard:
That everyone sees things the way I do.
That in a given situation everyone will respond the way I would.
That I always understand what others are saying.
That others always understand what I am saying.
That if it happened this way once, it will again.
That it happened the way I remember it.
That things will always be this way.
That what’s said in my presence is directed at me.
That my emotions reflect reality.
That my stories serve me.
I have found it pays me to uncover and examine any unconscious assumption I find myself tripping over. So when the smoke clears, I usually remember to take a few long, slow breaths and ask, “What assumption of mine was that mess based on?” And when it surfaces: “Does it serve me to have this running on autopilot in my life?”
And the more I practice asking, the more easily the answers come. Because, you see, I’ve chosen to base my life on the assumptions that there is a gift in every situation; and there’s a deeper wisdom than my conscious mind; and I can access that wisdom and use it as a guide. Yes, they’re assumptions. And for now, at least, they serve me very well.
And you? What assumptions have you discovered hiding in the corners of your life? What choices have you made about them when they’ve been unmasked?