Assuming that people have difficulties can seem caring but can actually turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy. Why is it so hard to allow the possibility of things being fine?
If we assume that people have problems, this can swiftly become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Being aware of the potential for problems, on the other hand, is truly helpful. If you’re not aware of the possibility, you won’t see it. For example, keeping an eye out for children falling behind or being disruptive in school and finding out why this might be is undoubtedly necessary and positive. We need to ask more questions about people’s lives in order to uncover instances of abuse and many other difficulties that were not usually asked about or admitted as possibilities some years ago.
There is a fine line to walk, though, between being aware of potential problems or disadvantages, and assuming that someone is feeling them. There’s a difference for example between being crippled by social anxiety and being strongly introverted by nature. A general tendency towards self-criticism can lead people toward making their experience into a series of problems to solve — which wastes a good deal of energy. The reinforcing assumption from others, or from a professional with some power in the situation, that there really is a string of problems, perpetuates it further. Sometimes it is enough not to assume for the whole edifice to drop away.
I’ve noticed in materials and workshops, including my own, which are intended to help people heal, that there are a lot of entrenched assumptions about the problems we all have with our own minds. I find being talked at in this way quite disturbing, and I start sometimes to wonder whether I have a problem I am denying. It’s obviously helpful to identify and address fairly massive trends in how people deal with their thoughts and feelings, but it’s vital to admit the possibility that someone doesn’t have this problem.
In marketing programs which are aimed at helping people’s development, the tendency to identify common problems in the target audience and speak to them, while in a sense feels empathic (to varying degrees depending on the intensity of the ‘sell’), also adds to the force of the assumption that we are all lacking in the same way — let’s say not feeling worthy enough to make money. This becomes an easy thing to latch any anxieties we may have onto, a strong narrative. This opens up a little gap between how we actually feel, which goes uninvestigated, and a convincing tide of ‘how we all feel’. In that little gap, all kinds of unnecessary conflicts and difficulties can fester.
There is also a fine line between acknowledging how deeply a problem — be it a trauma, an addiction, or a state of mind which causes chronic suffering — affects life, and predicting that this will always be the case in a way that sets people up for this outcome. If visualising and assuming good outcomes can be helpful, as plenty of performers in various fields can attest, then it seems that assuming there are problems might have a similar effect — brainwashing yourself effectively into believing that there must be something wrong, making a kind of negative visualisation, or drawing selective attention to the things which are not optimum in a way which allows them to grow stealthily, as unexamined assumptions.
The most helpful thing we can offer others is genuine openness. It seems that there’s less and less of it around. Not only openness to the fact that they might be suffering, but also to the fact that they might not be. Of course this applies first and foremost to yourself: it’s always worth asking ‘am I actually suffering from this experience or am I worried by feeling that I should be worried?’ ‘Do I really feel there’s no way out or have I become strongly convinced that this is the case?’ There’s the phenomenon for example of ‘being a single parent’. This brings all kinds of assumptions of difficulty, so (as a single parent) I never apply it to myself — simply because it doesn’t fit.
I’ve been shocked a few times by clients who I assumed had intractable problems which would take a very long time and a great deal of care and patience to shift. Sometimes people turn up for the second session having smashed through the impasse, stopped what it had seemed impossible to stop. There are obviously many different factors at play every time. It’s clear, however, that these people are coming for help at the right moment, when they really desire change with every fibre of their being, and also that they had come with the assumption that this was going to work.
While I was in fact assuming that the problem would take longer to fix, I always try to hold my assumptions aside. I refuse to pay any attention to them in the session. Sometimes it takes a little effort to hold those assumptions aside. They come in a caring guise, as I take in the enormity of the person’s painful experience. Once again there’s a thin line to walk, between acknowledgement of the suffering and assuming that it must have a long term tenacious hold on the person in question in the future.
The best strategy I think is to assume nothing and be open to all kinds of unique experiences, in yourself and in others. They may be uncomfortably different from how they are supposed to be — they may also be surprisingly good. Let’s be open to that!
All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .on and was last reviewed or updated by