Today’s post is about a common cognitive distortion that causes us much more grief than any of us need — Jumping to conclusions. The reason why Jumping to Conclusions can be such a problem is it can cause you to make rash or wrong decisions based on a lack of accurate information.  You make assumptions based on limited information and then react, without thinking things through and getting all the facts.  And often, the result makes life way more difficult for you than necessary, and for others around you. If only you had your facts right, you’d very likely reach a different conclusion. Here’s some examples.

You get a letter from the IRS. There it is, staring you in the face on your living room coffee table like a bad omen. What could it be about? Panic sets in. Are they questioning the value of the popcorn maker you donated to goodwill and declared on your tax return?  Did they find out about that $800 you earned but didn’t declare when you sold your ceramic fairy whistles at the craft fair? Or how about the cell phone you wrote off for your business and declared you only used it 25% of the time for personal use, when actually, you probably used it more like 35%? They’ve got you in their cross hairs, and you’re probably going to jail. Anyway, you just want to shove the notice under the pile of mail and ignore it – maybe it will just, go away.

I’m on a job interview, and I’m pretty nervous. I think it’s a bit of a stretch to get this job in the first place because I’m new and inexperienced in the field.  The interviewer asks me if I’m proficient in a software application that I don’t have any experience with. Flustered, I tell her no. She also asks me about other software applications – I have some experience, but not as much as she made it seem I needed in order to get the job. By the end of the week, I don’t hear anything back from her.  And you know what? It’s not fair for her to pass on me just because I don’t have the software experience she was asking about. It wasn’t in the job description, and I’m gonna send her an email how unfair the process was.

I’m feeling a little under the weather. Low energy, a bit nauseous and dizzy, and little appetite.  I go to the doctor and she does some tests. The next morning, I get a message from the doctor’s office, “Please call me at your earliest convenience.” What’s the first thing that goes through my head? “I’m gonna die!” It’s never a good sign when the doctor calls, right?

Let’s try one more. I posted photo of myself on Instagram that I took at the top of a mountain I hiked, and nobody liked my post! This hike was a real accomplishment for me – it’s the first strenuous hike I’ve done since I had my baby, and it meant a lot to me.  People must just think I’m bragging, self-indulgent, or that they’re jealous of me for being a mountain conquering mama just 2 weeks after having a baby. Or else they just don’t care about me. I would have thought at least my closest friends would have Liked it. You know what, if they’re not going to Like my posts, I’m not going to like theirs. So there!

The problem with all these scenarios is that we don’t have all the facts. We’re making assumptions about what’s going on inside other peoples’ heads without knowing for sure. Whether it’s the mind of a friend, an interviewer, a co-worker, or an IRS Agent.

When my patients Jump to Conclusions, I like to ask, “How do you know this is what so and so is thinking about you?” “What is your evidence to prove this is true?” If they answer, “It just seems like it,” or “I have a feeling that’s what’s happening, or what’s gonna happen,” I say, “That’s not good enough, it’s too vague and you’re making an assumption without knowing all the facts.”

Let’s get back to the examples. So the IRS is after you, huh? Some menacing, diabolic IRS agent is sitting in a dark, dank, dingy room, cackling maliciously as she imagines you reading the letter and trembling in fear. Well, that’s a pretty big leap! The IRS sends letters out all the time, for all sorts of reasons, and usually it’s not to catch someone red handed and lock’em up in the slammer. I’ve personally received several IRS notices in the past year —  all informing me of a change of address status.  When I try calling to ask them to stop sending the notices, I can’t get a live person on the phone.  So your letter was probably auto-generated by a computer, not Agent Evil. In fact, if you had committed such an egregious crime, you’re house probably would’ve be stormed by now by federal agents, and not by an non-descript letter. It’s possible you may owe some money because of some sort of error, but the amount could be as low as a few dollar. But guess what, you’ll never know the truth if you don’t open the letter and find out. And what’s more, by avoiding it completely, you might make matters worse. Because what might have been a few dollars in taxes owed could turn into a hundred with penalties and interest if you avoid it for too long.

The job interview. I’m convinced the interviewer didn’t like me and was using her heckling about my software skills to justify not hiring me.  When Friday rolled around and I didn’t get a call, this was my piece of evidence that validated my impression. But how do I know what was really going on in her head? Maybe she was asking me these questions to get a sense of what kind of on the job training I might need so she could put in a request with her company for the training. Maybe she wanted to know my skillset to figure out how to best utilize me in the company. And maybe she was a just a bit to busy, overworked, and overwhelmed, like so many of us, to get back to me by Friday. But I feel so anxious, distressed, and upset that I need to preemptively send her an email telling her my feelings. And so what do you think – how’s that going to go overAnd perhaps she didn’t think I was right for this job, but had another opening coming up she considering me for? If there was still a chance of being hired, or a chance for a future position with her, I just harpooned it.

So the doctor’s calling to deliver bad news. My number is up. My goose is cooked. Why even bother calling the doctor back? Might as well book that trip to Tasmania I’ve always dreamed of while I still can.  Hey, I think you know where this is going. The doctor could have been calling for any number of reasons. Maybe the labs were invalid and I need to do it over. Maybe she’s calling to reschedule my follow up appointment. And maybe she’s calling to give me GOOD news about my labwork. There’s any number of possibilities, so concluding the news is BAD without having all the facts just doesn’t make sense. Certainly avoiding calling the doctor back because I don’t want to hear news doesn’t make sense, because she obviously has something important to tell me regardless of whether the news is good or bad. I’m closing off my options in any scenario if I don’t even know what it’s really about.

Let’s talk about the Instagram post. Sure, we all like validation.  It’s nice to have people like our social media posts. But does it mean our friends and follower don’t like us if they don’t click the like button? Maybe they’re busy. Maybe they saw the post, liked it and but didn’t think, or were too busy to click the like button. Maybe they’ve been too busy recently to obsess over their social media. And let’s face it, conquering that mountain means a lot more to me than to anyone else. So even though I was excited to make it to the top, it doesn’t mean anyone else will feel the same way about it. But taking offense to the “lack of likes” and consciously deciding to ignore my friends’ posts does what? It creates an artificial drama in my head between my friends and me when the conflict doesn’t actually exist!

Look, you can’t read minds and you can’t predict the future. If you could, you’d be sitting at the blackjack table in Vegas outwitting the dealer at every hand. You’d be one step ahead of everybody else because you’d always know what they were thinking before they spoke. While Mind Reading and future predicting might be a popular TV sci fi series gimmick, we can’t do it, so don’t convince yourself that you can.

When it comes to Jumping to Conclusions , hit the pause button, get the facts, and don’t make assumptions. If you don’t know what’s going on inside someone’s head, what they mean, and what their intentions are, ask them.  Get clarification. And please, don’t make any rash decisions based on your assumptions before getting the facts. You’ll be glad you waited, and that you didn’t make the situation worse than it needs to be. Things usually blow over before they blow up, so don’t blow it up yourself.