We invite a lot of gratuitous psychological trouble when we convince ourselves that we fully understand the motivations of the people around us at home and at work. You can save yourself a boatload of stress and unhappiness simply by making a commitment to be from the land of “I don’t know.”
Just because we have the mental capacity to speculate on the motives of others doesn’t mean that it is always in our interest to do so. Sometimes it’s best to paint a bright line between that which we have observed and know for sure (behavior) and that which we believe (often erroneously) to be the meaning or motivation for that behavior. One of the problems with making assumptions about the motives for other people’s behavior is that after we jump to a conclusion we can become attached to it as a “fact” and forget that it is actually an unverified product of our imagination.
The most important insight that has emerged from the last 30 years of cognitive-behavioral research is that we respond, emotionally and behaviorally, not simply to what happens to us but also to the story we are (automatically, invisibly and unconsciously) telling ourselves about what happened. In other words, it is not the event which triggers ours emotions directly but rather the story we are telling ourselves about that event.
Remember that the next time someone speeds by you on your commute and cuts in front of you a little closer than you would prefer. After the initial rush of cortisol and adrenaline subsides what are you thinking about the event and how long do these thoughts grip you? If you find yourself still furious and stressed several minutes later refocus on your thoughts as the cause not the fellow who sped by and is now long gone from your life. If you are thinking along the lines of “What an irresponsible jerk! That guy has no concern for anyone else. Blah. Blah. Blah” you may have trouble letting go of the stress and troubling emotion that this line of interior dialogue can stimulate. Well documented incidents of road rage tell you all you need to know about just how far these “thoughts” can push an individual into irrational and ugly behavior
The alternative is to be a solid citizen from the land of “I don’t know”. In this commuting scenario such a citizen might tell themselves something along the lines of “Wow…that was kind of scary. I wonder what’s up with that guy? Was he late for work and afraid of getting fired? Or maybe on his way to the hospital? Or maybe he’s just a jerk? I really don’t know. Blah. Blah. Blah”
So do your central nervous system a favor and don’t wear it out prematurely by believing too much in your own ghost stories. These stories can be even more damaging when we tell them about someone important to us. But that’s a blog for another day.
What has been your experience either in the land of “I don’t know” or as an exile from the region?