A critical component of character, life skills and healthy interpersonal relationships is empathy. This is stepping outside of yourself and putting you in another person’s shoes so that you can consider their position. You have to do it, though, without losing sight of the difference between you and them (aka healthy boundaries). Note: this is entirely different from over-empathy. This is when you put yourself in the other person’s shoes and project your perspective and unmet needs, and then act as though you’re responsible for their feelings and behaviour. Or, yes, it’s assuming that you know them.
Many people who grapple with frustrating situations and unhealthy relationships believe that they are very empathetic. A common theme, though, is that each party in the dynamic assumes that they speak the same ‘language’. Or, they believe that the other party ‘should’ be coming from their perspective and doing as they would do. They assume that their view of themselves and others is ‘correct’ or the only way.
We do this when we assume that we’re already coming at life in the same way as someone simply because we’re in like/love. For example, they say or do something that appears to imply that we’re on the same page. It could even be based on their appearance. Two twos, we’ve decided that we speak their ‘language’ and vice versa.
A similar thing occurs when we make up someone’s linguistic skills and emotional intelligence. We do it because we consider and assume the person to be our intellectual equal. We also do it when we regard someone as an ‘authority’ and then decide that they are ‘better’ than us. Of course, deciding that someone is superior to us changes our attitude, thinking and behaviour to accommodate this rationale. We play a role that makes us inferior by extension of seeing them as being ‘above’ or ‘better than’ us.
Remember, if we put someone on a pedestal, the only place for them to look at us is from above.
Our assumptions about others put us on a slippery slope. In romantic relationships that aren’t growing and that don’t allow us to be our best self, these assumptions lead to us believing that there’s a deep connection that can and ‘should’ remove any barriers to communication and understanding.
But so many Baggage Reclaimers reflect on involvements and realise that this so-called ‘connection’ meant that they didn’t ask questions. They didn’t pay attention, listen or be truly present because they didn’t think that they needed to.
When someone says or does something that triggers a sense of connection, we feel known and understood.
For instance, they mention that they grew up where we did and that they have a similar background. For us, this becomes shorthand for “This person gets me”. Some of us go even further, though. It becomes shorthand for “This person is me” or “This person is like my parent/sibling/someone significant from my past who I already know how to act around”.
From there, we assume that we understand what this person needs, wants, expects, feels and thinks. We also assume that they’ll reciprocate this ‘knowledge’ by meeting our needs, wants, etc. We might think that we don’t have to do or explain certain things because, well, we already ‘know’ them. In turn, we switch off and go into autopilot, assuming that we’re safe to do so. When reality (and problems) intrude, we feel deeply confused and pained. What’s happening doesn’t match the picture we’ve painted in our mind, fuelling disappointment and a sense of rejection.
But what if the thing we base our connection on doesn’t mean the same thing to the other person? What if it’s nice to have but not what we need? What if how we use a connection creates boundary issues?
We each have our own personality, characteristics, resources, circumstances, level of abundance and backstory. Even if someone appears to share aspects of these with us, they still experience(d) them in their unique way. The things that we think we share in common may have impacted them in very different ways. Even if they derive similar meaning, how that translates into their thinking and behaviour is personal to them. It’s not something we can lay claim to even if we think their experience is a cookie cutter for ours. Perhaps, also, they don’t want to define themselves or a relationship on what we cling to for our ‘connection’.
It’s human nature to make assumptions. especially as they save time and energy where used appropriately. When we rely on them for our interpersonal relationships, they lead to complacency, misunderstandings and low intimacy.
People unfold. When we truly get to know a person, it’s because we’ve taken the time to understand what makes them tick. That’s what makes real and enduring connections, not bits and pieces of information that we latch onto as a means to justify our continued investment or why we are not doing right by us.
No matter how much we think we have in common and no matter how in love we are, we ‘tick’ based on our very individual reasons.
Over-empathy and assumptions stop us from truly hearing and seeing someone. They also distort our boundaries and stop us from seeing ourselves clearly. In deciding how things are, the relationship lacks the genuine connection and intimacy that makes it grow.
We have to notice when we’re making assumptions that influence our boundaries and the relationships we co-create. Unproved or discredited assumptions about who they are and will be, means we need to halt. This is especially so in the early stages of getting to know someone because we’re accepting something as true without experiencing the actual person. To know and understand someone takes time and experience, not the projection of over-empathy.
Going on autopilot when we need to be present leads to problems. When we don’t opt in or out of a relationship based on reality, we avoid vulnerability and intimacy. It’s impossible to be on the same page when we approach the relationship from a place of illusion.
Even as the relationship progresses and deepens, we still need to be careful of assumptions. Being vulnerable enough to check in, to ask the tricky questions, to run the risk of hearing a different point of view means that we avoid complacency. We choose to show up for us, our relationship and our partner instead of assuming we know ‘everything’.
The depth of a connection and the type of relationship that blossoms from it are governed by what we put into the relationship — and that takes being in the present.