(A slightly dramatic story with an important moral)
So I reached out to a new stylist to schedule an appointment for braids.
Caveat: You already know it can be a whole journey and an act of faith when trying to find a high quality, reliable, responsive stylist, amirite? Okay, back to the story.
Because I can be a stickler with planning, I like to be fully in sync on the details of my hair appointments, down to which brand of hair to bring. And if I feel that the someone who I’m about to give my hard-earned coins to isn’t as responsive as I want them to be when I reach out, I’m sooo judging them!
Like, seriously, I start to question their work ethic, the kind of person they are, who raised them, how they’ve stayed in business this long, I mean the WHOLE NINE. And I’m bringing all of this fire if they don’t respond to me within... an hour of me texting… 😳
I know y’all, isn’t that awful!! Did I mention I am a work in progress?
To keep it 💯, I really don’t have some super human power to remain calm and level headed all the time. Being a psychologist does NOT mean that I have it all together or figured out… just ask anyone who knows me lol! It really just means I know better 🙈
Anyhoo, it is with that spirit of honesty and transparency that I share this example of how my thoughts sometimes get the best of me. Let me know if any of this resonates...
So, after going down the rabbit hole of disparaging thoughts about said braider, I stopped to check myself—
I mean, don’t I go hours without returning texts because I’m working or otherwise indisposed? Isn’t she probably busy servicing other clients, or simply attending to her own life? Once I thought about it from that perspective, I was good, my emotions and thoughts were back regulated, at least for the moment.
Now, while I would love to wrap up the story there and tell you I learned my lesson, got over myself, and waited patiently for her response (without judgment)— who am I kidding?
While I was in a huff about her taking longer to respond than what I wanted, I later learned that we were experiencing issues with our texts and she wasn’t even receiving my messages in a timely manner (hold on to this point).
She did respond eventually (which brought relief, then guilt for me having thought ill about her in the first place), and she asked me to email her a photo of what I wanted so that she could recommend hair options.
I emailed her shortly thereafter, and went about my day. I was back to feeling gracious, knowing that we shouldn’t have any more issues with communication. I was excited to get my hair did!
So when I checked my email at the end of the work day and... no reply, I stayed calm.
Okay okay cool, she’s a stylist, she works all types of hours, I thought. . I’ll be cool and give her over night to respond.
⬆️ See how rational I was being? Aren’t you proud?
But then the next morning came and it was the day before the appointment. I was pressed for time as I only had a small window to get the hair. Any guesses on what I was feeling? Thinking?
Yep, y’all, I was BACK to making judgments and assumptions about her and THISSS close to just cancelling the appointment altogether! I mean, do I even want someone who doesn’t have good business practices doing my do? I just knew she was gonna be trash!
Then, a few moments later, I get a reply.
“So, sorry!” she says, and she proceeds to send me a screenshot of my email that was sent to her spam folder. She then goes on to write a very warm, friendly, and detailed message with all the information I needed for our appointment, and ends with stating how excited she was to meet me in the morning.
Ugh! I had done it again! Do you see how my thoughts got away from me, making up their own story?
Often, when I’m reflecting on and processing my reactions to situations, or when I’m walking along this road with clients, one thing I’m always intrigued by is how often we react and respond to our interpretation of an event, what we THINK someone meant, what we KNOW their intentions were, what they OUGHT to have known about us. We put all of this over and above the actual event itself.
That’s not to say that you can’t feel whatever emotions you feel when something you didn’t want to happen, happens, but what I’ve found is that what fuels and prolongs our emotional reactivity and distress is the meaning we attach to another person’s behavior without having all the data.
Because we mental health professionals have a name for everything, we call the error in thinking I experienced a cognitive distortion. Author and researcher Courtney Ackerman, M.A., notes that cognitive distortions are:
"Tendencies or patterns of thinking or believing that are false or inaccurate; and have the potential to cause psychological damage."
Researchers have identified at least 14 types of distortions—14 y’all! Some examples include:
Black & White Thinking (tendency to think in all or nothing patterns, “If I’m not perfect I’m a failure'')
Catastrophizing (thinking the worst is always going to happen, “this house is definitely going to collapse”)
Emotional Reasoning (accepting emotion as fact, “I feel anxious so something bad is about to happen”)
Mind Reading (predicting someone's thoughts without evidence, “she doesn’t actually want to be my friend”)
And here’s the kicker, we often have multiple distortions at the same time— yeah, we complex like that.
With my hair braiding example above, not only did I engage in some emotional reasoning, I also experienced a personal favorite, mind reading, aka jumping to conclusions. I very clearly did not have all the data, yet I made off-the-cuff and inaccurate conjectures and assumptions about the character and nature of a person I didn't even know. Y’all, like I could tell what her thoughts and intentions were. Somebody come get me!
Cognitive distortions matter because how (and what) we THINK about a thing (or person) actually influences how we FEEL.
I know the example I gave is relatively minor and inconsequential in the big scheme of things, but think about how this shows up in the workplace with your colleagues or boss; or in your relationships with friends, family, and romantic partners.
I wonder how much of the emotional pain and upset we endure is because we are operating off of incomplete information, or allowing our emotions to dictate our actions? How much do our assumptions (which themselves are often biased by our past experiences) prevent us from seeing a situation or a person clearly?
The funny thing is that most times our judgments or assessments of others, if not wholly wrong, are at minimum partial and incomplete. And that’s because we can’t see intentions. We can’t read the minds of others to actually know what their internal experiences are. Even “reading” someone’s body or facial expressions can be wildly inaccurate. Have you ever been told you have RBF (resting b*%tch face), and others thought you were upset, when in actuality you were just thinking about what you wanted to have for dinner that night?
We as people think we are so much more attuned to others than we are. Remember a time when you were on the receiving end of someone else’s erroneous judgments. Did you stare in bewilderment at how they even arrived at that conclusion? That keeps me humbled because I hate it when people operate off of incomplete data about me.
So what do we do about all of this? A handy task you can try when caught in assumptions, is to challenge yourself to come up with at least 2-3 alternate hypotheses for why someone is responding or behaving the way they are. The point here is to interrupt the tendency to run with an automatic thought or belief, and make space for the possibility that your initial conclusion may not be 100% accurate, or that you may not have the complete picture.
What to do after that? Well, if you care enough about the relationship or the person, I would challenge you to actually *gasp* ASK to verify. Conduct your own experiment— does the data you gather from the conversation you have support or refute your initial conclusion? Because here’s the thing, allowing the data (instead of only your thoughts and/or emotions) to inform how you respond sets you up for maintaining clear and healthy relationships in every sphere of life. And I don’t know about you, but healthy relationships are life for me, especially now.
For all those who were wondering, my hair turned out great. Heeeeeyyy stylist! My bad for all the pre-judgement.