If I ask you whether a shared experience is the same experience for all of those involved, you’ll probably instinctively recognise that it isn’t.
The ever popular Marmite Debate is a great example of the point: the shared experience of eating the same brown goo is very much not the same experience for everyone! (Love it, in case you're wondering.)
More seriously, it’s pretty obvious that people who go to the same school at the same time can have vastly different experiences, right?
Thousands of fans can attend the same football match, but those supporting the winning team will have a dramatically different experience to those supporting the losing team – not to mention very different views of the competence of the referee!
Dinner at a steak restaurant is a decidedly different experience for a carnivore and a vegetarian.
Even siblings growing up in the same household can emerge with different memories of, reactions to, and influences from their childhood.
So far, so obvious.
But do we recognise that a shared experience is not the same experience when it comes to smaller scale, more personal interactions?
Recently, I went for an eye-test. At the start of the test, the optometrist asked me if I get any double vision and I confirmed that I do. At the end of the test, she said my prescription hadn’t really changed and asked if I had any questions.
At this point, I had a brief internal battle with myself that went something like this:
“Ask her about the double vision.”
“I’ve already told her about it – if she could do anything to help she would’ve done.”
“Ask her anyway, just to be sure.”
“I don’t want to be a pain or for her to think that I’m questioning her ability.”
“It’s worth checking, though, isn’t it?”
“But I don’t want her to waste her time or for her to think I’m being demanding – and I’ve already told her, haven’t I?”
“JUST FUCKING ASK!”
“No need to be like that…”
“OK, DON’T ask. But you can never whinge about the damn double vision again, right??”
“Well, when you put it like that, I guess I may was well mention it again…”
And so I did ask, and it turned out that there was something that could be done, she did it very cheerfully, and now I have prisms in my lenses and am finding reading and screen work SO much less strainy (if that’s not a word, it should be) than it was, which is bloody brilliant.
It’s a perfect example of how a shared experience does not mean that those involved have the same experience.
And we all know that to assume makes an ass of u and me (is that an assumption? Oops...).
The optometrist and I sat in the same room having the same conversation. And I unconsciously assumed that she experienced it the same way as I did, and I made further assumptions on that basis.
The double vision was a massive issue for me. For more than four decades, reading has been the primary way I relax, my go-to form of escapism, the main way I learn, a key part of how I manage my mental health. To struggle to read has been a huge downer for me.
So I unconsciously assumed that answering “yes” to the double vision question was a massive issue for the optometrist too.
Because I’d had to wait for almost an hour without any apology on their part and, surprisingly (indeed, as I write this I find myself wondering whether I’ve been the victim of a particularly subtle alien abduction of some kind), without any complaint on mine, I felt that I was owed the optometrist’s full and undivided attention…while she was probably more focused (see what I did there?!) on the fact that she owed it to all her customers (and her employer) to get through the backlog as quickly as possible.
I assumed that I had been heard and did not need to – indeed, that it would be rude to - repeat myself; she was busy, under pressure and probably quite reasonably assumed that, if she had failed to address anything I wanted her to, I would let her know.
It’s very easy to assume that, because we feel we’ve clearly expressed something important to us, it must have been understood in exactly the way we intended.
If I hadn’t managed to challenge my assumptions during the optometrist appointment, I would have left firmly in victim mode: poor little me, doomed forever to struggle to read, my enjoyment of life perpetually marred, beyond help…Not a good place to be.
And what if it’s a relationship - personal or professional, romantic or platonic - that’s impacted? When the other person in our shared experience subsequently behaves in a way that is not in alignment with the understanding we assume they must have of us, how often do we take this to mean something very negative about their feelings for us, or them as a person?
I know that I’ve been guilty of this a LOT in the past – I’d like to think it’s not so much now, but maybe that’s something those around me are better qualified to assess!
For instance, my ex used to go away a lot at weekends when our son was young and I was working full time. He would ask if it was ok with me, and I would say something like “Sure, if that’s what you want to do…”.
I assumed that he could tell how stressed I was and how much I would have welcomed his support over the weekends. I assumed that he wanted to be away more than he wanted to be home, and that he would be difficult and resentful if I made him stay home. I assumed that he heard the “if that’s what you want to do” part of my answer in the way that I intended it to be heard.
He assumed that if I didn’t ask him to stay, then I didn’t need or want him around. He assumed that if I needed support from him emotionally or practically, I would tell him. He assumed that the “Sure” part of my answer was genuine and straightforward.
We each believed that our shared experience was the same experience and it absolutely was not. We each drew conclusions – whether consciously or not – that made us resentful of each other and drove us ever further apart.
If I’m completely honest, I still don’t think all my assumptions were wrong, but I do regret not having challenged them – not because I think it would have saved our relationship, but because I think it may have caused us to acknowledge our growing incompatibility sooner and bring things to a quicker, cleaner end than the one we inflicted on each other and, more damagingly, our son.
When you’re willing to challenge yourself over whether you’ve unconsciously assumed that a shared experience is the same experience for the other person as for you, then you give yourself the opportunity to ask questions, to repeat yourself, and to see what happens.
It’s not a guarantee that everything’s going to turn out all rainbow hearts and unicorn farts.
Sometimes other people simply don’t feel about you as you want them to, or care enough to treat you as you want – and deserve – to be treated. Sometimes a relationship breaks beyond saving. Sometimes people are just being arseholes.
But when you stop assuming that an experience shared with someone else is the same for both of you, or that the meaning you intended your words and actions to convey to someone is the same as the meaning they took from them, then you create space for clarity and mutual understanding, and the opportunity to move forward accordingly.
🎁Here’s a tip for spotting when you’re caught in the assumption trap: notice when you indignantly/angrily/tearfully think “But they KNOW that!” and ask yourself “DO they know it? Or do I just think they SHOULD know it?”
👉Don’t be afraid to ask the other person about their understanding or to repeat yourself.
You deserve the chance to be understood.
They deserve the chance to understand.
Worst case scenario: you discover the other person is a twat who doesn't give a toss about your feelings - and that at least gives you an informed choice about how to move forward, right?!
So, what have you got to lose?
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