When jumping to conclusions leads to unconscious bias

Don’t judge a book by its cover, assumption is the mother of all F ups, there’s more than meets the eye, just the tip of the iceberg. So many phrases we use often but rarely manage to adhere to. But they all amount to the same thing – advice to look beneath the surface. Because what we see on the outside rarely reflects what someone is experiencing on the inside.

It’s mental health awareness week. Many that know me already know I’m an advocate for removing stigma and raising awareness and tolerance, and that I have supported several people with mental health challenges. But today I want to write about some things I have experienced myself.

One of the factors I believe contributes to stigma around mental health is that we still have a tendency to view it in a binary way: healthy or ill. But actually mental health is like other kinds of physical health. It is wide ranging and subtle and definitely not black and white. You can struggle with your mental health without having a specific diagnosed condition. And if you do have a diagnosis, that shouldn’t equate to a label of damage. It’s odd how such labels still float around despite how much more aware we are becoming. Brains and emotions are beautifully complex things that don’t easily fit into one-size-fits-all criteria.

Mental health can be affected by so many everyday factors: stress, loneliness, hormones, over-work, emotional trauma, anxiety. The effects of these can be profound yet we don’t always give them full credence or support as mental health issues.

I have struggled with some of these myself. I’ve certainly been bitten by loneliness in more recent years as I had to learn to be on my own following a separation, having spent most of my adult life in relationships. Being a social and family-oriented creature, I sometimes find this quite challenging. It’s not that I can’t spend time alone, but there’s a difference between opting for alone time and having no choice in the matter. I’m also quite susceptible to stress and imbalance if I feel under pressure with work and other commitments. That usually manifests as irritability, tearfulness, insomnia, and weight gain. Super fun times.

PMS (and PMDD) is another one. Given that half the world’s population menstruate and a significant proportion of those suffer with PMS, how is it still not socially accepted as a mental health condition? At its worst it can invoke rage to the point of violence, depression to the point of suicide, and hopelessness that can be all-consuming. Yet those of us who deal with PMS still feel the flush of embarrassment to admit it, and still get those sporadic and delightful ‘are you on your period?’ comments when we’re less than shiny and happy. Eye roll. And that doesn’t even cover the physical pain aspect of it all – which I’ll leave for now as this is post is mental health focussed, but for those of you who aren’t aware the pain can be severe enough to make you faint. Not fun.

But really this post is not about all the little niggles that can affect our emotional wellbeing. It’s more about not making assumptions about what someone else thinks or feels. I do this myself a lot without meaning to. For instance, if someone doesn’t respond to my efforts to contact them I often assume they don’t care or aren’t interested in being in touch. We’ve all had the ‘they’re online but aren’t bothering to read my text’ moment. Okay, sometimes if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, you know…it’s a duck. But more often than not, I realize retrospectively the person is just busy or dealing with some challenge of their own. Almost like their world doesn’t revolve around me. Whaaaat?! Then I feel silly.

I realize the assumption stems from my own inner world and not from theirs. My perspective might be that I am feeling lonely, or I miss them, or I feel insecure because previous experience has dealt me the ‘duck’ that really wasn’t interested. So when their response doesn’t match my need, my mind convinces me of their feelings in the matter. This kind of projection can  cause all sorts of miscommunication and unnecessary hurt. I use this example because it happens to many of us every day in hundreds of tiny ways. Someone takes an odd tone of voice so we assume they don’t like us. Someone behaves differently to what we are used to so we label them as weird. Someone seems aloof so we decide they are rude. Someone doesn’t join in so we assume they are anti-social. But what if the odd tone was disguising nervousness? What if the unusual behaviour stems from being on the spectrum? What if the aloof person doesn’t know how to connect to others? What if the one not joining in is painfully shy?

It is usual and human to make split-second assessments of people, situations, and intentions based on the evidence we have in front of us. But it is kind and emotionally intelligent to take a moment to consider what might be going on under the surface. I am all for protecting yourself and drawing boundaries. In fact, I think it’s vital and smart. But I am also for giving people the benefit of the doubt and realising that mental and emotional wellbeing could be greatly improved if we offered a little more understanding and consideration for what someone else might be feeling on the inside.

This #MentalHealthAwarenessWeek, why not reach out to someone you care about and ask them ‘are you ok?’ without assuming the answer or expecting anything in return. It might just be a gesture of support that makes all the difference.

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