Assumption of Best Reaction: Part 2

Pick your Alice


I called my grandma, Alice, last night to cancel our plans for later this week. I was planning to be in town for work, so we'd discussed grabbing dinner together while I was there. I was excited. I’m fairly certain she was excited. So it pained me to tell her that plans had shifted and I’d no longer be coming to town.

As I was hopping on a flight, I texted her to break the news. I got a quick reply: “Booooooo.”

Now, there were a few different options for how I could read that text:

  1. “Booooooo. You’re a terrible human. You always make promises then break ‘em. Why’d you even bother reaching out to me if you were just gonna cancel? I’m losing trust in you and I’m losing faith in our relationship!”

  2. “Booooooo. I’m bummed you can’t make it but I completely understand. I saw our meetup as a bonus anyway - wonderful if it happened and ok if it didn’t. I know you’re busy, so I don’t ever want to layer on extra stress for you. Just make it if you can. No worries if you can’t. Either way, I understand.”

  3. “Booooooo.” (accidental butt text)

1 text. 3 completely valid interpretations. 1 choice that was mine to make.

For the past week, I’d been feeling rushed, like I was never doing enough and constantly letting others down. Now I faced a situation that threatened my identity as a good grandson, a hard worker, and someone who doesn’t bail. Rather than confront these self-inflicted wounds, I got self-protective. I ceded control of my perception to Little Trent. And he dragged us right through Door #1.

In choosing this interpretation, I felt even more sad, dejected, and unlovable. But, to be clear, this perception was crafted in my own head. Alice hadn't said anything beyond "Booooooo." The true meaning of her text only came when I spoke to her on the phone that night.

With Little Trent at the mic, I raced to defend myself the moment she picked up:
“I’m so sorry. Work plans changed. I have to fly to LA, then to Utah, then back to New York. I’ve been super stressed. You know I want to see you and spend time with you. But it was gonna be way too much to pack it all in and I also…”

She cut me off:
“Hey! You know you never need to apologize to me. I’m always here whenever you can make it work. But there’s no need to apologize if plans change. I know how busy you are. And I know you still love me. One dinner doesn’t change that. I was excited to see you but it’s ok. It’s all ok, Trent. You know I still love you. This doesn’t change that at all. Not even close.”

Woah. Speechless.

Immediately, I dropped into a different mental state - one that ceased racing to arm the defenses, one that stopped drafting & re-drafting narratives about the situation, one that just embraced the person right in front of me, right now.

All I could muster for a reply:
“Thank you. Thank you for understanding. Yes, I know that. I was all stressed out that you’d be upset with me for bailing.”

Back to Alice:
“I can see that. But please know that I understand. It’s all ok. You’re ok. We’re ok.”

Side bar: there’s a special feeling that comes with feeling understood, feeling seen. I think that special feeling is love.

Back to the point… Wow! Here I was locked in a narrative about how much my grandma hated me. In reality, she completely understood. She met me and the situation with love. She trusted me. She saw me.

Now, I could re-read her previous text with clear eyes:
It was like a playful “Booooooo” said by a fan under their breath after losing a close game. “Dang, that didn’t go how I’d hoped but that was still a great game. Bummer. So it goes.”
This compared to the “Booooooo” yelled by a drunk fan who holds genuine hatred of their rival, their rival's ancestry, and their rival’s next of kin. “You’re a horrific person that doesn’t deserve to share the air I breathe.”
Alice was bummed, not enraged.

This showed me how much I control my interpretation of others’ words and reactions. I give them meaning. I’m the one layering on all sorts of assumptions to an objective utterance of words or display of actions.

So why not initially approach the situation with “the assumption of best reaction”?
To assume the best reaction puts me in a state that’s less defensive, less confrontational. Then, whatever comes next, I’m more likely to approach it with openness and compassion.

And what does “best” look like in a given situation?
Whatever I want it to be. Whatever interpretation serves me best. It’s my perception, so I can perceive their anticipated reaction in any way that I want.

The power in the practice comes from the mere recognition that another person could choose this “best” reaction. It shows me that there’s a range of possibilities that exist. If there's evidence that a counterfactual exists, then the "fact" does not hold. In this case, the fact being, "After cancelling plans, Alice will be angry with me." It breaks my tendency of painting future situations as foregone conclusions.

To clarify, it’s not standard-setting. It’s not to say that I expect them to act this way. If I get attached to the interaction going precisely one way, then I’m setting myself up for disappointment. If their reaction ultimately varies from my “best” reaction, then I certainly wouldn't deem it “wrong.” They won't have "failed." Odds are, the interaction won’t go at all as I expect, whether I’m expecting the best or the worst.

Now, some might say:
“Nobody would ever react that way!”

Here’s what I’d suggest:
Pick someone in your life who would.

When it comes to understanding and seeing me, my example is Alice.
For some, it might be their brother, their mother, or Gandhi.
For others, it might be WWJD.

Who I choose depends on the situation. If I’m bracing for a brutal confrontation and I can picture Alice choosing love & understanding (which I can), then I find myself saying, "If Alice can do it, then someone else can too." It’s proof that it’s not impossible. Then, simply picturing this response can lower my defenses and put me at ease. (By the way, when roles are reversed and I'm the initial reactor, it helps me see: "If Alice can choose compassion here, then I can too.")

My imagination knows no bounds. I choose where it leads me. So why not perceive the reaction that pleases me?

Eventually, I’ll still face the actual reaction, whatever it may be, in reality.

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