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What Does a Victoria’s Secret Bag Say About You?

How assumptions, judgments, and the stories we tell ourselves distort reality.

'Zoe Weil'
Source: 'Zoe Weil'

My husband Edwin and I periodically visit a remote coastal Maine village. During our last trip, we had a strange experience that caused us to reflect upon how our assumptions, judgments, and personal histories shape our reactions, thoughts, behaviors, attitudes, and even our ability to comprehend reality.

We were taking a stroll to the shore before dinner when we noticed a quirky man walking toward us. He was bundled up on a warm day and moving fast with his head down. About 30 feet away, he caught sight of us and appeared startled. He turned around abruptly, quickened his pace, and walked back the way he came.

Edwin and I exchanged glances and kept walking. We didn’t share what we were each feeling, which was a bit fearful. Only later did Edwin tell me that after encountering the man, he had removed the knife in his pocket, palmed it, and had his thumb positioned to open the blade.

I admitted to Edwin that I, too, immediately thought about how to protect myself, secretly imagining using my self-defense training against this presumed potential attacker. Then Edwin said that he’d actually wondered if I could fend off the man before he could protect me himself.

Before revealing all this to one another at dinner, however, we simply continued on our way. When we got to the beach, we saw the man again, standing down near the water. Curiosity now replaced fear. We pondered aloud whether the man was stoned, and if paranoia had precipitated his odd behavior.

We walked down to the water and along the beach in the opposite direction from the man, with Edwin periodically glancing over his shoulder to keep an eye on him. The tide was coming in quickly, and we were getting hungry, so before long we turned back.

Suddenly, Edwin pointed to the man. He was lying face down on the sand.

I was no longer afraid; nor was I curious. I was alarmed. I thought the man might be depressed and planning to let the sea swallow him up. Only later at dinner did I become aware that the previous week’s news – during which the media had been reporting the rising incidence of suicide – had primed me to project suicidality onto the man.

I told Edwin we needed to intervene. I began to imagine myself approaching the man, asking if he was all right and offering to help. I even pictured myself saving his life.

Edwin, however, did not perceive the situation as an emergency and didn’t relish intervening unnecessarily. He said that it would only be about 10 minutes before the tide would reach him and that we should wait. If the man didn’t move, then we would intervene. While I didn’t like the idea of letting the waves lap at this man’s body before helping, I reluctantly agreed.

Then, all at once, I noticed that the man resembled two large seaweed and barnacle-covered rocks. In fact, there was no prone man about to be covered by the rising tide. It had been an optical illusion. The man was no longer even on the beach.

I felt bewildered by how easily I’d been taken in by a mirage; how quickly my emotions had changed; and how thoroughly I’d crafted my little stories, both about the man as well as my own potential to do something vaguely heroic. I’d gone from “he’s dangerous” to “he’s stoned and paranoid” to “he’s suicidal” based on virtually nothing. I’d also gone from “I’m a scrappy fighter” to “I’m a potential hero” in as little time.

I was startled that I had made so many assumptions and judgments with so little information, but such self-awareness was not new to me. As a humane educator, I’ve been teaching people for decades to become aware of their assumptions and judgments. One activity I use to do this was developed by humane educator Melissa Feldman. During the activity, I ask audience members to tell me what assumptions or judgments they would have about me if they passed me on the street carrying a pink-striped Victoria’s Secret shopping bag (which I conveniently pull out from behind a desk). I ask the same question holding a Tiffany’s bag and then a plastic Walmart bag.

'Zoe Weil'
Source: 'Zoe Weil'

My audiences have no shortage of assumptions and judgments based on little more than a bag. I’ve been told I must be sexy, rich, clueless, self-centered, thoughtless, shallow, poor, thrifty, gift-giving, classy, and so much more.

Becoming aware of how quickly we make assumptions and judgments enables us to challenge ourselves, choose our responses more consciously, and, ultimately, make decisions based on reality, not simply our distorted perceptions. When we realize how easily we can be duped by our stories, illusions, and projections, we may also be more willing to question how many other assumptions we’ve made that were never overtly falsified by reality. This, in turn, allows us to be more open-minded, humble, and mindful.

Because by nature we are quick to make assumptions and judgments, and because most of our experiences in the present are interpreted through the lens of past experiences, we won’t be able to entirely prevent our reactions and immediate responses. But by doing what Edwin and I did at dinner after our encounter with the man on the beach – deconstructing our immediate reactions; identifying previous experiences that sparked our conclusions; and carefully following the train of thought that led us to our various emotions and actions – each of us can become more agile at identifying assumptions and judgments.

Next time you experience a mirage – whether an actual optical illusion or a situation that appears clear but isn’t – take a moment to bring mindfulness to the experience and notice the pathways to your conclusions. You may find that you are less quick to judge and make assumptions and more able to assess what is real and respond accordingly.