This is Part 1 of a three-part series to help us nix the negative patterns that may be damaging our relationships. This week focuses on the solution for an often-subconscious mindset of suspicion. Next week – Thanksgiving week – we’ll look at how to practice gratitude over grumbling. The final week … well, stay tuned. The last one is pretty convicting for almost everyone.
Do you remember the original “Jake from State Farm” commercial? The one where the wife “catches” her husband on the phone at 3 a.m., assumes he’s talking to another woman, and grabs the phone? (You can tell the commercial is dated, because it’s a landline!)
“Who is this?” she demands.
“It’s Jake from State Farm,” her husband mumbles off to the side.
“What are you wearing, ‘Jake from State Farm?’” she sarcastically asks.
“Uhhh … khakis?” Jake answers.
“She sounds hideous,” the wife accuses, covering the phone’s mouthpiece.
“Well, she’s a guy, so …” the husband deadpans.
Most of us find that commercial hilarious because the wife’s suspicion is so over-the-top, and we think we would never do such a thing. And yet … we may do exactly that, in different ways, every day.
Suspicion. We can descend into that spiral with a spouse, friend, or colleague without ever recognizing it. As one of the seven patterns of negativity and unkindness identified in the research for my book The Kindness Challenge, we need to confront four truths about suspicion so it doesn’t derail our relationships.
Truth 1: We all feel suspicion, even if we don’t label it that way
It is easy to label some feelings as suspicion. (“Where were you during lunch, and why did you turn off the tracking on your phone?”) But many feelings are sneakier.
Not long ago I was speaking at a women’s event, and one of the attendees, who I will call Aubrey, told me how much the habit of “believing the best” had helped her marriage. Aubrey, like me, had battled breast cancer a few years before. She described something that happened after one procedure, which woke her up to the need to handle things differently.
She described her husband as “an incredible, thoughtful, guy” – and yet some pretty negative feelings flooded out of her in a vulnerable moment. Feelings that, she didn’t realize, were essentially suspicion. Aubrey routinely had various medical procedures, but this one was unexpectedly painful. That morning, her husband said he would try to be home from work a bit early in order to handle the kids and dinner. She had been looking forward to a little TLC, which she hadn’t mentioned to him. Meanwhile, in his mind, the situation was relatively routine.
So when he called that afternoon and – after asking how she was doing – said he wanted to grab drinks after work with his new boss for a bit of relationship-building, she reacted.
“I instantly started feeling sorry for myself. But again – I didn’t mention that to him. Instead, my brain started working overtime with all sorts of thoughts that were totally undeserved.” She described thoughts like this:
Why wouldn’t he make sure that he was home early tonight of all nights? Doesn’t he care?
He thinks I’m high-maintenance and wants to avoid dealing with me.
He could have drinks with his boss any night. He is thinking about his career more than how much I need him.
I’m assuming most of us can understand those thoughts. But we need to label them for what they are: suspicion. And we need to grapple with what “our” version of those thoughts might be in other settings. For example:
I can’t believe my coworker didn’t invite me to the team meeting. She is trying to push me off this project.
Our pastor keeps saying it is not the right time for me to join the worship team; he just wants to control everything.
My close friend didn’t include me on her beach trip. She obviously doesn’t care about me as much as I care about her.
Truth 2: When we don’t confront the suspicious feelings, we act on them
If we let suspicion go unchallenged, it will come out of our mouths as negativity and unkindness in some way. This can kill friendships, collegial work relationships, and marriages that never had to die.
For example, Aubrey told me that when her husband came home that night, smiling and greeting her and their girls, he had barely been inside for ten seconds when she unloaded on him. “Did you even think to tell your boss that your wife just had a medical procedure? Did you think how much I might need you tonight? No! You are so selfish! You don’t care!”
The smile was immediately wiped from his face, and he was appalled. He apologized many times. But over the next few days she realized he was hurting too. In part because he knew he had failed his wife – and in part because he heard things from her that are hard to un-hear.
We are all human, and we will all have hurt feelings. The key is to confront the beliefs behind the hurt feelings before we act on them.
Truth 3: When it is not challenged, suspicion feeds on itself
My research for The Kindness Challenge showed that a suspicious, negative mindset tends to feed on itself and become worse. We subconsciously go looking for more signals that there is reason to be suspicious – and discount those that demonstrate we might be wrong.
When we suspect our colleague is out to get us, we notice that she also disagreed with us in that big meeting … and that her budget isn’t being cut as much as ours. At the same time, we completely misinterpret why she praised our report to the boss. (“She only said that because she was involved in it.”)
Sadly, suspicions can also become self-fulfilling prophecies. When we get upset with our friend for taking someone else to the beach and assume they are avoiding us, we might act hurt and disappointed over time. Which might make our friend increasingly uncomfortable and bring about the very end we fear. A spouse who endures repeated accusations about wanting to be at work more than home may adopt even later work hours simply to avoid the nightly inquisition – causing the original suspicion to become true even when it didn’t start out that way.
Truth 4: In most cases, there is a more generous explanation – and we need to look for it
When doubts and distrust are unfounded we have to head off our suspicions by looking for a more generous explanation of the person’s behavior.
Now, that said, we also need to ask God for wisdom because sometimes, the sad truth is that suspicions are indeed warranted. In those cases, the message of this blog does not apply. If your spouse has broken trust in your marriage and hasn’t dealt with it, you shouldn’t look for a more generous explanation! Instead, you need resources and actions to restore trust. If your colleague is in fact trying to undermine you, you need allies, and a plan to overcome their traps. If someone you look to for leadership (a pastor, boss, parent) is unhealthy and making you feel bad about yourself, you need wise counsel and boundaries.
But often, our distrust is not warranted. And a willingness to look for a more generous explanation will often yield fruit.
Maybe that co-worker who left you off the meeting invite was working down a list of twenty people and skipped your name in an honest, distracted mistake.
Or that friend who’s leaving you out these days? Maybe your place in her life is firm, and she simply enjoys getting together with other friends too.
What about your spouse’s mysterious and unusual midday time off the grid? Maybe his phone battery died – and he thought about you numerous times, hoping you didn’t need to reach him for anything serious.
Maybe the worship pastor hasn’t added you to the worship team because he knows something he cannot share: He has resigned, and the incoming worship director wants to be the one to consider new people.
Here’s the bottom line: If we don’t get a grip on our suspicions, they’re going to get a grip on us. They’ll impact our marriages, friendships, work relationships, and, ultimately, our most important relationship – the one we have with God. If we consistently expect the worst in others, we are likely to slip into a pattern of believing the worst in Him, too.
Let’s flip the script.
Aubrey later discovered that because her medical procedures had become so routine, and because her husband (contrary to her suspicion) didn’t view her as high maintenance, it literally didn’t occur to him that she might need him more than usual.
It was legitimate for her to have a need for him – and even to be hurt by what happened — but her suspicions about his motives were totally unwarranted.
Let’s improve our mindsets – and our relationships – by challenging our suspicions and seeking more generous explanations instead.
And if you are interested in having Shaunti speak on kindness for your workplace, church, school or community group, please contact Nicole Owens at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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More from Shaunti’s Blog:
- Solutions for Sarcasm? Yeah, Right. (Nix the Negativity Series, Part 3)
- From Grumbling to Grateful! (Nix the Negativity Series, Part 2)
- Always Suspicious of Your Spouse (or Others)? Here’s What To Do! (Nix the Negativity, Part 1)
- 7 Date Night Do’s and Don’ts (Part 2)
- 7 Date Night Do’s and Don’ts (Part 1)
- Broken Trust in a Relationship? Here’s What To Do