The Deceit of Perception

By Jimmy Warden

A story about perception

I was meditating the other day, and while I was doing my best to keep my eyes closed, I heard birds flying nearby. Their wings moved with forceful flaps; the birds sounded large. I did my best to keep my eyes closed despite the noise. Floods of thoughts and images circulated in my mind. How close are these birds? How big are they? Will they swoop down on me?

All of a sudden, the flapping began again. The sounds shook my mind. I couldn’t resist the temptation to open my eyes any longer. I was certain I’d see an eagle as my eyelids opened, but sure enough, it was a small sparrow. I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t help but laugh.

My mind had conjured up an image that was not remotely close to the reality of the situation. That is how deceitful our perception can be. It can take our emotions and turn them into thoughts that skew our reality.

The link between emotions and perception

The intensity of our emotions determines how much reality gets altered. Our brain heavily alters our perception when we experience extreme emotions like fear, worry, sadness, or hopelessness. For example, a garter snake is essentially harmless to humans. But we’ll experience a heavy dose of fear and jump as high as we’ve ever jumped in our lives when one slithers near our sneakers.

Frequently experiencing emotions like fear, worry, sadness, or hopelessness can put us into a steady state of anxiety or depression. Sometimes to the point of a diagnosis. The important idea to ponder about this conundrum is that we can manage these feelings more than we think.

Perception adds more detail to our narrative of reality because it includes what we see and how we make meaning of what we see. Meaning making is when emotions and beliefs come into play. If we bring it back to the snake example, the reality of the situation is that a small reptile slid across the ground. When we jump and scream in fear, that is our perception changing the narrative of reality. We responded by jumping and screaming in fear because we perceived the snake as dangerous to us. That was the meaning behind the impulse to jump and scream. Although perception is necessary for situations we need to run, fight, or freeze, it can detract from our ability to understand reality for what it is.

The good news is that there are ways to bridge the gap.

Strategies to perceive reality for what it is

There are a couple of strategies I’m going to share with you to help you perceive reality at face value. They are:

1.) Separating the subjective and objective
2.) Recognizing the subjective and seeing the objective

Separating the subjective and objective

Separating subjectivity from objectivity is the first strategy to perceive reality for what it is. This is a strategy that I borrowed from Ryan Holiday’s bestselling book The Obstacle is the Way. Holiday describes perception as a combination of subjectivity and objectivity. The objective is what happens and the subjective is how we interpret it.

The biggest obstacle we face in determining the meaning of events is our subjective bias. Whenever something happens, thoughts and feelings arise to help us understand the event. Our thoughts and feelings have attachments to our values, beliefs, and biases. We often interpret events as happening to us or happening for us, instead of the simple fact that they happened. As a result, we attach our values, beliefs, and biases to the event and emotions unravel.

I can’t believe that person said that to me; that was so rude. I can’t believe I got that promotion over that person; they seemed more deserving than I did.

In both of those situations, I chose to create the context around the events. In the first situation, I labeled someone as rude because of how I interpreted that person’s behavior. Perhaps the behavior was a bit unexpected, but I made the choice to interpret it as such. In the second situation, I was surprised about my promotion because I didn’t feel worthy. Coming to that conclusion was also a choice I made in the situation. The reality of both situations were slightly different.

In the first situation, there was a conversation between two people. That’s it. That’s the objective event. It’s the additional detail we add to it that turns it from a conversation into an argument or confrontation, making it subjective. In the second situation, someone received a promotion. Sure, other candidates were involved, but promotions within the workplace are often made by objective information, also known as someone’s track record or resume.

When we see these events for what they are, rather than what we perceive them to be, our emotions are more manageable. As a result, we have an easier time dividing what’s subjective and what’s objective, making it easier to understand their differences. When we understand the difference between subjective and objective information, we’ll be able to focus more on what we can control to influence the events of our lives.

Recognizing the subjective and seeing the objective

Subjective information is in our control because we create it. It is our thoughts, beliefs, and understandings of events, and they can play a large role in changing the plot of our personal narrative. Recognizing our thoughts, beliefs, and understandings play a part in spinning our narrative is a significant strategy for managing our emotions because it creates a higher level of awareness of those types of thoughts. That awareness can lead greater ability in managing the narrative, which leads to greater ability of managing emotions. As we work towards that awareness, we’ll be able to focus more of our energy on what we can control.

Controlling what we can control is a huge skill to have. It narrows our focus, helps us prioritize, and keeps us in a better headspace. We don’t try to balance our focus anymore; instead, we focus on one thing at a time. No longer are we worried about everything; we’re just worried about what’s most important. Instead of allowing emotions to take us over; we keep them in check.

Objective information, on the other hand, can be in our control or out of our control. Our decision-making is a source of objective information, which is in our control. Other people’s decision-making is another source of objective information, but that is out of our control. That knowledge can be another way to keep our emotions in check because we’ll spend less time worrying about what we can’t control.

Far too often, we get worked up about the things in our lives that we can’t control. The real question is: Why?

In all honesty, worrying about the uncontrollable is a way for us to dwell into despair. It is a quick way to create false narratives that take over our minds and make us feel helpless.

Call to action

Think about how you make sense of the world around you. Do you focus heavily on subjective or objective information? Does your perception deceive you?

Take some time to reflect on those questions, and see if you can come up with some ideas about how you can handle what you perceive.

Who knows, it just might be what you’ve been looking for.

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