6 Steps To Untangle Reality And Perception

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A guest post by Jack Grabon, LCSW, CPC

We often confuse perception with reality.

That is, we mistake how we understand things for the way that they really are.  Our thoughts and feelings seem real to us, so we conclude that they must be true.

But what if they weren’t – including even our most deeply held ideas and beliefs about ourselves, about others and the world?

Let me show you how to separate reality from perception so that you can see things as they really are.

What is perception?

Perception is the lens through which we view reality: ourselves, others and the world around us.  However, the lens often gets confused with what is being viewed through it.

To use a personal example, on a flight back home from vacation in Alaska, the pilot announced that we were flying around a storm. 

He asked that everyone remain in their seat as much as possible, as there was significant turbulence.  Neither meals nor drinks were served.  Even the flight attendants remained seated throughout most of the flight!

Personally, I didn’t know an airplane could move the way ours did.  I braced for the worst due to all the instability.  But, what clued me in to the fact that my perceptions might not correspond to reality was a man sitting right behind me on the flight.  He was fuming that the crew was not serving food or drinks despite these minor bumps.  That eventually got me thinking.

It may come as a severe shock if you haven’t given much thought to this subject before, but our precious, cast-in-stone, objective beliefs are often totally in contrast to any reality. Or, more accurately, they are our perception of reality, rather than reality itself. ~Robert White

To him, the flight crew was overreacting.  I suspected he was a frequent flyer who had been on flights just as turbulent.  In the end, we were all hungry and thirsty, but landed on time without incident.

The lens through which I viewed the seemingly extreme turbulence led me to believe we were in danger when we weren’t.  My distress on this flight wasn’t only useless, but it also instilled a fear of flying thereafter.  I became hypersensitive to any turbulence.

In thinking about your life, consider that the way you’re looking at a problem, challenge or issue might be part of the problem itself…

What is reality?

Reality is the true state of things.  In essence, it’s how things really are, whether we perceive them to be as such or not.  Things in themselves are inherently neutral.

It is we who supply the perceptions and build our beliefs with them.  Reality transcends both expectations and beliefs.  How our reality appears to us says a lot about our perceptions.

Unfortunately, the perception that my flight could easily go down suggested that something was seriously wrong.  All the jerking back and forth also produced a physiological reaction in my body that made me very uncomfortable.  Emotionally, I interpreted this feeling negatively and experienced much anxiety.

Thus, my thoughts easily fell in line with what I was experiencing, especially given the intensity of the constantly reinforcing stimuli.  A vicious cycle, if you will.

Are your problems, challenges or issues extremely difficult to overcome or seemingly insurmountable?

Confused?

We often don’t realize how our perceptions cloud reality.  They seem like one and the same.

In my case, what I was experiencing strongly suggested what was really happening.  This was particularly hard to discern given the feedback loop described above, in addition to my lack of understanding of airplanes and turbulence.

The pilot did occasionally check-in with us, always speaking calmly and never expressing any concerns.  However, my filter told me that he didn’t want to alarm anyone on board and admit he wasn’t fully in control of the aircraft.  I pictured him and everyone else in the cockpit sweating and in distress.

Untangling perception from reality

Despite the big overlap between our perceptions and reality, there is indeed a gap between them.  We just have to look carefully to see it instead of jumping to conclusions based on some (but not all) available evidence.

So, how exactly do you untangle perception from reality?

Follow these six steps:

1. First, think about an issue or problem that you’d like to resolve.  Really get to the heart of what’s bothering you or what you’d like to shift or change.

2. Next, consider how you might be perpetuating the problem or issue.  Brainstorm as many of these types of contributing factors as you can, however unbelievable or extreme they might seem.  Pay particular attention to thoughts and feelings that might contribute.  Don’t worry if it feels like you’re overly blaming yourself.

3. When you have exhausted all of your ideas, ask a few others who know you well for their thoughts too.

4. Then, evaluate both their and your responses in #2 & 3.  Underline any that appear more than once.  Finally, circle those that you yourself had also put down.

5. Assume that any of the reasons above might be true, beginning with those you circled.  Find as many ways to support or justify this as you can, even if it doesn’t initially seem true.  If after that none of the circled items seem to fit, then repeat this process with what you underlined, or repeating #1-5 by redefining the problem.

6. Once you feel like you’ve got it, redefine your problem or issue and brainstorm solutions accordingly.

How well are you able to untangle perception from reality?  Let me know in the comments…

Jack Grabon, LCSW, CPC practices spiritual therapy in NYC and holistic life coaching, helping those on a spiritual path to resolve issues and live happier, more meaningful lives.  He offers in-person sessions in New York City, as well as phone and Skype sessions. 


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Comments

  1. Thanks for your post Jack, I find myself always reminding myself that my perception of things have to be investigated to ensure that it is reality. Have great friends and family as well as mentors has helped a lot.

  2. Thanks Dems, glad you enjoyed the post. The more closely we look at things, the easier it will be to notice discrepancies between reality and perception so that they don’t slip by us. This will help us increase our sensitivity so that they become more and more obvious, ultimately making this process easier and more efficient.

  3. Perception does cloud what is really happening. It too, can influence reality and change what is really happening because we perceive something as so…so we react to that, and occasionally reality to match our perception.
    I’m struggling with that now in terms of a relationship. My perception was that he was pulling away, my friends said they didn’t see it that way. Ultimately that is exactly what happened. Would that have still been the case if I had just changed my own perception? If I had reacted differently to what I perceived, would things be different? I’m not sure, and it has me perplexed.

    Was I reacting to my own perception…or was it reality that no one else accepted? Makes me wonder.

    Anyway, I certainly agree that we need to monitor what we perceive vs what is real. It can, in most cases, be an enlightening experience.

    • You bring up a good point, Dawn. That is, our perception can cloud reality AND influence it at the same time. That makes them really seem like one and the same.

      This can be especially difficult to see in relationships because we don’t have equal perceptions to others outside the relationship. They hear what we tell them about the relationship and see it in a limited context compared to us given the intimacy we experience.

      That doesn’t invalidate anyone’s opinion of course, but it does give you more perception of the relationship than your friends. Knowing that can help you trust your own perceptions. I would say that the best way to separate reality from perception in a case like this is to reflect on your own past relationships to see if similar patterns were present. In a perfect world, we could “interview” our partners’ ex’s and really see reality!

      Thanks for your thought-provoking comment :-)

  4. Very good post, Jack. I can especially relate to how you described your airplane turbulence experience and how another passenger’s perspective offered a no-big-deal attitude in the same circumstances. My current perspective is that all reality is subjective to some degree. Our expectations and past experiences color the attitudes and reflexive behaviors we bring to the table. The challenge, of course, is there is no way to directly observe “objective reality” and the only way to find out what it’s like is to test the space and bump in to walls. Who we are as people can’t be clarified in a vacuum, it can only be described as our relationship to others; others whose perceptions are also different from true reality. For me at least, just putting myself out there to gather more and more reference experiences allowed for a continual refinement of how my perception morphs with the world as it really is around me. It’s a self-guiding environment, the feedback is proportional to how much out of tune with reality our perceptions are.

    • Lenin, I agree that reality is subjective. True objectivity is really more of an ideal than anything.

      I like how you put gathering additional data – calling it the collection of “reference experiences.” This process boils down to collecting both other experiences and perspectives, instead of automatically assuming that yours is true or the best hypothesis available. It mimics science in that it aims to show us that even our best ideas about things are really just theories. Theories can be abandoned, altered, replaced or strengthened.

  5. Thank you for this post. Too often we get buried in our problems or everyday lives and don’t take the time to really evaluate whether what we are seeing is reality or just our perception. These are suggestions that I will be able to use.

  6. Loved your post, learning how look at a situation from different perspectives can really when you are stuck in a situation and can’t seem to move forward.

  7. I was doing some research on my own when I found your article. I am in therapy for some personal issues and was advised that my perceptions are what I base my reactions on, not necessarily the real situation. This made no sense to me, but your article helped to clarify things.

    • Hi Kathy,
      I’m glad that my post was able to clarify things for you :-) It’s often tricky to tease out perception from reality. This can be an ongoing process if you find yourself slipping back into your reactions and deeming them real.

  8. Great post. But aren’t we always in human-perceptoin mode? How can we determine whether or not our perception tracks with reality without using the very perception we are calling into question?

    • Thanks Dane, you bring up some good questions. Philosophically speaking, we are always in human perception mode and there’s no true objectivity. Practically speaking though, we can start to tease out the extras that we’re projecting onto reality by asking questions and looking at things from different angles. While we may never achieve complete certainty, we can have more confidence about whether x is more perception or reality.

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