6 Steps To Untangle Reality And Perception

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 of perception, 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 into 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 perception 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…

Perception is Reality?

The meaning of 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?

Reality Vs Perception

We often don’t realize how our perceptions cloud reality.  Perception and reality 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.

How To Discern 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 in separating reality from perception:

1. Think about an issue or problem you want to resolve.

Really get to the heart of what’s bothering you or what you’d like to shift or change.

2. 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. Seek feedback from others.

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

4. Analyze the responses.

Evaluate your responses and those from others. Underline any from other people that appear more than once. Then circle those that you also put down.

5. Evaluate the truth.

Assume that any of the reasons you discovered from self-evaluation and from others might be true, beginning with those you circled.

Find as many ways to support or justify these reasons as you can, even if they don't initially seem true.

If none of the circled items seem to fit, then repeat this process with what you underlined or by repeating steps 1-5.

6. Redefine the problem and find solutions.

Once you feel like you've landed on what feels true to you, redefine the problem or issue and brainstorm solutions accordingly.

How well are you able to untangle perception from reality?

Given how subjective perception is, it’s no exaggeration to say that, in the moment, your perception is your reality.

Only when we take a step back to question our own perception do we enable ourselves to see beyond it.

The perception is reality philosophy takes for granted that an objective view of reality is an elusive ideal.

And since we tend to dwell on our perceptions and act on them, those same perceptions can influence reality — for us and for those connected to us.

Individual perception is selective. So, when we take the time to learn what other people see that we don’t (and vice-versa), we see more of what’s going on.

And we’re better able to influence reality in a constructive way.

May your influence on reality bless everyone affected by it (including yourself).

About the writer: 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. 

18 thoughts on “6 Steps To Untangle Reality And Perception”

  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.

  9. Thank you for your article. I come from a somewhat philosophical perspective on the subject of perception vs reality. Let me add some of my experience if I might in order to illuminate the subject from another point of view. The mind is a tricky thing to say the least. We have various sensors built into the body to detect what is occurring “out there”, sight, hearing, touch, smell etc. The mind continually interprets these sensations and internally gives meaning to them. Your example of having a fearful experience on a flight versus a perhaps fun experience as one might on a roller coaster is an excellent case in point. “Oh this is fun,” versus, “oh no the plane could go down and that’s terrifying,” is just one such interpretation.

    It is the extrapolation by the thinking mind that colors/clouds/distorts neutral data to seem to mean something specific. We humans seem to be somewhat hard-wired to look for potential threats to our safety (imagine the cave-man in a hostile environment), and thus often lean in the direction of perceiving things as though they could be harmful to us. Marketing groups and politicians realize this and frequently utilize the human tendency to perceive fear, problem, threat as being REAL, genuine, or quite possible.

    Products can be sold, including many medical products, to seem to protect us from the apparent threats. Politicians can suggest actions that “simply must be taken” to offset or counteract any number of possible threats they have suggested (or pointed our attention to) as being very “real”. And when already in a state of some anxiety we are quite easily manipulated to agree that such and such a situation, thing, person or group of people are a threat. Now, we love to point to outside individuals and circumstances as the culprits, but the fun and satisfying part of this perception vs reality game is that each one of us as individuals are doing the interpreting ourselves, and thus we have no one else to blame in a sense. Put differently and in a more positive light, we are the ones responsible for and thus in control of our interpretations. We can shift them, look at things from many points of view – as you have pointed out – to see from other angles.

    Some here have noted that everything is perceived and we have only our perceptions to rely upon. Yes, indeed it can be quite helpful to notice how others are reacting – as on the airplane – to note that things might indeed not be as bad as they seem. Sometimes, indeed quite often, we tend to surround ourselves with like-minded individuals, AND We delightful humans tend to toss out contradictory perspectives as being inaccurate in some way. You could have, for instance, interpreted the angry and impatient frequent-traveler on the plane as being foolish or ignorant of the “reality” that you so “accurately” perceived in your mind’s eye.

    What I have noticed throughout the years is that my negative reaction was nearly always, at least very frequently the very thing causing my own distress and indeed dis-ease. Beginning by noticing, remembering, and realizing that I myself am creating this experience and that I have the opportunity to imagine for a moment that there could indeed be an entirely different interpretation or perspective on the subject. By letting my thoughts relax a bit, by allowing the thoughts to simply fall away for a moment, I begin to come back into a state of calm and greater clarity I have noticed, and from there my system emotional & physical is more robust and capable of simply being with the circumstances or shifting my attention to something else for a bit which settles things down quite meaningfully.

    If for example I hold my attention upon the genuine existence of some poisonous snakes that are “out there” somewhere, I can build up some meaningful fear and discomfort. This could cause me to act out towards all manner of snakes, or to want to eradicate them, or to build up walls and defenses against them. Yet the truth or reality of the mere existence of poisonous snakes even in my own state or province does not genuinely mean that I am likely to be harmed by them. Indeed my fear can cause me to be more likely to come into contact with them, seeking them out for example. Yet if I place my attention upon the rose, the butterfly or the beauty of the day, my experience is quite delightful even while the reality of something else also being true still exists. All is well so very much of the time I have noticed, and when I place my awareness and perception there my experience is a very positive and enjoyable one, and I feel whole, well, safe, and at ease, even joyful.

    Do not misunderstand me. When standing on the railroad tracks and hearing a train coming, I get out of the way. But noticing that I might not actually be on the tracks or in life threatening jeopardy is quite helpful and useful even when many others seem to be shouting about the threat of trains and how dangerous they are. Trains also help to transport us to wonderful places, and do not always and only, even though rarely and occasionally run us down.

    With much appreciation for your good work.

  10. What do you do when after 60 years, you discover your perception on life and decisions were not reality. Your behaviors, thought, and .were those of a nacsissitic sociopath (SN). You did not realize this because you never knew such disorders existed. In order for one to change or control a disorder or thought process, they need a benchmark of reality and perception with the knowledge of the influence of mental disorders on thought. Otherwise, you believe that your mind is wired correctly and their is no problem. Not all NS want to be one.

  11. Jack, you made me laugh with the airplane story. Happened to me. Everyone on the plane was nervous and then I heard a little voice say, “Weeeeeeeee”. Everything was put in perspective and I fell asleep. Thanks for sharing.

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