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"Perception is Reality" — Not Always True


04Nov 2007

In my work with people, I often deal with individuals’ reactions to situations as well as communication issues between co-workers and family members. As a result, in the process of working through these issues, people often say to me, “Well, you know, perception is reality.” Sometimes they say this to explain how miscommunication occurred with another person, or why they feel the way they do.

I am not sure of the origin of the phrase, “perception is reality”, (although I would bet it comes from some realm of psychology — and for those who know me, that is not necessarily a positive statement.) And I am unaware if it is being espoused frequently in the media, but I sure seem to being hearing it more and more.

The problem is — it is not true. At least, not always.

There is a verifiable reality that exists. And sometimes our perceptions (or beliefs about the world) do not match reality. In the physical realm, that is the basis for illusionists — they are able to make things appear different than they really are. Also, there are those tricks of nature that our senses can play on us that can lead us to misinterpret what is really happening (having a sense of your body being warm while you are in the beginning stages of hypothermia).

But in day to day life, I see the mismatch between perception and reality more practically. Here are some examples.

Miscommunication. The classic example is the scenario like this: “You said ….”  “I did not. I said ….” “Oh, but I thought you said ….” “No. What I said (or at least, thought I did) was …” “But I thought you said …” If we stick with the perception is reality proposition, this leads to major problems in communication. This is true for both parties. For the initial speaker, “what I thought” does not necessarily equal “what I said”. And “what I said” is not necessarily the same thing as “what I meant”.  Similarly, for the listener, “what I heard you say” may not be the equivalent to “what you said”.  So perception may be perception, but it may not be what actually occurred.

The mismatch between feeling reactions and reality. I often see the disconnect between reality and perception in the area of worrying. Being worried or anxious is essentially a smaller version of being afraid (there is a qualitative difference between being terrified or afraid for one’s safety and being worried or concerned). However, the realm of worry and anxiety have to do with potential events that may happen. They always have to do with the future. The challenge is — not everything people worry about is reality-based. Those who struggle significantly with anxiety can worry daily about their loved ones being killed in a car accident on the way to school or work. Or they can worry about the stock market crashing, losing all of their savings, and winding up being homeless.

[NOTE: One way we can manage our fears and worries is to do a "reality check" -- what is the actual likelihood of x event happening today? Has x happened before? How many times? Even if x happens, does that necessarily mean y will happen? And even in the unlikely event that x happens and y also happens, what are all of the circumstances that need to be in place for z then to occur? The chances are incredibly slim. So, how much time and energy do you want to spend worrying about a series of incidents that will probably not happen?]

Misinterpretation of a situation. Some people make quick judgments. Sometimes this is to their benefit. But, in other cases, it can lead to misjudging what is going on in a situation. In working with kids and teens, I have often seen a scenario where a fairly impulsive student, who also views themselves as the ‘protector’ of others will come into a room and see a couple of guys “scuffling”. They have each other in headlocks and are throwing one another around the room. The self-appointed “hero” sees the guys “fighting” and promptly dives in, tackles one of the fighters, taking him to the ground, and yells, “Break it up!” (Frequently someone gets hurt in the process.) It is then that the hero finds out that the two boys were just “horsing around” and it was a good-natured tussle between two friends. The two “fighters” wind up being angry at the hero for interfering with their fun and over-reacting to the situation.  Unfortunately, this happens in the adult world as well — where someone misinteprets a situation and reacts inappropriately because of their misperception. Truly, in these situations, perception is not reality.

Inaccurate beliefs about the way the world is. For instance, in doing career coaching with individuals, many people believe that finding a job that meets their needs and desires should be fairly easy and should happen within a matter of weeks. So they “dive in” looking and applying for jobs. After several weeks with no job, they begin to become discouraged (our feeling reactions are inter-related with our expectations) and begin to question if they are pursuing the right career direction. Self-doubt also sets in, wondering if they are capable of finding the type of job they want and whether they are really marketable. The reality is that finding a job which is a good fit for you takes a lot of time and energy. Usually three to six months, or longer. And this reality is demonstrated time and time again (one of the aspects of “reality” is that it can be verified empirically).

Misattribution of motive. Probably the most damaging form of misperception is the case of attributing a certain motive to someone else’s action, and being quite far off the mark. This happens in marriages a lot, it seems.  And it can be the result of either an overt action (that is, something you did) or the absence of an action (something you didn’t do but the other person thought you should have). Let me state something clearly — most of us aren’t fully clear why we do what we do, let alone being able to understand the motives of another.  It is always best to ask (and hopefully, believe) the other person, “Why did you …?” It can be helpful to start with the phrase, “I’m confused. Can you help me understand why you…?” (It seems to take the accusatory edge off of the interaction.)  There are tons of examples, more than I want to go into (and for fear of incriminating myself).  Let me just suggest: we often get “bent out of shape” with others because we attribute a reason for their action or inaction that is not accurate.

There are other examples of perception not equaling reality, but I think that is enough for now.  Maybe use these ideas to frame your own thoughts when you hear: “Well, you know, perception is reality.” Maybe. Maybe not.

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