Perception: All the Difference in the World
What Really Is Reality?
Sometimes when our thoughts or ideas seem a little far out, someone will tell us to “Get real.” We assume that there is a single, universal reality and that if someone doesn’t agree with our assumption, they need to “get with the picture.” However, anyone who has played with photography knows that how you take a picture makes all the difference in the world. What we see depends on how we look at it.
There is simply no such thing as pure objectivity in relationships. We can’t clearly observe something that we are a part of. And it’s even harder for an outsider to determine the “reality” of a relationship. Our behavior will change when we know we’re being watched. Anyone we do not know who watches us without our knowledge will miss gestures and tones that have personal meaning. If they do know us well, observations will be prejudiced by this previous knowledge. How we view our relationships sets firm limits on what they can become. This doesn’t mean that simply convincing myself that a conflict is resolved means that everything will be fine. However, believing that it can be resolved is a necessary step toward resolution. Most, if not all, of our stress is touched by human relationships. Since there is no objective reality about relationships, there is none about our stress either.
Edward deBono, in his 1990 book “I Am Right, You are Wrong” (Viking Press, New York, 1990), contrasts “relationship thinking” with objective thinking in a fine metaphor in which he distinguishes between “rock logic” and “water logic.” I have adapted these concepts to materials that are readily at hand when I am teaching a class or workshop.
Objective thinking (“rock logic”) involves objects such as a pen. I keep a pen in my briefcase and take it with me wherever I am working. It has been in a number of different cities and states, in cars, and on trains and airplanes. It’s there whenever I need it; it hasn’t changed except that some of the ink is used. I often borrow a couple of pens from workshop participants and mix them with my pen. I can still pull my pen out and it still has not changed. A pen is an object. It will stay basically the same no matter where it is or what is it mixed with.
Working with objects is much simpler than dealing with people. There is consistency and logic and, in most cases, it is possible eventually to figure out exactly what’s happening. Relationships and stress are not like that. Relationships and stress are more like water. When water is in a pitcher, it takes the shape of the pitcher. If I pour it into a glass, it takes the shape of the glass. Its shape depends on where it is. That’s more like us. Right now we are different from when we first opened our eyes this morning. We are different than at the happiest moment of our lives. We’re different than at the most difficult moment of our lives. How we respond depends on where we are and where we’ve been.
If I pour some hot coffee into cold water, I create a new liquid – weak lukewarm coffee water. I can’t get my hot coffee back. I can’t get my cold water back. They have changed. That’s more how people operate. We are changed by other persons if we are open to them. If we are not open to them, we are changed by the process of closing ourselves to them.
Relationships and stress are fluid and changing. They depend on where we are, where we’ve been, and how we see things. These are choices. If we slow down enough to reflect on our options, we can choose both our perceptions and response.
Perceptions Can Lock Us Up
I once worked with a man who had been locked in seclusion for thirty years. He had been tied up in restraints almost continuously for three years. Whenever he was let free, he would violently attack whoever was near by.
This was in the 1970’s. Our state had just developed a new mental health code and it became illegal to keep someone tied up all the time. This man had been transferred to the facility where I happened to be working because we had a small Psychiatric Unit and the facility where he resided had requested an evaluation. I was asked to consult because I had a lot of experience working with people with a history of violent behavior.
The program director had four of the biggest, strongest attendants bring him into the building, but this new resident still put out three hallway windows with his foot on the way to his room. When I came to visit, I opened the door to his room, stepped in just far enough so that I was closer to the door than he was to me, and stood in an open, relaxed, non-threatening stance that I had found to be effective with others who were acting out. He was pacing back and forth across the other end of the room. I started talking to him but he did not respond. I noticed that he had an incredible amount of tension in his neck and forehead, and guessed that he must have a splitting headache. I told him that I knew something about headaches and tension and that maybe I could help him get some relief from his headache. Asking him to sit on his bed, I told him that I would try some relaxation approaches. When he sat, it was the first sign that he understand language. He did not respond to my treatment, but he tolerated it without a problem. I sat down next to him and talked a little more, but he never responded or looked at me.
When I got up to walk out, I saw that there was a crowd looking through the small window in the door. As I left, the nurse who had coordinated his admission and knew his history said: “I don’t believe it. He attacks everybody. He has never not attacked anyone.” One of the onlookers was a new staff person, quite young, who had just finished his training. He said “That’s nothing” and walked into the room, talked to the man, and also was not attacked.
This new, inexperienced staff person put his finger exactly on what worked – “nothing.” For thirty years, every time this man had human contact, people approached him expecting a fight. He gave it to them. Usually more than they could handle. Then, twice in one day, two people came in with nothing – not expecting a fight. He didn’t fight.
This man stayed at our facility about a month. The new staff person was assigned to work with him one-on-one. About a year later, I happened to visit the facility where this man lived. He was back in the seclusion room, but they had taken the lock off and he could come and go as he pleased. Changing perceptions changed his life.
The Brain That Organizes Itself
The human brain is described as a self-organizing system. Rather than being pre-programmed, it organizes itself according to its owner’s experience. Again, I am indebted to Edward deBono (“I Am Right, You are Wrong”) for the metaphor that I use to describe how our perceptions are formed: In some ways, our brain is like my neighbor’s back yard. There was a sand pit on the back of his property when he bought the place – basically a hill with a big hole where half of it had been hauled away. One weekend he used a bulldozer to make a smaller hill with a nice gentle slope. When it rained on what was then a smooth hill of sand, the rain ran down the slope and formed a number of little rivers. When it next rained, the water did not form new rivers but found its way down the ones that had formed previously. Winter came. When the snow melted, it too went down the same gullies formed previously.
Our perceptions work like the rain and snow on that smooth sandy hill. We have an experience that is registered in our brain as a series of connections. When we have a similar experience, the same connections are likely to be made. I have found that stress increases the speed of the “rivers” in our brain. We are more likely to automatically interpret something based on previous experience to the extent that we are more stressed.
The key here is to learn to see where our “rivers” are taking us and make new ones when the old ones don’t fit where we want to go. We can recognize patterns of perceptions that work and those that don’t. We can learn to choose to view stressful situations in ways that lead to health and fulfillment rather than in ways that lead to stress and hassle. This is not a quick and easy process, but it can be accomplished with some effort and a commitment to maintaining a balanced life.
Learning to Choose
A number of years ago I got a referral from another therapist to work with a couple that he had been seeing for some time. He told me that he was unable to get a handle on what was happening with them. When he tried to sort out a recent conflict, their portrayal of the event was so different that he had to make sure that they were describing the same incident. They also had some very destructive patterns of behavior. Over many years, each had learned the other’s buttons and sore spots and could set them off at will. There were a number of situations that always resulted in a big argument – riding in the same car, going shopping together, and – the worst deciding what to do on holidays.
After working with the couple for a short while, I got an image in my mind that I shared with them. I said: “You seem to be like a couple of dueling microscopes. Each of you looks at the other from such a very narrow point of view that they don’t even intersect.” Over the next few sessions, we worked out mutually acceptable agreements on some current issues about budgeting and child care. Then, at the end of one session, the wife said: “I never expected us to get along this well. This is good enough for me. I don’t want to mess with success. This is my last session.” Her husband said: “I want to continue. I want us to grow closer, to share our lives more, to be intimate.” She said: “Go for it. I’m outa here.”
The husband continued in treatment and became very interested in the idea of perceptions. At one point, he made a decision that he was going to view his wife differently. He decided that he would try to see his wife through compassionate eyes rather than defensively as he had in the past. Of course he failed the first time they had an argument. But he kept on trying and learned from each mistake. After a number of months, Thanksgiving came and went without an argument. Christmas followed – no argument. (His wife called it the miracle of Christmas.) They went shopping together after the holidays – no argument. They took a trip to Texas together. Three full days in the same car – no argument. They began going on “dates” and were enjoying each other’s company when we decided to end treatment. This man had little evidence on which to base this change in perception. He simply made a decision and chose, again, and again, and again, to follow through with it. It changed his behavior toward his wife, and eventually she couldn’t hold on to her old perceptions of him. Their relationship and their lives changed.
We can’t simply snap our fingers and decide that everything is different. Clarifying our perceptions is a skill that requires understanding and practice. Parts Two and Three will describe how we can do this in more detail.
From Van Oosterhout, Slow Down and Lighten Up: Letting Go of Stress and Tension, 2001, 2016.