There is No Reality, Only Perception
“There is no reality—only perception.” Jay McGraw in Life Strategies for Teens
“You don’t react to what happens to you (in this instance, someone saying “hi”), but you react to your interpretation of what happens to you (in this instance, how you interpret what that “hi” means). How you see and interpret certain events is purely a matter of choice. All that there is…is perception.” (p.142)
Let’s see how these things work out in social situations: Family, Peers, (and later, School, and Work). The family is the real “factory” for the product (you) that is turned out into the world. So the ways of dealing with each other in family situations are usually carried forward into life for a person’s entire time on earth. In the beginning, if a baby cries, the caregiver—usually the mother—has to guess what the problem is and solve it so the baby can be comfortable, happy, etc. This has to do with real-life situations—cold, wet, gas, hungry, tired, dirty, itchy, burning sensations of rashes, etc. The solution is executed and the baby returns to peaceful repose.
But as the child gets older and learns words that correspond to the feeling and sensations that he/she has, it gets trickier. The caregivers hear the words and see the child’s actions and sometimes the words and actions do not mesh. This is particularly evident in families where expressing oneself, complaining, etc is discouraged. Sometimes even telling the truth is dangerous due to punishments that are meted out—not for telling the truth, but for telling the truth about something the child did which the parent did not like. So the child starts to hedge, choosing not to talk about what he/she is doing or choosing to make up a version which the parents will approve of.
This further carries over to the child’s dealings with people beyond the family. The child modifies his/her descriptions of personal feelings and desires to suit what will make him/her feel safe. If the child’s self-esteem has been injured in the family situation, he/she might make up stories which exaggerate his/her exploits, or perhaps he/she will start blaming others for personal failings so as to escape the feelings of shame which he felt in the family situation. He/she might start bullying others to feel better about him/herself. Or he/she might become a target of bullies.
The caregiver will not have nearly as much control over the outcomes of problems which become evident in the child’s life and will only be able to guess what they really are. Many times the caregiver/parent is overwhelmed and cannot, due to time allotment, or mood or anxiety concerns, listen to the child or certainly cannot actually help the child with the problem. In this case, in which the child does not get a healthy adult viewpoint about his/her perceived problem, the child starts projecting his/her problem onto others, attributing his/her own motivations to others for similar actions or behaviors as he/she would take in certain circumstances.
At this point, the child’s “perception” is skewed by his/her own history of solving or not solving problems and unless he/she asks others why they took certain actions, he/she will never know their true motivations because he/she will assume that they did them for the same reason as he/she would have. This is analogous to the child not learning empathy or how to feel the pain or pleasure of another individual by reading cues on the person’s face or in their behavior. He/she often is unable to anticipate the effect that his/her own words or actions will have on the other person. This child is stuck in his/her own body and is not able to read motivations or emotions in other people.
The problem with this is that many misunderstandings develop because of the disconnect between people. If I have not had the experience or practice trying to understand motivations or emotions of others, I will often be offended by what another person says or does, construing it in the way that I have learned in the many times my caregiver or similar person of importance to me may have meant it in a punitive way, which may not be what the other intended at all.
This results in a feeling of disrespect, fear, anxiety, shame, or any number of other feelings which develop from not understanding the meaning of the other’s words or actions. In most people, the outward expression of such negative emotions, is simply to take offense and get angry. There are very few who will actually inquire as to what the speaker actually meant by what he/she said, or the person who, say, seemed to stare at our hero, actually had (or says that he had) in his head (not thinking at all about him/her, spaced out, looking at something else, remembering something he/she forgot to do, etc).
Jay McGraw’s point was that we spend an inordinate amount of time trying to interpret what others have said or done, but we do it according to what we ourselves—a different person—have learned and experienced in our lifetime—many times in a negative way in which we had to defend ourselves. Without feedback from the other person, it is nearly impossible to arrive at the right motivation or intent for what another person says or does. Of course, even then, the other person may be lying or simply unaware of his/her true intent. So our perceptual reality is very squishy, isn’t it?
So this is one of the primary tasks of living in the social world—communicating with others using words and behaviors—and being understood by them, and, of course, vice versa as well—trying to interpret the words and actions of others. This is possibly the most difficult skill that must be learned in order to live a healthy life. What role does anger play in all that? The feeling of anger is the signal that says that there has been a disconnect in the chain of communication that needs to be corrected before the personal relationship can be repaired between the speaker/behaver and the perceiver/victim.
This is not something that is easy to learn and usually takes a “course” in life skills, anger management, social interactions or some aspect of communication skills in order to assimilate the skill so that it is usable. In other words, this skill, if you did not learn it at home as a child, must be learned from someone else later on either in “therapy” or in a more-or-less formal class environment, in order to “catch up.”