What is YOUR "reality"?
Most of us live under the assumption that what we see and experience in the world constitutes reality . . . the way things actually are, and the same things that everyone else experiences. But the truth is, although there may be something that can be called "reality", none of us gets to see it with perfect clarity. The reason for this is a matter of perspective.
What do you see when you look at the image of the aquarium above? Sure, we could probable all agree that we see the "reality" of an aquarium. But precisely WHAT we see, what we focus on, how we interpret that, and what we later recall of it, depends largely on our prior experiences, our expectations, our viewpoints, our present mindset and needs, and many other variables. And once that image or experience has been processed by our brains, THAT is the reality we hold onto (regarding the aquarium, for example) from that point forward.
Consider, for a moment, if you had not been a person looking at the aquarium, but a cat. Would you have seen a colourful array of tropical wildlife? Or would you have seen a smorgasbord lunch, just waiting to be served? Imagine instead that you had been a school student, tasked with identifying as many different fish species as possible. Would you even have seen the varied corals, or the interplay between fish species? When YOU look at an aquarium, what do you focus on? The animals? The corals? The colour? The movement? The selection and arrangement of everything in the tank? The memory of a snorkeling experience? And so, what will you later recall about that aquarium?
The point is, everything we remember depends on our own individual perspective. Everything we see (or hear, or feel) depends on how we have been trained to sense those things. Everything we understand about our world depends on how we have processed the information coming into our brains. And it is that processing that dictates our (often stubborn) view of what we call "reality". And indeed, that processing can vary greatly depending on our age, our life experiences, our expectations, our belief system, our hopes and fears, our gender, and even our culture or ethnicity.
A recent story featured on ABC News illustrated how culture affects the way we process everything. The author (Dr. Belinda Liddell) describes how "collectivist" societies (primarily in Eastern countries) view events in a holistic and inclusive way, with a focus on interpersonal relationships and interdependence. Western societies seem to be more individualistic, with the focus clearly biased towards independence, autonomy and personal experience. And what this means is that the entire context of an event can depend on where we come from, how we were raised, and what we're encouraged to attend to. In the aftermath of a natural disaster, for example, individual reactions could vary from personal survival stories, to fears about family, to concerns about community, to questions about national management, and even to global ecological impact . . . all depending on where we're from and what has shaped the way we view the situation.
My own work with clients often needs to take into account this variability in people's perspectives and views of reality. In fact, it is often through first exploring, and then challenging, someone's view of reality that meaningful (and beneficial) changes can take place in therapy. When somebody seeks counselling because they are unhappy, or anxious, or stressed, they are typically looking for someone to understand their situation, even perhaps validate it in some way. And this is indeed an important part of the process. After all, each person's experience in life is their own, and is true in that moment for them as individuals. It is only fair and correct to accept that experience on face value, and many clients will derive enough satisfaction simply from knowing that somebody cares enough to listen, to understand, and to be supportive.
Equally (if not more) often though, what is required is a shift in perspective. That moment of "Hmmm, I never looked at it like that before" can be the indication that a real, and positive, and lasting change has just taken place. The therapeutic discussion might be one about relationships, or phobias, or life stress, or even a traumatic event. But what typically makes all of these conditions similar is that the client has a previously-developed a view of their "reality" which is limiting, or harmful to them in some way . . . and because it IS their reality, they cannot find a way to change it. Until somebody trustworthy steps in with not only acceptance, but also an alternative viewpoint that is plausible and preferable, change (and recovery) can be a difficult thing to achieve. And this is part of the reason that psychologists HAVE to be good listeners, open-minded, and occasionally even persuasive talkers.
In the example of car accidents, where drivers (or passengers) have been traumatised and fear getting back on the road, one of the frequently raised issues is that "the car was written off . . . so it MUST have been a really serious accident, and I could have died! I SHOULD be scared to get behind the wheel again!" Their perspective, based on their experiences, and with their understanding, is that "write-off" means "injury". But having accepted and validated a person's justifiable fears, the psychologist's job is to help them to re-shape their reality. In the above photo, no physical injuries resulted at all. And yet the car was a write-off, simply because the cost of repairs outweighed the value of the car. And it is this kind of adjustment to the view of "reality" that can help many people to overcome the barriers to their mental health and well-being . . . a shift in perspective that MUST occur in order to undo some mental, emotional or behavioural limitations.
It is not just in mental health arenas where "reality" can be challenged in order to bring about change. In 1950, the general consensus was that running a mile in under 4 minutes was impossible, and everybody accepted this version of reality. But in 1954, Roger Bannister destroyed this notion forever when he completed the distance in 3 minutes, 59.4 seconds. What is just as interesting (for psychology) is that, once the "barrier" had been broken, it unleashed a torrent of others capable of the same feat. Indeed, Bannister's record-shattering effort was beaten just 3 weeks later! (As of today, the record for the mile is a full 17 seconds lower still!) This clearly illustrates what many professional athletes (and a great many psychologists) know to be true: Your limitations are what YOU say they are. Your view of "reality" is not necessarily the truth, and definitely not the only version out there. And if your reality is not what you'd like it to be . . . it IS possible to change that!