The above quote neatly captures the psychological phenomenon, that while there is a factual and concrete reality out there, none of us have a truly objective view. There can be many different perceptions of the same situation. As an example, I show this picture to my mediation/conflict management training groups and ask people what they see. (What do you see by the way? An old man – side profile or facing forward… can you see the young woman and her baby?). And most of us get that it’s the same glass with water at the half-way mark that’s varyingly described as half-full or half-empty.
But when it comes to translating that theory into practice, in the negative emotional space of a difficult relationship, it’s much harder to believe that you are just operating from your own bias. You think you are seeing them as they are.
That was a challenge I’ve had for many years in a close personal relationship. I found this person difficult to be around. As far as I was concerned, it wasn’t just my perception, this was one of those exceptions…where the person truly is ‘difficult’ to handle.
We don’t experience events… we experience our thinking about events
For years, there has been ample research to demonstrate that what we perceive as reality is mediated through our own filters of thought – attitudes, beliefs, preconceptions. But what many psychologists are starting to realise, is that it’s not just that we have different interpretations of reality but that the reality we experience is 100% created by us – by our own thoughts and feelings occurring in every moment. Rather than us being at the mercy of our circumstances which are causing us to feel or think a certain way, life is an inside-out job.
No matter how scary or oppressive or insecure your experience of life may be, once you realize that it’s only your own thinking that you’re experiencing, that thinking loses much of its hold over you. We don’t experience the world; we experience our thinking about the world.
Michael Neill, The Inside Out Revolution
As the Mediator or Conflict Coach it’s easy to see this in action with clients – how they are experiencing their thinking rather than the concrete events. But when you are caught up yourself in a difficult relationship and the accompanying thoughts and feelings that get generated, it’s much harder to step back and be objective.
But it felt like objective reality…
This has been my experience in a longstanding relationship in my personal/family life which I have always found problematic. While there were arguments and stand-up rows in the past, in more recent years, I had applied all my own good ‘conflict management’ skills to our interactions. For the most part, I could remain constructive, calm, do the listening thing, be tolerant and accepting, manage my boundaries etc. Our relationship had certainly improved (on the outside) but truth be told, underneath my calm exterior, I felt irritated and resentful a lot of the time in their company. Every so often I’d erupt with a passive aggressive comment or side-swipe which didn’t help the situation.
At one level I could understand that it was my perceptions of this person that were somehow skewed. Yet at another level, I really believed that in this particular case, what I was seeing was objective reality. In other words, this person was truly a negative, self-centred, repetitive, judgemental, moody… you-name-it person and my only choice was to live with it and manage it to the best extent possible.
I’ve been dipping into a new approach to understanding the interplay between thoughts, feeling and behaviour. So I was curious to see if this could help me deal differently with this person in my life.
How we create a negative story in our minds and then substitute it for reality
In a coaching session with author and coach Dr Anne Curtis she invited me to slow down and reflect on what was going through my mind when I was in this person’s company. I began to see that even before I would meet them, I would have a whole negative story and history in my mind about what they might say or do. And I would even think through how I might cope with this behaviour when it would come up. When I was in their company then, I wasn’t really connecting with the person, rather I was listening to confirm my negative assumptions in a ‘here we go again’ kind of way.
Slowly it started to dawn on me that rather than this person causing me to feel/think a certain way, I was the creator of that experience. Sure they might be behaving in a way that would reinforce my ‘story’ but the unpleasant feelings were all coming from my own stream of negative thoughts about them.
Not only this, but this whole cacophony of pre-conceptions was getting in the way of any true connection or listening to this other person. I wasn’t really experiencing them; I was just experiencing my thinking about them. And that in turn was leading me to feel tetchy and impatient. Sure I didn’t react or express this but neither was I truly open to seeing beyond my own prejudices about them.
The freedom that comes from realising where feelings come from
These reflections were insightful but would it really change anything? Would I find it easier to spend time with them? Would I be less irritated and on edge?
Since then I’ve met with them several times. And the difference has been quite remarkable. I have completely let go of the negative stream of consciousness thinking and am now inwardly just calm and at ease. I’m able to listen at a much more empathic and genuine level. What I’m also seeing clearly is that the things they say that had previously really irked me are just them caught up in their thinking. And I don’t have to take it so seriously.
Not only is my experience different but there are subtle changes also in them. They are listening to me more, the negative and judgmental conversation has lessened. I feel compassion and warmth now instead of judgement and resentment. Most importantly, I no longer care whether they change or not.
And… just to be clear about this… it’s not about having positive thoughts, practicing acceptance, forbearance or deep breathing. Neither is this about changing or reframing one’s thinking nor is it about denying the reality of difficult relationships.
Instead, it’s in understanding the source of our discomfort is our own arbitrary and transient thoughts which leaves us free to move beyond them and being more present to the moment and to the person in front of us.