Susan had been married to Dave for 20 years. Early on, Susan struggled in the relationship because Dave was emotionally distant. Though he was a kind man, he had a hard time being there for Susan when things got rough. The emotional turbulence was way too much for him (for reasons we won’t go into here). Over the years, and some really good marriage therapy, he changed. He began to understand how his behavior was hurtful to Susan, and he really wanted to be there for her, a supportive and loving partner. But you know what? She had a really hard time seeing the change in Dave. Susan continued to perceive him through the lens of their previous relationship.
One evening recently she got home from a really stressful day of work. As she walked into the house, Dave was in the kitchen, his back to her, cleaning lettuce for dinner. She let out a weary sigh as she said, “I feel like I’ve been under attack all day. My boss is a terror.” The water was running and Dave could not quite hear what she was saying, but he turned toward her and said, “Hi, honey.” He did not respond to what she’d said because he needed her to repeat it. But he never had a chance to ask.
By the time he realized what was happening, Susan had devolved into a state of molten hysteria. To her, Dave had dismissed her anguish and proven—yet again—what a heartless guy he is. He did not figure out that Susan had a crappy day at work till she had locked herself in the bedroom, crying bitterly. He pieced it together eventually, and could only wonder what on earth he’d done wrong.
Susan, much later, was able to realize some more pieces of the “truth” of the situation: for instance that Dave had not heard her. The chain reaction of her heightened emotions—based on faulty perception—had begun immediately, before Dave could do much about the outcome.
Do you have a story like that? Have you ever felt as if someone is reacting to you based on something that did not actually happen, or that you did not really do? Or have you caught yourself having an emotional reaction based on what you expect to happen or are afraid might happen instead of what is actually happening?
If haven’t, you are truly unique in the world! Because this scenario is quite common. However, there are ways to prevent full-on disaster by getting a handle on perception, how it works for us humans, and how we can take charge of it.
What is perception?
That’s a big topic. But boiled down, it’s how we regard, understand, and interpret… well, everything. Though we use our senses to perceive, we are not biologically equipped to perceive reality accurately, and thus getting our “stories straight” is an impossibility.
Surprised? Well, that’s the truth of it. We are just not that reliable. Countless books and articles have been written, for instance, about the problems with using eye-witnesses to convict criminals. No one ever has perceived reality 100% accurately. California Angels pitcher Jack Hamilton said he remembered—“like it was yesterday”— the day his pitch hit Red Sox right fielder Tony Conigliaro in the eye. But when he was interviewed later, he did not remember a single fact from that day correctly. The entire event was recorded, so it was easy to tell what was “real”—but, as we all do, Hamilton’s brain filtered all his perceptions of the event through his own lens of guilt and sadness and other emotions. Like Hamilton, we all have our own thoughts, emotions, memories, experiences, points of view, expectations, fears, hopes, desires – all of which inform our perceptions.
Are some people better able to be “objective” in relating perceived fact? Sure, because they train themselves to—lawyers, police officers, doctors—these people are often (or should be) better at “seeing things as they are.” But unless they are made out of computer chips, even they won’t be 100% reliable. If you want proof that we are not necessarily the most accurate “perceivers” – just check out this video!
Once we realize that the way we view ourselves, others, and the world around us is going to be faulty, we can try to do the best we can with what we’ve got.
In a relationship, specifically, as with Susan and Dave, we often select the information that works in concert with our beliefs (which includes fears and expectations). Our brains simply discard the rest. I was at the town pool once, years ago, and my dentist was there, lying on a towel. She later told me that I walked right past her on the way to the snack bar—and looked directly at her. Really? I literally DID NOT SEE HER. My brain did not expect to see my dentist in a bathing suit at the pool. So it just didn’t.
When perceptions are charged with emotions and filtered through past experiences, both good and bad, from childhood on, they become even more complicated. In a primary attachment relationship, like the ones we form with our romantic partners, ALL kinds of stuff is going to surface, and mess with our perception. We will actually look for things that validate us and ignore (or not see at all) the facts that contradict our beliefs and expectations. Susan’s fears about Dave not being there for her were quickly “validated” by her perception of the facts. There was a lot going on in that moment that Susan simply did not register—because it did not fit her version of the “truth.”
Reality is neutral, factual, and verifiable. Somewhere in the universe is the “real” story of what happened with Susan and Dave. We won’t get that version from Dave, and it won’t come from Susan either. But can they adjust their perceptions so that they can stop the cycle of hurt and bafflement? YES. Stay tuned for next week’s blog where we will look at how perception can be altered, improved, consciously chosen, in a way to help enhance the quality of a relationship and cut down on the pain and hurt that results from misperception.