Last week we started to look at perception and what it means, the fact that it is not too reliable, and that emotions, memories, fears, and expectations are like filters that alter our perceptions. (What you saw is not what I did part I)
What do these truths about perceptions mean to a relationship? Well, everything. How you perceive your relationship affects your reality and how you experience the relationship.
Take a minute to think about how you perceive yourself in your relationship. On a piece of paper, write down any words you think of that define you in that relationship. Do you feel like a team player? Do you feel in charge or controlled? Do you see yourself as respectful, respected, sharing, trusted, dependable, neglected, cherished, misunderstood, understood…?
Now how about your partner—how do you perceive him or her? Supportive, available, sharing, trustworthy, respectful, loving, caring or self-absorbed, uninteresting, boring, unworthy, argumentative, etc. You may be surprised at some of the core beliefs that inform your perceptions of this person you dearly love. We are not always aware of our perceptions until we challenge ourselves to identify them.
Susan from the last blog definitely perceived Dave as distant and unavailable. That history with him had created a filter through which Susan viewed his actions, and indeed everything about him—especially during situations when she was feeling fragile or hurt or when she just needed him to be there for her. The more vulnerable she felt, the more her fears that he would fail her, “as usual,” took control of her perceptions.
The good news is: we can change our perception. Perception is flexible. Not only does it change based on new experiences, influences, personal growth, and life circumstances, but also through choice! How? Start by asking yourself: “Is there more to my feelings than what is happening in this moment?” Becoming aware of yourself, you can begin to see your partner more clearly.
You may find that your experiences in a previous relationship inform your perceptions in this one. My coaching client Stan was cheated on by his last girlfriend. He noticed that whenever he saw his current girlfriend, Monica, chatting with another guy, he would perceive the whole scenario as infidelity-in-the-making, no matter what. Was his perception that Monica was flirting based on the evidence or on his fears and expectations that “women cheat?” It was not the actual situation or Monica’s behavior that upset Stan. It was the meaning that he attached to it that was hurtful.
What I suggested to Stan: Take control. You can create a quick change of perspective. When you feel that vulnerability bubbling up:
→ Access your feelings (jealousy, hurt, worry, anger?)
→ Ask yourself what in the current situation has sparked the feeling
→ Conduct a reality check: Has she ever cheated before? Who is she talking to? A cousin, co-worker, boss? Is your girlfriend worthy of your suspicion or has she earned your trust?
→ Change perspective. She’s there for you. Go put your arm around her and tell her how much you appreciate her.
You may find that your own predilections, ego, or anxieties can get in the way of your perceptions. Larry felt that Liz hovered critically over him all the time. From Liz’s perspective, Larry was a screw-up. She admitted to me that she was so sure he could not do things well enough to suit her that she saw him as constantly failing. If guests were coming, and he was making dinner in the kitchen, Liz was sure he was going to burn it, or otherwise ruin the dinner party. Her perceptions were way off base due to her own need for control and her fears of being judged by others.
What I suggested to Liz: Take a step back and create a quick change of perspective. When you feel that anxiety surfacing:
→ Check in: what meaning are you attaching to his behavior? (He’s a bad cook? He’ll embarrass you? You’ll be shamed?)
→ Reality check: Has he ever ruined a meal before? Does he need any help? See what is really going on in that kitchen. Is the oven the right temperature, is the timer set, are all the ingredients there?
→ Change perspective. He’s got this. Time to sit down and enjoy the evening! (And in the future, maybe you won’t need to check up on him!)
Faulty perception can make us:
√ blame someone else for our reactions
√ see things as black or white/right or wrong
√ jump to conclusions
√ spark conflicts
√ stereotype people
√ engage in controlling behavior
√ resort to victim mentality
Always communicate your perceptions with your partner, calmly and with the understanding that your perception is no more “the truth” than your partner’s is. You are just seeking to understand how you each see the situation. Had Susan said, “Dave, I am really upset about my bad day and I perceive that you are ignoring me right now and it hurts,” how different their evening might have been. He could then have said, “I did not intend to ignore you. I want to listen to your day. Come sit while I make dinner.” (He also might have added: “Here. Have a glass of wine, dear.” Though optional, that last bit is highly suggested.)
All kidding aside, changing your perception takes practice but is much more susceptible to your free will than you might think. Given that we interpret everything through our own individual lifetime’s worth of experiences and ideas, we can still make a huge shift in how we see our partners by changing how we understand ourselves.