We do not perceive things as they are, but as we are. Anaïs Nin expounds on this ancient notion in her novel, Seduction of the Minotaur.
“Lillian was bewildered by the enormous discrepancy which existed between Jay’s models and what he painted. Together they would walk along the same Seine river, she would see it silky grey, sinuous and glittering, he would draw it opaque with fermented mud, and a shoal of wine bottle corks and weeds caught in the stagnant edges.”
We’ve all experienced things in our lives; whether good or bad (and let’s face it, even the things we call good or bad are relative). Let’s take it step further and recognize that we’re all shaped by those experiences. Those experiences create the lens through which we perceive the world around us.
Nowhere is this more realized than in our love lives. I recently had a friend text me about a guy she had been out with a couple times. She liked him; and from what it seemed, he liked her too. Obliviously this guy has his own backstory; but from what I know, he has a demanding job where he works extremely long hours and travels quite frequently.
Her text messages to me expressed questions we’ve all asked ourselves, whether in regards to dating, or perhaps even in general: “He’s over me.” “I feel disposable.” “He doesn’t care.” “He doesn’t seem like he cares.” “I don’t know what I did wrong.” “I’m not worthy.” In response, I had to ask her: “Well, did he actually say those things?”
I can speculate a dozen different reasons for why this guy wasn’t responding, or wasn’t as responsive as she would have liked him to have been. From the few things I know about him, he could have been at work, or traveling. Perhaps he’s a bad at texting, or is shy and intimidated by her. Maybe he didn’t want to put himself out there. Or maybe, he really wasn’t that into her.
Regardless of what the reality of the situation is, it’s easy to insert your own story and find the answer that best suits your prior experiences. We create narratives based on those experiences and automatically filter what happens in the world around us through the lens of that narrative. If we’re not careful, we ultimately become the cause of our own suffering.
It’s imperative that I stress that perception is not necessarily a bad thing, but that it is a unique thing. Perception is unique to every person, and is colored by our own unique experiences. How we see something will never be the same as how some other person will see that something; and how we see that something might not even necessarily be the reality of the situation (reality being relative!).
It’s important that we learn to recognize our perceptions, and that we might not have all the answers. Perception can cause us to jump to a conclusion, and can cause distress and suffering as a result of jumping to that conclusion, when we might be completely off base.
Perception is a beautiful thing. It allows us to create based on our own personal observations of the world. Every writer, painter, dancer, actor, musician, etc., has been able to make art as a result of how they see the world. Perception is also manifested in negative ways, such as in body dysmorphic disorder. It causes us to see ourselves in a way that we most likely are not.
So how do live with perception and not cause ourselves to suffer? The most important thing is just to learn to recognize and acknowledge when we perceive something that might not be how the other person meant to convey their actions.
For example, let’s go back to my friend’s situation: this guy was on set (he works as a producer) where he works 18 hour days and doesn’t have his phone on/on him, and he eventually responded. My friend’s initial reaction when he didn’t text back for a few hours was, “He rejected me.” But what I asked her to recognize was that rejection was just the feeling that she associated with his actions based on her life experiences, namely the lens through which she was observing.
Recognizing why we’re perceiving the things we do causes us to search within ourselves from where this feeling is actually coming, which can be a scary thing to do. Being able to recognize why we see things the way we do can take years of practice and experience, but it’s a powerful thing to be able to do. Once we’re able to recognize why, we can begin to acknowledge the root of our perceptions, truly begin on a journey of self-confidence and self-love, and allow our perceptions to simply be a beautiful lens with which we view the world.