Perception may be reality, but does it matter?

Bryan square

posted by Bryan Landaas, LCSW

Black and blue? White and gold? This ubiquitous color-of-the-dress phenomenon should be a reminder to us all that perception really is reality. We all tend to view the world through our own idiosyncratic lens and when our own version of reality is challenged it can be unnerving. We’ll go to great lengths to defend our position and argue until we’re blue (or white!) in the face simply because our mind has a built-in mechanism that tells us that our experience is right and therefore any other version is wrong.

Individuals experiencing depression tend to have strong, firmly held negative thoughts and beliefs. They may think things such as “I’m a terrible person” or I’m a complete failure” or perhaps “Life is not worth living anymore.” Trying to convince them that these thoughts are not “true” can be as difficult as convincing a white-and-golder that the dress is black and blue. Just think about how strongly you defended your position on the color of the dress and how ridiculous it seemed when somebody tried telling you it was a different color! A person experiencing depression would respond similarly to somebody attempting to convince him/her that her negative thoughts aren’t true.

So, rather than engaging in a debate as to whether or not a particular thought or belief may or may not be true, which is a common strategy utilized in cognitive behavior therapy, I often find that a more helpful approach is to encourage my clients to consider the function of the thought rather than merely the content of the thought. By shifting focus from the content of a thought to the function of a thought we can start treating the chatter in our heads for what it is: tools and resources that we can utilize to engage in and experience the world. The key word here is can. We actually have a choice as to whether or not we act on or “buy-into” a particular thought or belief. Every day we all experience random thoughts that have absolutely no importance and no impact on our day. On our good days our mind filters out all this mental noise and allows us to focus our attention on whatever we choose. On our bad days we may find ourselves daydreaming or becoming preoccupied with worry or rumination, “buying-in” to every negative thought that pops into our head

The goal is not to become detached from all thoughts and beliefs. The goal is to learn ways to start making your thoughts work for you rather than against you in your pursuit of a valued life.

The next time you feel yourself being bombarded by negative thoughts stop and ask yourself the following questions:

What is the purpose of having the thought or belief? What end does it serve?
How is having this thought helpful or beneficial?
Am I better off for having the thought or would I be better off if I didn’t have the thought? Why?
What need does having this thought meet?
What makes having this thought important?

If you have a difficult time answering these questions can it really be that important? And if it’s not important, does it really matter whether or not it’s true?