Therapy in Mind

Exploring ways to improve your life through practical behavioral therapy.

Interpretations Are Just Opinions

How accurately do you perceive and interpret objective reality?

Seems that from the beginning of time, people have been in search of "truth"—big truths, little truths, you name it. Situations and objects are observed (and perhaps studied to some extent), ideas or guesses are formulated, maybe there is some experimentation, and conclusions are drawn. The more intense and objective the study, the more scientific. But by and large, we are operating at high speed and formulate snap judgments. And rarely do we seek to alter them; we may not even question them. Typically, we usually (and rather automatically) tend to recognize only evidence that conforms to or corroborates our initial impressions. This is why the old adage of "first impressions last the longest" holds water.

This is not to say that impressions or interpretations are fixed and unchangeable; it just means that people are apt to stick with where they start, and unless they have reason to modify such perspectives, they stays the same. So it can take work to help or convince people to change their minds. And the same goes for you.

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We all have a tendency to interpret situations, events, interactions, etc., in our own unique way. That is a good thing, in that it makes life very interesting. All the beauty—art, architecture, music, literature—is expressed interpretation. Thoughts stem from interpretation. We could go on. But the main point is, we filter information through our own personalized lens, and none of our lenses are crystal clear. We don't have 100% accuracy for viewing. There is always some personal spin that comes into play. Some distortion or idiosyncratic tendency (be it positive or negative) that entered way back when, as a result of personal experience.

Children's lenses are notoriously inaccurate, subjective and impressionable, so none of us started with a perfect lens either. Kids also lack experience and thus points of reference, which can inform the impression, and they are just beginning to make sense of it all, so they can come up with raw, unformed, or confused interpretations. Over the years, most of us just do the best we can to develop sharper powers of perception so that at least we can be accurate most of the time. Some of us may not be interested in being accurate, or have considerable struggle in this area, so may not try to or be successful in becoming more objective observers. Having unconventional views can be interesting, but also alienating. People tend to seek and feel more comfortable around others who share similar ways of interpreting the world. Being at odds can leave you on the fringe (along with your fringe buddies).

How this tendency to perceive or view your environment and your internal reactions leads to your interpretation, which is simply your way of putting your thoughts together based on the data that you encounter. What you conclude is simply a matter of opinion. Ask each person in the room what they saw, and chances are, you will get a different take on what happened. Some events may be relatively straightforward, and thus you are more likely to get a clear answer or consensus; other events are more ambiguous, and you are going to get more variant perspectives.

One thing to note when it comes to interpretations is that people tend to believe theirs is correct and definitive. It feels real, true, factual and solid. That is an illusion to an extent. It is the mind's way of coping with handling a myriad of stimuli and possibilities. This tendency is an adaptive mechanism that has helped us to survive. If we encounter a dangerous scenario, the ability to come to snap judgments and act on snap decisions is obviously a boon. Hesitate, and you may die. So we are hard-wired to have this ability. It takes more time and effort to investigate the truth or reality of our interpretations, and we are usually short on time or not particularly interested to take the time or expend the energy. So false interpretations, at least to some degree, abound. Oftentimes, that may not be particularly important. Other times, it may be crucial.

It can be difficult to unhook from and alter one's own biased interpretations. Sometimes we need a little help from an outside source. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) offers a powerful technique to identify distorted negative perceptions and interpretations, as well as ways to correct them. Being more objective and scientific in one's thinking can lead not only to more accuracy but peace of mind. It can lead to better mood, better relationships, and improved work performance.

One way to challenge yourself is to pay attention to the thoughts that come into your head as you face a new situation. Slow down the impression-forming process by listening to your thoughts, and then take the time to investigate them a little more than usual. Take the opportunity to question yourself a bit, and ask yourself, "If 10 other people were in the room, what would they see?" You may surprise yourself in what you come up with, and you may become a better observer/interpreter as well.

Allison Conner, Psy.D., is the founder of Cognitive Therapy Associates.

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