A couple in therapy was asked about their getaway weekend together. Not surprisingly they disagreed. The husband responded with renewed enthusiasm for their bonding experience. He cited the sharing of feelings and sex as reconnecting them. The wife, meanwhile, scoffed and rolled her eyes. She shared that all he did was talk about himself all weekend. She felt insignificant, lonely. When he initiated sex, she gave herself to him...the way a girl carelessly gives her younger sister hand-me down clothes she no longer desires.
Similarly, earlier this year Ben & Jerry's introduced a new flavor infused with fortune cookie bits to honor the insane popularity of NBA's stand-out star Jeremy Lin. The company badly miscalculated what the response to this new flavor might be. To the company's misfortune, its perception of such a unique publicity trigger backfired, with public outcry screaming racism.
How could a company known for its social activism been so misguided in its intentions? How could the husband's experience of the weekend with his wife be perceived so vastly different? Perspectives.
Perspectives, or filters, color our thinking, feelings, behaviors and personal experiences. Cultural differences play a role in our perception of each other, and they impact cultural norms, as evidenced by the botched Ben & Jerry's Lin Sanity ice cream announcement.
Family relationships can also play a pivotal role in how we view others and ourselves. One such example is when a younger sibling perceives his older sibling as perfect and as the favored child. Through this filter, his perception becomes narrow and he develops a self-narrative of not being good enough. He then unconsciously imposes a role of "the problem child" to fit into his schema. From there, other family members respond and unknowingly reinforce these roles, taking on their own roles, to create homeostasis - or balance - in the family. This is how generations of family members evolve dysfunctional patterns. Then the "problem child" goes into the world believing he IS a problem, developing larger maladaptive cognitions like, "I'm not worthy...I don't deserve a good job...I don't matter...I would make a horrible husband and father" and so on. Here, shame - the feelings of ‘I am bad’ versus guilt, which is ‘I did something bad -’ retards his happiness. He looks at every situation with a skewed lens, a lens that confirms his bias (known as confirmation bias) and these inform how he lives his life. In this case, devastating results like drug and alcohol addiction, suicide, affairs, and legal issues may ensue. And others' perspectives -experiences- become skewed. And so the cycle repeats itself.
One-off situations can also align to create a story and that of others. These stories often influence how someone sets herself up unconsciously to reinforce her beliefs. Take for example Sheryl: Date after date inevitably disappears as soon as she starts to invest. It leaves her bracing for it to happen again. In the wake of this mounting wave of emotion, she starts second-guessing her every move. She stops opening up, living less vulnerably, and begins reacting to her date's every move in an effort to do damage control to the impending abandonment. And in her growing ball of emotion, she loses her sense of self, her sense of freedom to be herself and the importance of her feelings in the relationship...the very qualities he was attracted to. And so he leaves her...just as she anticipated he would.
Generational stories also run deep in our psyches. Watch one episode of television's Mad Men and see how perceptions of smoking, drinking and sexual exploitations were perceived as cool, and tolerated, if not social connectors. Homosexuality was once deemed a treatable disorder by the American Psychiatric Association. Then in 1973 they changed their manual of diagnostic categories so that it was no longer listed as a disorder. There was a time a woman lived more subserviently to her husband...her sexual desires repressed, her personal passions minimized to care for the kids and without financial means to care for herself. And today, a generation of men grow up with some confusion about their societal roles. Often men find it hard to balance being a strong stoic breadwinner with sharing intimate feelings of vulnerability.
Psychological filters that affect our perceptions of others are numerous. There are socio-economic-status filters, religious filters, sexual orientation filters, education filters, political filters, and so on. Sociologist Harold Laswell said, when talking about communicating to the masses, "Who says what, in which channel, to whom, with what effect," is important in getting a message heard and accurately understood. In their text Public Relations Strategies and Tactics, authors Dennis Wilcox and Glen Cameron say even if the sender and the receiver (of a message) speak the same language and live in the same country, the effectiveness of their communication depends on so much more like tone, body language, emphasis on certain words, personal interest, experiences and, of course, perceptions. Our weekend couple is a good example of this struggle.*
Living with clarity births happiness
So how do we stop unfairly projecting our inaccurate perceptions onto others? I would suggest that the simple act of asking questions can provide a way through the confusion. Stop assuming. Question rationalizations, generalizations and justifications you employ based on your perception. Seek clarity...from others and yourself. Uncover your own hidden stories that affect how you view yourself and others. Think critically...when you read, when you listen to political leaders' speeches, when experts make grand proclamations, when you watch an advertisement...consider other perspectives, including the opposite. Do "check-ins" with your loved ones as you go along in your relationships, as you interpret behavior or conversations. Do "pulse-checks" of your company's brand and its messages -intended and unintended - through social networking and focus groups. How are your messages being received?
Filters can create stories that create misperceptions...in love, in friendship, and in business. It can lead to divorce, war, family feuds, employee firings, deaths of brands and worse...death of human lives. Take the time to investigate how your filters and those imposed by others are informing your own life and affecting your personal happiness. Do this, and you will be living more authentically, more happily...and creating space for others to do the same.
*Cameron, Glen T., and Wilcox, Dennis, L. Public Relations: Strategies and Tactics, 9th ed. Boston: Allyn & Bacon, 2010, p. 180.
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