“We do not see the world as it is. We see the world as we are.” This quote has been attributed to both the Talmud and Anaïs Nin (although an actual citation for neither quote can be found). This quote summarizes the idea that truth, the truth that one perceives, is subjective and can be wrong.
We have long been taught that the truth will set us free, and that seeking the truth is a worthy goal. What if there is no absolute truth? What if there are just degrees of truth (or lies) that we tell ourselves? What if, as some insightful, anonymous person once purported, “People tell themselves stories, and then pour their lives into the stories they tell”?
Meaning is created in life. Neutral events are made subjective by interpreting them through the lens of perception. “Truth” is merely a product of perceptions; perceptions are colored by experience, which is then filtered through the current state of mind and altered even further. By the time the neutral event is processed in this manner, it is little more truth than fiction. Yet personal truth is accepted wholeheartedly.
In an excellent discussion on being wrong, Kathryn Schulz states, “The miracle of your mind isn’t that you can see the world as it is. It’s that you can see the world as it isn’t.” (You can watch her talk on TED here). The point of her talk is that we are often not only wrong, but completely unaware of it. She grasps the idea that reality is filtered through perceptions and biases; and that it comes out the other side distorted but believed to be truth.
Now, if you are willing to suspend your truth for a moment, and to even momentarily accept that much of what you believe may only be your version of the truth; or that what you believe is not the absolute truth, you may wonder how this is helpful to your state of mind. After all, this is Psychology Today. Posts here are designed to help people, not discourage them. Despite an initially discouraging reaction to finding you are not as in touch with truth as you had believed, the benefit to this understanding is substantial. First, when you can apply it to daily personal interactions that have heightened emotion, you can slow down the reaction by understanding you and the other individual are simply buying into your truths about the situation. This can diffuse the tension.
For example, in her TED discussion, Schulz describes what she calls “a series of unfortunate assumptions.” The first occurs when someone disagrees; it is assumed they are just ignorant of the facts. The solution is then simple, the facts just need to be presented, and the conflict will be resolved. Everyone can relate to this. Unfortunately, we are often stunned when that doesn’t work and the person continues to disagree with us. Often this results in repeating the “facts” in a different way, hoping the person will then understand.
This leads to Schulz’s second unfortunate assumption, that the individual must be an idiot; now they have the pieces to the puzzle, “but they are two moronic to put them together correctly.” When we realize that the other has all of the same facts and they aren’t idiots, we resort to the third assumption, that they are evil. She humorously says, “they know the truth, but they are deliberately distorting it for their own malevolent purposes.” These assumptions are detrimental to improving personal relations. So in this way, understanding that a particular version of the truth is not the only one (and that other versions exist) can be very helpful to interpersonal relations.
Understanding personal perception may be flawed allows one to question thinking. Questioning thinking can be helpful by realizing events are neutral; then neutral events are provided personal meaning. With this knowledge one can question why a certain meaning was given. For example, when things do not work out as planned, questioning the given meaning allows that a mistake was made in interpreting the events. This is certainly better than believing that one somehow screwed up destiny.
In her article for the NY Times, Liz Falletta describes how she has looked for signs to determine if a relationship was destined. Most can relate to looking for these signs. In her excellent example she discusses how while leaning toward interpreting the signs as indicating a relationship wasn’t meant to be, a horrible accident happened where her date may have saved her life. She discusses her thought process as she convinces herself she saved her own life, thereby not obliging her to stay with him. It is obvious in reading the article she is later aware that this was simply a story she told herself to support her desire not to remain in a relationship with this person.
Becoming aware we are the creators of the story, fashioning the meaning of events that construct the meaning of life, can thereby help reframe thinking. The ability to step back from thinking, to actually think about the thought process, is a cornerstone of cognitive therapy. In cognitive therapy clients are taught to step back from their thinking, evaluate it objectively, determine if it is possible thinking is distorted, and challenge the distortions. Finally, they are to reframe the event in a more rational and productive manner. The ability to be neutral and objective can be of great benefit in finding, or producing, happiness.
This ability is also a cornerstone of Buddhism. In Buddhism one works at being objective, at being detached from events in life. In understanding you are creating the meaning of events, and in practicing the ability to step back from your “truth,” one is closer to a detached, and objective, position. According to Buddhism, this is a path to enlightenment, and perhaps, even before becoming enlightened, to happiness.
Once awareness that meaning is generated from within grows, the ability to challenge thinking and create a more profitable meaning is available. This allows an individual to design more happiness in their life, or to at least eliminate some of their sorrow. And, in the words of Kathryn Schulz, “This attachment to our rightness keeps us from preventing mistakes when we absolutely need to; and causes us to treat each other terribly.”
This is not to say people should lie to themselves, nor is it a call to lie to others. Honesty is essential in evaluating one’s beliefs. It is also essential in dealing with others, especially those considered close. In overcoming self-hate, the Dalai Lama discusses how when one has honest and compassionate motivation, even failure should not affect their self worth. This requires the ability to honestly evaluate one’s motives, and to be honest with others.
Detachment and the challenging and reframing of thoughts and meaning are meant to procure a happier existence for all, and to allow for less conflict in one’s life. It is not a panacea. It takes great effort to detach from one’s beliefs and thoughts, challenge them, reframe them, and develop new, healthier beliefs. But with practice, which begins with an awareness of one’s thoughts as well as an understanding that meaning is applied to events, not inherent in them, one can achieve a happier, more peaceful life. As Shawn Achor says in his study of happiness, “Ninety percent of your long term happiness is predicted not by the external world, but by the way your brain processes the world.” (You can watch his talk on Positive Psychology here). As such, it is not believing your truth that will set you free.
Copyright William Berry, 2012
Kathryn Schulz, On Being Wrong, TED Talks, April 2011, http://www.ted.com/talks/kathryn_schulz_on_being_wrong.html
Liz Falletta, Looking For Signs It Is Meant To Be, NY Times, 4/15/2012, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/15/fashion/looking-for-signs-that-its-mea...
His Holiness The Dalai Lama, Howard C. Cutler, The Art Of Happiness, 1998
Shawn Achor, The Happy Secret to Better Work, TED Talks, May 2011