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What Reality Are You Living In?

Are you living in your old reality or your current reality?

Key points

  • Perceptions aren't reality, but they can become people's reality.
  • Old reality, namely, the perceptions we hold from childhood, impact our current reality.
  • If old reality and current reality are completely out of alignment, old reality can create unhappiness and dysfunction.
  • The way to let go of old reality is to confront the perceptions and emotions that underlie it.
John Hain/Pixabay, used with permission
John Hain/Pixabay, used with permission

It sure is difficult knowing what’s real these days. We have virtual reality, fake news, ChatGPT, deep fakes, the list goes on. What was once obvious and unambiguous is now unclear and up for debate.

This challenge of which apparent reality is actually the reality that we should let guide our thinking, emotions, and behavior also exists between our ears, in the emotions we feel, the needs, attitudes, beliefs, and goals that we hold, how we interact with the people in our lives, and how we perceive the world in which we live. We act on ourselves and react to our world based on a certain reality that often isn’t grounded in true reality for many of us.

Old Reality vs. Current Reality

When it comes to human beings, who clearly aren’t governed by the laws of nature, it may very well be that there is no true reality, just perceptions that are seen as reality. As I have written about previously, perception is not reality; but perception can become a person’s reality.

Here’s how it works: Perception acts as a lens through which we view reality. Our perceptions influence how we focus on, process, remember, interpret, understand, synthesize, decide about, and act on reality. In doing so, our tendency is to assume that how we perceive reality is an accurate representation of what reality truly is. But it’s not. The problem is that the lens through which we perceive is often warped by our genetic predispositions, past experiences, prior knowledge, emotional baggage, mental habits, pre-conceived notions, self-interest, and cognitive distortions. As such, the perceptions that we hold color the way we view the true reality of any situation.

When I talk about old reality, what I’m really referring to is the perceptions that we developed in the past that still influence our current reality, that is, how we think, the emotions we experience, how we interact with others, and how we engage with the world around us. Realistically speaking, we all carry perceptions about ourselves and the world from our childhoods (I’ll call this old reality from now on). Some old reality is normal, healthy, and life-nurturing, for example, believing you are a competent person who is worthy of love. Other aspects of old reality can be dysfunctional, for instance, insecurity, social discomfort, and fear of failure.

The fundamental questions you should ask are:

  1. Has your old reality evolved as you have gained life experience and matured?
  2. How much does your old reality align with your current reality?
  3. Does the relationship between your old reality and current reality result in your being happy and fulfilled or unhappy and discontented?

Because old reality is based on perceptions that arose years ago, when you were a very different person, there will always be some incongruity between your old and current reality. Problems arise when the lack of alignment between your old and current realities are so great that your old reality prevents you from being the person you want to be and live the life you want to live. Even more so when your old reality causes dysfunction in your life, whether with internal conflict, unhealthy habits, life misdirection, or interpersonal discord.

A question I’m often asked is: Why does old reality continue to impact our lives when it is so antiquated? My answer is that this happens due to its volume and weight. Let me explain. The perceptions that arise in us when we are young (i.e., our old reality) develop through repetition, that is, they come through the accumulation of life experiences that carry the same message from those around us (e.g., parents, friends, peers, or popular culture). Just like practicing bad technique in a sport—we become really good at that bad technique—when we continue to have the same life experiences (whether healthy or otherwise), they shape and ingrain our perceptions about those life events until those perceptions become our reality.

Also, though we don’t realize it when we are young, our early life experiences can be what I call “emotionally heavy,” meaning many of our experiences, particularly painful ones, are felt as strong emotions (e.g., sadness, hurt, grief, loneliness, and anger “weigh” more than neutral or positive emotions). As research has shown, emotionally weighted experiences are more quickly and deeply consolidated into our memories (for primitive survival reasons) that, in turn, become deeply held perceptions.

These perceptions become entrenched in our psyches and continue to impact our lives well into adulthood. In essence, these perceptions, which had been our old reality, impinge upon and shape our current reality, even when they are no longer relevant or functional. This old reality continues to influence us as a protective measure against the pain of those old, emotionally weighted perceptions; if we don’t defend ourselves, we believe (unconsciously) that the painful emotions underlying those perceptions will overwhelm us.

But a key lesson, that we must learn to let go of our old realities, is that what weighed a lot when we were children doesn’t proportionally weigh as much now. Let me give you a tangible metaphor to better explain this idea. Imagine lifting a 30-pound weight when you were a 70-pound child; it feels very heavy! Now imagine lifting that 30-pound weight when you are a 150-pound adult. It’s the same weight but feels much lighter. The same holds true for the emotional weight of our old reality. We have more emotional “strength,” in the form of experiences, perspectives, maturity, resources, and tools as adults, so the emotions that we believe we will experience if we don’t protect ourselves with our old reality will be far less painful and more manageable now than when we initially felt them as children. Thus, there is no need to cling to our old reality and allow it to guide our current reality.

One of the benefits of perceptions creating your reality is that you can change your perceptions, and, in doing so, change your current reality in a way that supports a reality based on who you are now and the kind of life you want to lead in the future. The challenge is how to alter those perceptions that are deeply ingrained in your psyche and have become the basis for your old reality. There are many ways to deconstruct your old reality, including through books, podcasts, webinars, or introspection. At the same time, I tend to recommend that seeing a trained mental-health professional is the most effective route to living fully in your current reality because they have education, training, and experience to guide through the process in a deliberate and time-tested way. Let me also suggest a broad outline of the process you might follow.

First, explore the perceptions that comprise your old reality. Understand where they came from, acknowledge the emotions that underly your perceptions, and recognize how those perceptions are no longer needed in your current reality.

Second, don’t try to ignore the emotional memories behind your perceptions. They will always find a way to leak out into your current reality. Rather, allow yourself to reexperience those memories and see that they aren’t as painful as you thought they would be. By facing them, you drain them of their power, you learn that you are capable of handling them, and that you no longer have the need to protect yourself from them.

Third, identify your current reality in terms of the perceptions that are consistent with who you are now and the life you want to lead, as well as the emotions you want your life to be infused with.

Finally, use my inside/out-outside/in approach to making changes in the way you think, the emotions you experience, the way you interact with others, and the way you engage with your world. With these changes in your perceptions, you will let go of your old reality and embrace your current reality.

To find a therapist near you, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

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