Can You Trust Your Own Perceptions?
How much of what you see is colored by your past?
Posted January 14, 2016
If you’re familiar with the psychological term “transference,” you probably associate it with a client in therapy transferring certain feelings onto their analyst. Yet, the meaning of transference is a bit broader and refers to a redirection of emotions, often that originate in childhood, onto someone in the present. As one article on MentalHelp.net put it, “Transference is a very fundamental process that human beings are constantly doing for better and for worse.” Because this is not a conscious process, it can be very hard to wrap our head around the fact that the projections or assumptions we make about others have a lot to do with something that isn’t even happening in the here and now.
As human beings, we’re designed to believe our own perceptions. In our relationships with other people, we tend to always trust our own opinion or think we’re right. However, if we were to take into account that some of our emotional reactions are based more on what happened to us than what’s happening to us, we might be a bit more humble. So much of the filter through which we view ourselves and the world around us has to do with our early life and the adaptations we made to our specific surroundings.
Humans are adaptive creatures. As kids, we adjust to our social environment as part of our survival. Our sensory pathways start to develop as early as three months before we’re even born. The first six years are a critical period in which we lay down many neural circuits of our brain. Events that occur in this timeframe can therefore shape how reactive we are and how triggered we’ll be into different states later in life. Because of this, any early adversity we experience heavily influences how we process the world around us.
Our attachment style with key figures in our formative years become internal “working models” we develop of how relationships function, thus influencing how we perceive or experience interpersonal connections throughout our lives. We may grow up questioning if others are trustworthy or if it’s safe to express what we want. We may feel ready for people to turn on us. We may start to see the people closest to us in our adult lives as being similar to people in our family. Our early attachment patterns can skew our reality and distort the ways we see others, believing them to be more critical, rejecting, controlling, possessive etc. than they actually are.
Our early childhood relationships not only affect our perceptions of how we’re being treated, but they influence how we treat those around us. Misperceptions based on our past help explain how worked up we get when certain words or expressions set us off. Each of us has triggers that are built in us based on our early childhood experiences. These little triggers can lead to large reactions.
We can all think of a friend who went off track all of a sudden, whose reaction seemed to have little to do with reality, but it’s much harder to notice when we ourselves are overreacting or misperceiving. However, getting to know our triggers can help us identify when our reactions aren’t in sync with what’s going on in the moment. For example, if we felt neglected as kids, we may have the tendency to mistakenly think we’re being disregarded as adults. We may easily find reasons to feel slighted or rejected. If we grew up in an erratic or intrusive environment, we may be quick to distrust or wary of commitment. Depending on our specific pattern or trigger, one little thing a person (particularly someone close to us) does can be blown way out of proportion, stirring up intensity from way back in history.
The projections we make onto people in our lives can affect everything from our relationships to our parenting style to our careers. We may project feelings from our childhood onto our own kids. If we felt deprived in our early years, we may view our children as feeling denied and compensate by overindulging them. If we felt left out in our original family, in our adult relationships, we may perceive our partner as rejecting every time he or she chooses to do something without us. If we were often insulted as kids, we may view our boss as being critical of us by reading into his or her comments or facial expressions. In each of these cases, we aren’t really seeing the current figures in our lives for who they really are but through a filter of our own expectations.
Of course, it’s valuable to have confidence and trust ourselves. But there are certainly times in our lives when our perspective is clouded by negative overlays from our past and by our own internal critic that casts doubt and criticism on all we do. So, the question becomes how can we separate these overlays from our real point of view? By learning how we may be distorting people in our lives, we gain insight into our history and our patterns of thinking. The more we can understand how our past informs our present, the more we can shed the undesirable layers or emotional baggage that may be having a negative impact on our current relationships.
One clue as to whether or not we’re reacting rationally to a real-life situation or being triggered by old feelings is to notice those moments when our mood suddenly shifts or a pang of emotions overwhelms us. It may feel like a switch has been flipped on or an alarm has gone off in our minds. Apart from our immediate emotional reaction, if we notice ourselves finding hidden meaning in other people’s words or behaviors or if we start building a case or feeling victimized, shamed, cast aside or disrespected, this may be a time to dig deeper into why.
We should think about whatever sparked this reaction: a certain question from a co-worker, an absentminded comment from our spouse, a small defiance from our child. Instead of assuming that the co-worker doesn’t listen to us, that our spouse is being critical or that our child is out of control, we may want to consider that something else is going on inside us that has little to do with them. We tend to be extra sensitive to ways of being treated that hurt us in the past. We may even be looking for or misinterpreting interactions to fit in with an old way of feeling or seeing ourselves that, though painful, can feel comfortable in its familiarity.
My point here is not to insinuate that all of our current reactions are merely reactions to our past. It’s simply to offer a new way of looking at the world that can help us make sense of some of our perceptions that may be off and to alter our behavior accordingly. This is why I tell people it is so important to fully feel and make sense of our childhood. It is a gateway to living our lives in a way that matters to us, free from the less desirable overlays of our history. It can help us distinguish any paranoid, suspicious, critical, insecure thoughts from our true point of view. Ironically, to do this we may have to be a little more humble and accepting of the notion that our point of view isn’t always accurate. We’ll have to accept that to see the world the way it is, we have to let go of the way it once was.
Read more from Dr. Lisa Firestone at PsychAlive.org