Perspective: The Difference Maker in Memories & Experiences

A discussion of how we remember and are impacted by experiences.

Posted Apr 03, 2017

Pixabay/No attribution required.
Source: Pixabay/No attribution required.

Many of us have heard of this scenario: a car accident happens in a busy intersection surrounded by pedestrians.  Depending on the corner where each pedestrian stood, bystander statements regarding how the accident transpired may be different. What we are talking about here is perspective.  How you perceive a person, event, or situation dictates your perspective.  Related to perspective is perception, which is notoriously referred to as one’s “truth” – as in the saying “perception is reality.”  And this saying is largely true.  Perspective is your point of view, while perception is what you interpret from your five senses to form your reality, and thereby your point of view.

Why is this important?  Perspective is the main factor in determining how an event resonates with you, how you feel about a situation, and how you will remember what happened.

Practical Example of Perspective Differences

There are many, many examples of how perspective is present within our daily lives.  Take for example this situation: Your boss calls you into their office and you quickly realize this is not for a brief question.  Rather, you are being provided with unscheduled feedback about your recent performance on a project.  Your boss delivers the feedback through the use of the sandwich approach, meaning giving you positive feedback, then negative or constructive criticism (which, again, depends on perspective), followed by something positive.  There are several ways you may walk away from this situation:

(a) you only hear your boss’ positive feedback, and walk away feeling proud and appreciated
(b) you only hear your boss’ negative feedback, and take the feedback as that: negative.  Instead of viewing the feedback as constructive with the intention of helping you to improve on let’s say a specific work habit, you feel ridiculed, judged, and devalued
(c) you hear both the positive and negative feedback, and are left feeling confused and uncertain about how to proceed in the project
(d) you hear both the positive and constructive feedback, and walk out of their office feeling accomplished but particularly motivated to improve in the area where constructive feedback was provided

In all of these takeaways, the actual content of the feedback from your boss is unchanged, but how you react to the conversation is entirely dependent on your perspective (i.e., how you perceive the interaction and the content shared).

What Creates Perspective?

Perspective varies from person-to-person.  Similar to the scenario with the car accident bystander reports, each person carries with them their own reasoning as to why something happened the way it did and the meaning behind it.  How perspective varies from person-to-person is dependent on a multitude of factors (all of which can likely not be named here!).  However, some notable elements that create perspective differences include your previous experiences, values, beliefs, and morals.

A commonality amongst all these factors is they are not innate, but rather they are the result of nurture. Likewise, perspective is a result of nurture.

Previous Experiences

The situations you have previously encountered, as well as how those situations were managed, have a significant impact on your perspective for all similar or related situations that follow.  Take, for example, the parent who rushes to their child’s side when the child falls down and lightly bangs their knee.  This teaches the child that falling down and banging their knee is deserving of immediate attention, urgency, and perhaps panic.  On the other hand, the parent who encourages their child to get back up and doesn’t overly-react teaches the child that falling down is not a major upset and that they are capable of getting back up and moving on fairly quickly.

While these events seem insignificant, important messages and lessons are being formulated for the child and have a tremendous impact on how this individual will react to minor upsets later on in life.  Perspective is often the result of your own experiences and how those have shaped your approach to yourself, others, and the world.

Values, Beliefs, and Morals

These three related, but distinct, components of the self are strongly connected to perspective.  If you believe that lying is not a problematic behavior, you are probably not as likely to feel slighted after learning that your best friend knowingly did not tell you the truth.  On the other hand, if you were raised to believe or learned that 100% truthfulness is crucial to living a life of integrity, your reaction to your friend’s lie would probably be significant.  Some more examples:

  • You’re at a party and see a person across the room that you find attractive.  If you believe it is generally easy to go up to someone you don’t know (in which case you actually probably don’t think twice about doing so), you will quite easily make your way over and start up a conversation.  Conversely, if you believe going up to others whom you don’t know is awkward and embarrassing, you are likely to remain where you are (and pass up a potential opportunity).
  • If you believe that it is important to live with someone before you marry, and you value the opportunity to get to know your partner in this way before making a bigger commitment, you will perhaps happily and excitedly move in with your partner.  Conversely, if you believe it is immoral or “wrong” to live together before marriage, you are likely to be upset or concerned at your partner’s suggestion of doing so.

What you believe in, what you consider right and wrong, and what matters to you in life are all crucial elements of forming a perspective.

The Impact on Your Life

Many times when individuals come to therapy, they present the story of their life or a recent situation from one perspective.  This perspective may be factually based where others who hear the account would agree with how the individual is approaching the situation or series of events.  While this does happen, this tends to be more rare, as there is often more than one way to approach a situation.  There is where therapy can be incredibly helpful.

One of the most important, and helpful, aspects of psychotherapy is the opportunity to gain greater open-mindedness, awareness, and to consider alternative perspectives.

When your therapist presents an alternative perspective to a situation, it is only as useful as your willingness to consider it.  While therapists of course have their own unique backgrounds, values, beliefs,and morals, they are trained in objectively assessing situations in order to be as parsimonious as possible.  If you sincerely want to make changes in your life, it is important to understand where your perspective comes from but to also work on identifying and considering alternative perspectives.  And this is important, as perspective determines your reality: how an event resonates with you, how you feel about a situation, and how you will remember what happened.

Perspective and Trauma

One of the biggest factors that determines how an event impacts you is how you perceive that event.  This is especially true of trauma.  Trauma often happens in response to events that are perceived as life or body threatening or after witnessing someone else’s life be threatened or taken in a violent or shocking way.  Psychological trauma often relies on a person’s subjective experience of an event, and to what extent they believe their life, bodily integrity, or psychological well-being was threatened.

This is why individuals can experience similar situations, or perhaps even share the same experience, and walk away having totally different reactions and impacts on their life.  This is one of the important reasons as to why some Veterans walk away from a combat deployment and eventually develop PTSD, while others are not as impacted by the events they experienced.  Further, the three gold-standard, evidence-based treatments (Cognitive Processing Therapy, Prolonged Exposure, and EMDR) for PTSD not only include exposure exercises, but target the individual’s beliefs (i.e., their perspective) by helping them to consider alternative perspectives based on facts.  

The Hope

If you are struggling with ruminating, persistent thoughts or find yourself unable to view a situation in your life differently, know that it often takes assistance from a trained professional to gain insight and learn how to make cognitive changes.  This is a particular set of skills that does not come naturally, but that can be learned and can make an incredible difference in how you approach problems in your life.