There is a simple and insightful psychological test where a glass is partially filled with water, and people are asked to describe the state of the glass. Some will describe it as half-full, while others will describe it as half-empty. This experiment aims to show how we can all see and interpret the same thing differently — a phenomenon called perception.
Perception serves as the lens through which we view life’s experiences. It influences how we see, understand, process, remember, and act on reality. Scientifically, it is how we experience the world around us through our senses of sight, touch, taste, hearing, and smell. Still, this episode focuses on the mental aspect of perception, which is all about how we interpret those experiences to create meaning for ourselves.
Our perceptions are the ideas and thoughts we maintain about a situation, and this constitutes the prediction of the reality we will eventually have. How we view our experiences can either motivate us to act in ways that will help us define our realities with intentionality or demoralize us and make us succumb to the default unpleasant realities.
In this article, I will enlighten you on how you change your perception and how perception influences and shapes your personal reality. I will further show you five steps you can take to improve your perception — and in turn, your reality — for the better.
I will begin with a short story about two brothers who had the same experiences but had different perceptions of their experience resulting in entirely different realities.
How Changing Perception Altered Two Brothers Lives
In the small city of Enna, Sicily, two twin brothers lived with their parents. The twin brothers grew up in abject poverty and had no outside help to better their situation. Their father and mother were both chronic alcoholics. They constantly fought and often transferred their aggression to the poor boys, beating and leaving them hungry at times.
On a fateful day, both boys, now 15 years old, went into a distant bush to gather fruits to eat, but by the time they returned home, they found the house they lived on fire. Unfortunately, their parents were inside when the fire broke out, and they perished.
Seeing that they both no longer had a house to live in or parents to stay with, they decided to go separate ways and fend for themselves. As they were leaving, they encountered an elderly man, and seeing how troubled they looked, he asked what the issue was with them.
They went on to narrate their predicament, and after listening, the elderly man told them he had no material thing to give them but would provide them with words that could help them achieve anything they wanted. He advised them: “You can draw strength and lessons from your traumatic past to create a better future. It’s all in how you see and do with it.” The man then advised them always to remember what he said and wished them well in their journey ahead.
Several years passed, and each of the brothers lived separate lives without one knowing where the other was. Then one day, the man who had given them the advice took it upon himself to locate both of them.
After weeks of searching, he found the first brother, who was now a wealthy doctor, married with two lovely kids. Impressed, he asked, “how did your life turn out like this?” The first brother replied, “I simply took your advice and saw my past as a reason to strive for a better future by changing perspective.”
The old man proceeded to locate the other twin. After a few more days of searching, he found him in a ramshackle cabin, drunk, homeless, and dejected.
He asked the same question to him: “how did your life turn out like this?” And his response was, “what did you expect with a past like mine? There’s no way anything positive could come from that mess.”
Whereas the first brother saw their unpleasant childhood trauma as a motivation to work hard and avoid the same pattern from happening to his own children, the second one saw it as an excuse for his failures in life.
This shows us how powerful our perception and interpretation of a situation we find ourselves in
After reading all I have said, you might wonder, “If perception shapes reality, what then shapes perception?”
What influences perception?
Perception is your sensory awareness of the world through sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste. Perception is the lens through which you view reality. It is through that lens that you acquire information about the environment around you and how you view your experiences and situations in life. It is shaped by your beliefs, interests, knowledge, and personality.
It is your natural tendency to assume that your perception of reality is an accurate depiction of what your actual reality is. Your perceptions impact how you process, analyze, reflect, synthesize, comprehend, and ultimately act on the world around you.
Therefore how you perceive others and the situations you encounter has everything to do with your upbringing, past experiences, your learned values and morals, and how you see them demonstrated in your life. Your past experiences and situations cause you to form perceptions of others and their actions.
That’s precisely why your perception, my perception, and their perception can all be distinct in an “identical” situation and all be right.
How does self-identity change your perception?
Of the factors that influence perception, one particular one stands out. It is that of identity.
In his co-authored book with Dominic J. Packer, ‘The Power of Us’, Associate Professor of Neural Science and Psychology at New York University, Jay Van Bavel writes about the power of identity and how it shapes our perception. He explains, “When you adopt an identity, it is as if you put on a pair of glasses that filter your view of the world. Identity helps you grapple with the vast amount of information continually bombarding your senses. It tells you what is important, where to look, when to listen, and perhaps even what to taste.” This goes on to explain how what we see is dependent on who we are.
We all have different moments in our lives that are defining moments. How we perceive the experiences, the transition points that lead up to these crucial moments, and the decisions we take in them go on to directly influence the next phase of our lives.
In a recent interview with author, podcaster, and motivational speaker Rachel Hollis, we spoke about a recent defining season in her life. I asked her what her takeaways were from it.
She replied by telling me how, over the past two and a half years, she has experienced a lot of loss and grief, which she would never want to go through again. But she did not stop there. She went on to talk about how her difficult experiences have made her a wholly different and better person. She acknowledges that every great thing in her life came on the other side of hardship.
Rachel could only speak like this because she chose to perceive her situations and experiences as growth instead of failure. She saw every difficult season and hard lesson as an opportunity to learn and recognized that the trying seasons in life could not be traded. She discovered they made her a better mother, author, podcaster, and partner.
Five ways to change your perspective to create the reality you want
Your perceptions of people you encounter and things that shape your life are influenced by your prior experiences and how you process those experiences. This can lead to one person perceiving the exact same situation differently than someone else.
If you want to improve your perception skills, there are steps that you can take that I have tried in my own life. Here are five actions that worked for me that you can employ that may help you perceive the world around you differently — or at least focus on the essential things. They include:
Discover your true identity
Aristotle said that “knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom.” Knowing who you truly are is not about trying to fix your identity to a particular stereotype. Instead, it is about having a clear understanding of how your identity is constantly shaped by the world you are inextricably a part of. It also demonstrates how you play a role in shaping the identity of those around you.
Earlier today, I interviewed Dr. Marisa G. Franco about her New York Times bestselling, Platonic: How the Science of Attachment Can Help You Make and Keep Friends. She explains throughout the book why connection affects who we are and how who we are affects how we connect. In essence, understanding your true self is knowing the role other people play in your life and your role in their lives.
This will help you to know your place in the world and enable you to perceive all life’s situations from that knowledge so that all that happens can be used for your growth, eventual advantage, and fulfilling your purpose.
One of the most remarkable authors of the 20th century, Anaïs Nin, said, “We don’t see things as they are; we see them as we are.” This quote is about the need to be intentional about finding your own meaning in life’s experiences. Only by doing this will you be able to know yourself and how you impact the world around you.
Focus on seeing the lessons
Every life experience provides opportunities to learn something new, which can then be applied to create a better future.
You need to realize that life is a mix of peaks and valleys. Everyone will face their own trials and challenges at different seasons. So, if all you are paying attention to is a rosy, convenient life, you might not be able to draw out the important lessons necessary for your growth and transformation.
Like the case of the twin brothers in the earlier story, one recognized that all he had been through could serve as a motivation to live better. However, the other who experienced the same trauma used it as an excuse to live carelessly because he chose not to take the lessons from hardship and grow from them.
So, ensure that you intentionally look for the good in the bad so you never lose out on both ends. Life will always offer its lemons. It’s up to you to perceive that offer rightly and make lemonade with them.
Maximize the power of choice
In a previous episode, I talked about the power of choice. I mentioned that “it’s unlocking the power of choice in life’s most crucial moments that can truly make the difference between success and failure, passion or indifference, and optimism or pessimism.”
How you perceive life’s experiences is a choice no one can make for you. You have to decide what you will see and the actions you will take based on what you have interpreted for yourself.
Now that you know that you can always choose what you will allow your experiences to do to you, I ask: are you going to allow them to make or mar you?
Have self-compassion and love for others
In a previous episode, I talked about the importance of empathy in your life. Empathy will allow you to cut yourself some slack and gain enough strength to ultimately heal from difficult situations and be your best self.
One other thing that empathy will help you do is seeing people in a better, non-judgmental way. As I stated earlier, discovering your true identity is not only how others affect you but also how you affect them. Having empathy towards others will help you understand them better and have a positive influence on them. This will, in turn, make you see the world around you in a better light of love and compassion.
Seek counsel to change your perspective
If you pause now and reflect on your life, you will remember points when you misperceived a particular situation, and someone with more insight helped you see it in an alternative way.
Though your perceptions may form unconsciously, they still shape your reality. Therefore, what you encounter in your day-to-day life can help mirror those unconscious beliefs for your examination. We must look at our outside world to discover our internal perceptions. The simple truth is that no one knows it all, and there is only so much you can see by yourself. By seeking advice and wise counsel from other well-meaning people, you will be able to gain the insight you cannot acquire all alone.
Isaac Newton, one of the most influential scientists of all time, said: “If I have seen further than others, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants.”
Anyone who has achieved anything worthwhile will admit that they got a better understanding and insight from other people at different points along their journey.
By Changing Your Perception, You Can Reshape Your Reality
Former U.S Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan once said, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.” But his statement was followed up by American TV host Stephen Colbert who said, “It used to be, everyone was entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts. But that’s not the case anymore. Facts matter not at all. Perception is everything.”
The point Colbert was trying to make was that it does not matter what really happened. Your perception of situations is what actually constitutes your reality.
Life is simply what it is. Things happen beyond your control, but how you respond to life’s experiences and what you choose to do with them depends entirely on the personal interpretations you give to these experiences.
Realize that you get to shape your reality and will continue to see life through whatever perceptions you have created unless you decide to change it — which you can. It will not come without learning and hardship, but once you own this reality, you cannot passively sit anymore — only believing that life happened to you — and expect things to be different.
Instead, you alter your perceptions to create positive change in your day-to-day life. By changing perceptions, the physical world you see will reflect what you want to see in your life, created through intention, rather than what our unconscious perceptions created in reality by default.