When you look at the image above, how does it make you feel and what do you think? Are you filled with calm feelings and thoughts of being surrounded by soothing nature? Or are you filled with feelings of fear, and thoughts of danger and isolation? The picture is the same, but the reaction for each person may be different. Why is that? A person's reaction is influenced by their perspective.
Our perspective is shaped by a number of factors: our past experiences, the influence of important people in our lives, societal factors, and many others. Most of us go through our days with the belief that the way we experience events contains just the facts. We forget that we are taking the facts and filtering them through our own perspective. Therefore "the facts" will become our version of the facts. Sometimes, our version may be very close to the true version, but sometimes it can be very different. Why is it important to recognize this? Because the way we perceive things will influence our thoughts, feelings, and ultimately our behavior.
To use the image above as an example, if it weren't a picture but a real life situation, you would take in the information (facts) and overlay your perspective. The "facts" are that it is a path in the woods, with no other people currently present. If you generally had a positive perspective about nature, solitude, and physical activity- what choice are you likely to make? And if you had a negative perspective on those same concepts, what choice would you make? Your perspective takes the set of facts, and changes what they mean to you. This filter changes what you think, how you feel, and what you do.
If we broaden this idea, and think about day to day events, how might your perspective be changing things? How does it change how you interact with others? What choices do you make because of it? And what do you expect in situations because of it?
To come back to the example of the path, if I am thinking it will be a positive experience, my mind will be set to receive information that supports my expectations. That means my perspective and expectations can influence what type of experience I have! Of course, it can't guarantee that it will be a positive experience, but it definitely makes it more likely.
But what if your perspective is negative? What if the path above represents danger and scary things? And more broadly, what if you believe that people are generally bad and will take advantage of you? How is this perspective impacting your decisions? For those who are experiencing depression and anxiety, how is that changing your perspective and expectations?
While reading this, if you found yourself identifying more negative perspectives, and recognized how it leads to negative expectations, what can you do to change this? The not so helpful answer is "change your perspective!" That's like telling an anxious person not to worry... The answer may not be helpful, but it is accurate. The issue is that you need to know how to make it happen!
As I say to clients- the first step is awareness. Make an effort to test yourself to see if there is a particular perspective that is shaping your experience of events. Sometimes you can identify this by asking how someone else might see it- perhaps a friend or a family member. That shift in thinking can offer an opportunity in the moment to look at the situation differently. If that is not an option, you can take a moment to find the "facts." Think about the actual event, being careful to strip away the judgement and interpretation. For example, think of the "facts" about the image at the beginning of this post and how it only considers what can be seen and can't be argued.
The next step is to make an effort to challenge your perspective and attempt to find an alternative. Ask yourself how this new alternative will change your response. Will it be in a way that is likely to lead to you being happier, more comfortable? Also, how does holding on to the old perspective benefit you?
And lastly, use each of these new experiences to reshape your perspective in a way that aligns with what makes you happy! Reshaping your perspective involves developing self-talk that represents the new perspective. This is not an easy process, and can take time and practice. But if the end result is experiencing life in a way that leads to happiness, calm, and contentment, doesn't it seem worth it?
If it feels overwhelming to do this on your own, feel free to reach out to me. I'm happy to work with you on this. And let me know what you think by leaving a comment below. I would love to hear some of your own experiences with perspective and expectations!
I read an article this weekend in National Geographic that talked about some new research that has been taking place to study the power and effects of placebo. Placebo is a term that most of us have at least some familiarity with, thanks to pharmaceutical companies. In the late 60's to early 70's, the FDA began requiring drug companies to demonstrate that their medication was actually doing something. Most of these studies compared the results of their medication against a group that took a medication that had no active medication in it (a placebo); and neither group knew which got the medication and which got the placebo. In study after study, a surprisingly large number of people would report improvement with the placebo; a much larger improvement than the group that got no medication. This was surprising to many initially.
In case you are curious, Merriam Webster has a few definitions for placebo-
a usually pharmacologically inert preparation prescribed more for the mental relief of the patient than for its actual effect on a disorder
b: an inert or innocuous substance used especially in controlled experiments testing the efficacy of another substance (such as a drug)
2: something tending to soothe
As you can see, the second definition is the one that I referred to initially, but the first and third are the ones I want to focus on. The phenomenon of experiencing improvement with a placebo is termed the placebo effect.
Studies that have specifically looked at the placebo effect have theorized that a person's belief that something would help was at the root of improvement with placebo. How amazing is that?? Thinking (and believing) that something would help can make it happen!
To me, this idea was unbelievably powerful- If I believe that something will help, it is more likely to actually help. The power of thinking has become a cornerstone of the way I do therapy with clients, and is a foundational part of how I function on a day to day basis.
The new research that the National Geographic article refers to gave subjects a placebo, and told them it's a placebo. The researchers explained to the participants that placebos have been shown to improve a person's condition. The results continued to show improvement, even when the participants knew they were taking a placebo. These studies further demonstrate that it is the belief that results in improvement.
Although the placebo effect is generally related to medical conditions (and medication), the idea that your beliefs can influence how you feel has a more general application. So, I conclude by asking you this- are you using the power of your brain to better your life and situation? If the answer is no, what steps can you take to harness this amazing power?
Feel free to reach out to me if you want to explore this further.