We humans are capable of acquiring profoundly deep understandings of reality. We’ll likely at some future time have a much deeper intellectual grasp of what are now scientific, metaphysical, and cosmic mysteries.
Reality is defined more narrowly, however, for the purposes of this article. Here, reality refers to what makes us tick psychologically and what it’s important to know about our mental and emotional operating systems.
This inner reality reveals what is right, proper, and true for our emotional wellbeing. The quality with which we experience ourselves and the world around us depends on how well we appreciate this inner reality. Civilization and the planet are depending on us to understand our inner nature.
To a large degree, people unwittingly experience themselves and the world around them through misperceptions and misinterpretations. This lack of objectivity produces negative emotions and self-defeating behaviors. As we uncover these distortions and make them conscious, we empower our intelligence and acquire a growing ability to live in inner peace while fulfilling our aspirations.
Below are twelve common misperceptions of ourselves, others, inner reality, as well as aspects of outer reality. These misperceptions are all interwoven, overlapping with one another.
1) Perceiving the world through too much self-centeredness. We’re all born in a state of self-centeredness. The infant, with no experience of dealing with people and the world, feels self-contained and self-sufficient, despite the obvious total dependence on caregivers. The child’s sense of reality is not only limited, it’s also distorted. A child feels as if he or she is at the center of existence. It takes many years for a child to begin to feel empathy for others.
The child’s self-centeredness typically diminishes over time, yet most adults still view the world with these infantile leftovers. This lack of psychological development causes us to fret about what we’re getting or not getting, about whether others have good or bad intentions toward us. We experience others through conflict and a sense of being disconnected or isolated, and at times our generosity and gratitude are hollow. Invisible walls are now more likely to close in upon our heart, and we can’t breathe in our greater self. In this fetid air, we indulge, with accompanying self-pity, in feelings of being unappreciated, unworthy, and unloved. We’re unable to feel included in the network of wholeness of which we’re privileged to be part.
2) Perceiving people or groups through projection. Projection is a psychological dynamic that causes people to see and dislike in another person the flaw or flaws they’re declining to see in themselves. Projection is an unconscious psychological defense. The defense creates a distortion, a misreading of what is true and real, to cover up one’s unwillingness to see others objectively for the primary purpose of declining to see oneself objectively. Through our egotism, the curdling of self-centeredness, we avoid such objectivity because we feel slighted, humbled, or shamed by inner truth. Yet we’re unlikely to grow psychologically without seeing the inner dynamics that maintain emotional weakness.
Projection serves as a psychological defense. In one example, the unconscious defense claims: “I’m not the one who’s inclined to feel weak and passive. Look, it’s him. He’s the one with the problem. I’m not looking to resonate with that weakness in myself. I hate the feeling, and I dislike him for being that way.” This distortion of reality causes us to see others in a negative or unfriendly way, creating personality clashes and enemies.
3) Perceiving others through transference. Transference is a psychological dynamic that induces us to see and experience others as if their feelings, behaviors, and intentions toward us are unkind, negative, or malicious. Indeed, sometimes people are antagonistic toward us, but with transference we’re likely to think that’s also true of people who have no foul intentions. Our misinterpretation serves a hidden purpose: It fulfills our unresolved emotional attachment to feelings of being refused, criticized, unloved, controlled, and rejected. For example, a person with a sensitivity toward feeling judged or criticized will have a tendency to experience others as if they are indeed judging and criticizing him, even when that’s not their intention. The person who is sensitive to feeling rejected or unloved will experience others as if they are indeed being rejecting and unloving. And so on. Why is this?
This quirk of human nature begins when we’re young. Children tend to experience their parents and others in highly subjective ways, often through the negative emotions of refusal, control, criticism, rejection, and abandonment. A child, for instance, can feel refused or criticized at the slightest provocation, and then magnify the feeling out of all proportion to reality. Later as an adult, the person can now carry, in his or her psyche, emotional attachments to these unresolved issues. Unconsciously, the person goes looking for these negative emotions, and he or she transfers onto others the expectation that they will be the source of such emotions. Through transference, this person experiences the misleading impression that these negative emotions are being directed back at him or her.
4) Perceiving ourselves and others through inner passivity. Inner passivity causes us to feel self-doubt and to identify with ourselves through a sense of weakness. With this weakness, we might not be able to imagine or achieve our full potential. We feel disconnected from our better self, and thereby we perceive situations as if we’re operating at a disadvantage. With inner passivity, we often can’t imagine or plan a successful way forward. All we imagine or feel is the likelihood of failure. We also experience everyday challenges as if they’re immovable obstacles that will not only confound and overwhelm us but render us subordinate and helpless. A common symptom of inner passivity is fearfulness.
With inner passivity, we don’t necessarily see the smarter, more noble people around us with admiration. That’s because we compare ourselves to them and, in this process, experience ourselves as inferior. We can feel ambivalent about them because of our impression that they cause us to feel inadequate or less than. What’s happening, of course, is that we ourselves are unwittingly using their admirable qualities to activate our unconscious identification with ourselves as a weak, flawed, or even contemptible person. We often prefer to identify with weaker people because they don’t challenge us to grow and become stronger ourselves. In politics, we might vote for the weaker character for this reason, though we convince ourselves we’re making the best choice.
5) Experiencing the world through inner fear. Inner fear is an emotional remnant of childhood, and adults are often not aware of how much inner fear they carry within them. With inner fear, we tend to see dangers and enemies (or potential enemies) everywhere. If we’re acutely fearful (paranoid), the fearfulness becomes intensely painful. People who cling to ideologies or dogmatic beliefs sometimes make use of these mental formulations to quell their inner fears. They see certain other people with a negative bias, as outsiders or aliens who can’t be accepted or trusted. Inner fear makes us self-centered and entangles us in pettiness.
The more intensely we experience the world through inner fear, the more irrational we become and the more we’re in danger of making foolish choices and bad decisions. Inner fear, for instance, contributes to confusion and uncertainty. It causes us to have a vested interest in continuing to misperceive and misinterpret situations, because doing so enables us to maintain our familiar inner status quo, namely our identifications with self-doubt, indecision, and weakness. Holding on to fear is the path of least resistance, and unscrupulous politicians often play on this weakness. We need courage to go face-to-face with our inner weakness. Becoming stronger and wiser involves becoming less fearful.
6) Seeing others and the world through emotional attachments. I have already mentioned emotional attachments (in number 3, the discussion on transference), and they play a role in all the psychological ways we misinterpret reality. Here are some brief examples of them. A jealous person misreads many situations, and his or her misinterpretations arise from an emotional attachment to an unresolved sensitivity from childhood involving feeling rejected, abandoned, or betrayed. Cynical people, as another example, see the world with mockery and scorn, and these distortions stem from their emotional attachment to feeling powerless and helpless to remedy the injustice and malice they chronically complain about.
Emotional attachments, in essence, are the hidden culprit in so many emotional and behavioral problems. They create unconscious identifications that are limited and self-defeating. These attachments can shape our personality. Envious people, for example, are attached to the feeling of what they don’t have. Their envy covers up their emotional attachments to feeling refused, deprived, and unworthy. People are very reluctant to recognize their emotional attachments. For instance, if you were to tell an envious person that he’s emotionally attached to feeling deprived and unworthy, he might look at you in astonishment and then begin to mutter an adamant denial. If you were to tell a chronically angry person that his anger is a cover-up for his emotional attachment to feeling refused (or helpless, rejected, criticized, or unworthy), he would likely give you a dirty look or even lash out at you.
7) Perceiving the world through inner defensiveness. With inner defensiveness, a person is operating in a self-centered manner, instinctively protecting himself or herself from seeing and addressing inner weakness. The instinctive impulse is to protect one’s fragile self-image. Yet this emotional fragility can doom us to a life of missed opportunities. We won’t likely grow and become stronger until, with insight, we recognize where we’re weak. Defensiveness is a form of unconscious resistance. It’s an unconscious determination to avoid addressing one’s areas of inner weakness.
With inner defensiveness, we’re trying to avoid our exposure to any knowledge that threatens our inner status quo. That means we want to be exposed only to “safe” knowledge. We gravitate toward what is safe, and see danger in whatever threatens our self-image and might expose our inner foibles. This can cause us to be drawn into friendship or romance with deeply flawed people who won’t hold us accountable for our own flaws. Even when someone tries sincerely to help us to see our emotional weakness, we deny the problem, claim ourselves to be victims of extenuating circumstances, or turn the “accusation” back on that person. A defensive person is often quick to be judgmental of others and is thereby likely to misinterpret their motives and intentions.
8) Being misled by our psychological defenses. Not only are we challenged by our inner defensiveness but also by psychological defenses. Both our defensiveness and our defenses cover up our participation in “psychological mischief.” They usually operate unconsciously, and they block us from recognizing inner truth. Blaming others is a common psychological defense, and so is anger, as the following example illustrates. A man unconsciously rationalizes: “I’m not inwardly looking to feel rejected and then indulging in it. It’s not my fault I’m miserable. I’m not to blame. I blame Jane [or, I’m angry at Jane]. She’s the one who’s causing me to feel rejected.” This man now perceives Jane with a negative bias, though she might not actually have any intention of being rejecting toward him or have done anything to merit his anger. Whether she has or not, he’s determined to indulge in feeling rejected.
Many varieties of emotional suffering operate as psychological defenses. (See number 2 on this list, the discussion of projection, to read how it serves as a defense.) Indecision, as another example, offers up this defense: “I’m not willing to indulge in feeling self-doubt, uncertainty, and helplessness. The problem is I can’t come to a decision. Look how bad I feel for being so indecisive. I hate feeling indecisive.” Another symptom, depression, offers up defenses along these lines: “I’m not looking to feel criticized and condemned by my inner critic and people at work. I hate being criticized. Look at how depressed I get as a result of all the criticism I’m getting.” Another symptom, acute loneliness, offers this defense: “I’m not interested in indulging in feeling unwanted, unloved, devalued. Look at how lonely I am. I want company so desperately!”
9) Perceiving ourselves as victims of the malice of others. Young children can often feel that everything good comes from within themselves and everything menacing or bad comes from the outside world. This impression of reality lives on in the psyche of many adults, and it’s a factor in self-centeredness, inner fear, and an aversion for the unfamiliar. Victimhood feeds the unconscious appetite for inner passivity, accentuating the feeling of being powerless and helpless in the world. The individual with a victim mentality sees others as likely oppressors rather than potential allies. This person can also feel victimized by people who are supposedly refusing him, or who are critical, controlling, or rejecting of him. He believes that others cause these bad feelings to arise in him, rather than seeing his own participation in generating these negative impressions. As another example, people in the political correctness movement lose their balance and experience victimization when they unwittingly use the disdain or heedlessness of others as a way to feed emotional attachments to feeling rejected and unworthy.
10) Perceiving the world through a judgmental mentality. Our inner critic tends to be compulsively critical. Through compulsive self-criticism, we become our own worst enemy. Because of our inner passivity, we often fail to protect ourselves from the broadsides leveled at us by our inner critic. Because of this inner conflict, we begin to see ourselves with a pronounced unkindness. We begin to feel as if we deserve the verbal abuse that our inner critic levels at us. Now we’re seeing ourselves in a very unfavorable light, which means we’re misperceiving our own self. We’re now likely to begin to see others with the same negative intensity that our inner critic is directing at our weakest point, our inner passivity. Reacting to our inner critic, we become critical and judgmental of others, whether in our mind or with spoken critical words. Just as our inner critic attacks us with the barest of evidence or on the slightest pretext or for no legitimate reason at all, we do the same to others. Of course, we’re now failing to see them objectively. All we’re doing is creating negative impressions of them that are likely to be unjustified.
11) Seeing the world in terms of boredom. The world is an incredibly rich mosaic of people, animals, nature, art, technology, and so much more. It doesn’t deserve to be yawned at. Boredom, however, doesn’t care about all this richness. Instead, a psychological obstinacy prevails, an unconscious willingness to go through life feeling disappointed with oneself and with what life has to offer. A person’s parents might have adopted this approach to life, making it more likely that a son or daughter will adopt the same mentality. An adult can also, in ongoing unconscious resentment toward his parents, maintain a stubborn defiance, a determination to hold parents accountable for their real or alleged lack of support, negative outlook, or closed-mindedness. In such a case, the indictment of the parents would read: “My boredom shows how little you had to offer me. I’m just seeing the world the way you saw me and the way you saw the world, as if we’re all good for nothing.” Of course, this stubborn determination to refrain from experiencing healthy pleasure from the richness of life is self-defeating.
12) Seeing the world through negative peeping. This odd term, negative peeping, describes our largely unconscious determination to use our eyes and imagination to see or to visualize events and situations in such a way as to feed our attachment to one or more unresolved negative emotions. A fellow would be peeping if he were watching his girlfriend closely to see whether she gets excited in the presence of certain men—which would excite his emotional attachment to feeling unworthy or rejected. Peeping operates very much like transference (see number 3), with the added component of being a function of the visual drive. Negative peeping doesn’t have to involve the misinterpretation of a situation. Negative peepers might accurately see that someone is, say, intentionally ignoring them. But they will ramp up the sense of injury or injustice, fixating on the feeling of being overlooked or disrespected in order to resonate with their own emotional attachment to feeling unworthy or insignificant. Evidence for the truth of this is the fact that they will “see” that they’re being overlooked, and feel the hurt of it, even when others are innocently going about their business and have no intention of treating them in that manner.
When we understand these twelve ways that we misperceive reality, we begin to understand a macabre aspect of human nature—our unconscious willingness to continue to suffer with the unresolved issues and conflicts in our psyche. With this knowledge, our intelligence is now empowered to create a new and improved way of being.