How Your Experiences Affect Your Perception Of Reality

Therapist taking notes on her patient on the sofa at therapy sessionA client walks into her therapists’ office in obvious distress. She is nearly incapacitated with grief, and is barely able to find the chair she always uses to sit and talk to her therapist. She is so upset, she is nearly suicidal; believing that the world is so filled with evil there is no sense going on. Eventually, she is able to describe the event that took place earlier that caused her such anguish, and which made her feel so very hopeless.

Fearing she might indeed hurt herself, the therapist takes action. Cancelling her next appointment, she spends the next two hours working the woman off the precipice and bringing her back to a place where she can cope with the tragedy she witnessed, and helping her to feel hopeful again. After making a follow-up appointment for the next day, the therapist is comfortable allowing the woman to leave her office.

Objective Reality vs. Your Reality

The next morning, a man shows up for his bi-weekly session, obviously furious over something he’d witnessed the day before. His anger is palpable, with negative energy surging across the office as he enters and paces the floor. This is so unusual for this man that the therapist is at a loss for the possible cause, and asks him to sit and explain the problem.

As he begins to describe an event that took place the day before at the coffee shop around the corner, the therapist begins to understand that this is the same event that had caused the woman so much distress the previous day. She had seen the story on the news about a robbery gone wrong, in which three people were shot and had died. There had been dozens of witnesses in the coffee shop, all of whom had been threatened by the armed robber. Interviews with these witnesses had run the gamut from distressed to angry, but none had seemed hopeless to the degree that her client had the day before.

Now, this man whom she thought she knew so well, was so angry at the perpetrator of the crime he seemed almost homicidal himself. Setting aside her own thoughts about the stark differences in the reactions of these two people, she helped him work through his anger, finding ways to set it aside so that it did not cause him to do something he would regret, or continue to cause him pain. At the end of their session, she felt confident that he was again in control of his anger, though they did schedule an extra appointment for the next week.

The therapist was grateful that he was her last appointment for the day, as this gave her the time she needed to ponder the differences in the reactions of two of the witnesses to the tragic events of the day before: one who’d become hopeless after personally experience such barbarous behaviour, and another who’d wished he’d been armed so he could take action against the killer.

Both of these people witnessed the same event, yet their perception of it, and the effect it had on them personally were markedly different. “Why is that?” she asked herself.

The objective reality of the event from the day before was this: three innocent people had been victimized by a fourth, shot dead through no fault of their own. The man who killed them showed no remorse and fled the scene without pursuit. In other words, he “got away with it”.

This fact, that the “bad guy got away with it,” is what had angered the man so profoundly that he wished he could avenge the victims. For him, this lack of accountability and punishment stoked something deep within him that had caused him become almost uncontrollably angry. The therapist realized that, had the man been armed, he would have pursued the bad guy, perhaps putting himself and others in danger.

Examining your Response to Stress

For the woman who had come to her feeling so hopeless after witnessing this crime, the response was quite different. All she was able to focus on was the barbarity of the act and, finding herself unable to understand such heartless, inhumane behaviour, began to feel that her life had as little value as those of the victims, so “what was the use in trying any longer?” Why should she continue to try to “be a good person” when so many others lived such despicable lives?

What was the difference in the lives of these two people that caused such differences in their reaction to the same events?

The man had been raised in a military family and had been taught that everyone should be held responsible for their actions, and that holding others accountable for negative behaviour was a moral imperative that deserved swift, commensurate punishment.

The woman on the other hand, had been victimized as a child, sexually abused by a male relative. Seeing other defenseless people being victimized so casually the day before had caused memories of her own abuse and hopelessness to overcome her ability to cope.

So, which of these reactions correspond with the reality of the event the day before? They both do, of course. Seeing three people being directly victimized, while the witnesses were being traumatized, the man reacted the way he had been taught all his life, wanting to come to their defense. The woman, seeing people being brutalized with no ability to protect themselves, responded as she’d been taught as well, by feeling like a helpless victim.

The reality that each of us brings to any stressful situation will, to a very large degree, determine our response to that situation. If, because of your life experience, you’ve felt repeatedly victimized and powerless, you’re likely to feel that way in any high-stress situation. If however, because of your training and experience you tend to confront a stressful situation head-on and take action, you will be just as likely to do so again. Not having the wherewithal to do so though, may lead to frustration and overwhelming anger.

Would you like help with recognizing the reality you carry with you, and in reducing the stress in your life? If so, please get in touch with me today.

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