Posted by Mike
We generally think, when we see something out there and listen to people talking out there (in the real world), that what we are seeing and what we are hearing are really out there in the real world and not that what is actually occurring is within our heads. Well, actually, the objective events are occurring out there in the real world. It’s the interpretations of our perceptions that are occurring within our heads – and at times the interpretation does relate more to what is going on in our own thoughts and emotions than to what’s occurring in reality. Most people are somewhat familiar with the psychological defense of projection, that occurs when we attribute to someone else a thought or feeling that we have because it is in some way unacceptable to us. I expect that all of us use projection from time to time. But I am not only referring to that, I’m thinking about something much bigger. And that is that we interpret our perceptions on the basis of our own biases, preconceptions and our own personal history. Our interpretation of someone’s meaning, or intention, or behavior is strongly colored by what’s happened to us in the past, and thus our interpretations are at times, for all of us, colored by what’s inside us.
There are at least two general ways in which we distort our perceptions, and they vary in severity, depending on factors that are both internal to us and external. The most important way we distort is a function of our personal mental pathology. Those of us who are relatively well adjusted, with minimal unresolved internal emotional conflicts or free-floating emotional residuals are likely to have a lower degree of emotional distortion of our perceptions. Individuals who are filled with strong free-floating emotions – like anger, fear, anxiety – are likely to be the most vulnerable to not perceiving reality as objectively. In addition, the more the stimulus touches an area of special vulnerability to us as individuals, areas of special conflict or uncertainty and emotionality, the more we are likely to distort our perceptions. The second major way that we distort our perceptions is a function both of the stimulus and our special reactivity, and this has to do with the ambiguity of the stimulus. The more ambiguous the stimulus, the less certain we are as to what is happening out there objectively in reality, and the more we are likely to project our own interpretation on the event or events, based both (obviously) on our own personal history and upon the emotional overlay the stimulus of the objective events elicits within us.
The more we are concerned with attribution of others attitudes, motives and feelings (as opposed to more objective events), the more is the possibility that at least some of our attributions to others are really a product of our own notions, preconceptions, biases. Everyone has a frame of reference through which we perceive events occurring outside of our bodies, in our own homes and communities, the nation, the world. Do we often or even ever stop to think that conclusions that we make regarding events and motives are to some degree colored by our own unconscious biases? I know people who without any doubt believe that every opinion they have about events, personalities, decisions of others is right without question, and certainly not in any way influenced by their own biases and lack of objectivity.
A strong example of false attribution is paranoia, the situation when a person truly believes that others are in some way out to get them, when the subtlest behaviors are seen as clues by the paranoid person, reflective of others’ nefarious intent. People who are this paranoid generally end up in a hospital under heavy sedation, which if it doesn’t stop the paranoia, at least reduces the person’s energy and potential to cause damage. I heard a therapist say once that for people who are more intact and capable of some objective reasoning, that the best way to begin to deal with paranoia is for the paranoiac to say to himself, “It’s in here. It’s not out there!” and to act on those thoughts – to act as if the problems are his own, even if he doesn’t completely believe it at first. This is likely a tall order for most of us, but can be manageable, with some external supports. Over time the individual doing the projecting can begin to sort out rationally and objectively – with some help – exactly what is really “out there” and what is really “in here”; and can begin to look at the motives that must be driving his projection in the first place. One primary emotional motive is likely fear, fear of things internal that are not acknowledged and not even in awareness. It’s a big order to begin to be aware of our internal fears and where they come from. Some people would like to think that they can ferret out such things by themselves. Ironically, it appears that Freud seemed to think that he was able to do this independently (cf. The Interpretation of Dreams). He certainly didn’t believe that it was possible for others, and developed a severely authoritarian and rigid system for searching out and resolving the internal conflicts that lead to such things as projection. Ironically, in recent years there have been many revisionists that have questioned whether Freud was truly able to effectively engage in self-analysis and that he was doing little more than setting up another level of defenses to conceal his own hidden emotional conflicts.