How to Tell if a Problem is Real or Imagined


Feedback to a Friend, On Seeing Herself Clearly

The following is a letter I wrote to a friend with whom I encountered some conflict. When I gave it further thought, I realized that our two versions of reality were different, hence the clash. And the truth is, that's common in many of our conflicts. So how can we tell when our problem is real or imagined? Let's go through the thought process...

Hi M-,

I read your e-mail with interest this morning, and as always with thoughts stirring.

It was surprising that you interpreted my comments to be negative and directed toward you. I’m glad I realized you had misheard, and that I was just wise enough to know to call and leave a voice message to put a stop to the mischief.

Here’s the really intriguing part. You really did hear what you heard, even though it's not what I said. Curious, isn’t it? That’s a perfect example of how we make things up. Our old ideas, the lens through which we experience the world, are always filtering reality consistent with what we believe. Then, we make up an interpretation that is consistent from which we act accordingly. That's why it’s so important to determine whether or not what we perceive is imagined or real.

So let’s get back to your situation with Connie. After all those years as close friends, when you see her in public what you remember is that she just stopped talking to you. And now she won’t acknowledge you when she sees you. Your interpretation is that you need to do something to make it right, even though all the evidence is that you did nothing wrong. That’s how you see the world, Marilyn.

That’s what we mean when we say humans are “self-centered.” We experience the world based on our perception, which we then believe to be true even though it often is not. It never enters our awareness that the "problem" may not be real, or may simply be a misinterpretation. In other words, we take it into our "self-centered" viewpoint, and are unable to see it through another lens, i.e. one that is not about me.

I can’t express how cool it is to see the progress you’re making in your life!



Seeing True

While there may be an objective reality, all we can see is our interpretation of reality. When we can remember we may be misinterpreting, the world and its people no longer present the problems we imagined.

Seeing True in Action

The first key to a challenge with another person is to verify the facts. Or at least to realize what we believe to be the facts are not very reliable.

A very useful experiment is to take a grievance you have with another person and propose alternative interpretations. For example, the disrespect you believe someone showed you might be that they were simply distracted by some difficulty with their loved ones. Or maybe the way they acted was appropriate to their culture or values, though not to yours. Or they may actually have some kind of communication problems.

As you propose alternatives, it is useful to notice how the nature of the grievance changes. In many cases, it simply vanishes.

Updated December, 2017