The Role of Perception in Speaking Your Truth

Peggy Loo, PhD on Nov 29, 2022 in Mood and Feelings

Every day, I walk past an enormous billboard at the intersection of Houston and Lafayette Street — less than a block away from our office in Soho. In the last few months, it has been one giant Calvin Klein ad after the other; it’s usually a striking model or celebrity in branded clothing with the same byline and hashtag: I Speak My Truth In #mycalvins.

I’m a big fan of the idea that we each have our own “truth” or story that deserves respect when shared. Often our greatest psychological injuries come from moments when our voices are treated as unimportant or silenced. Speaking about our life experiences can be a healthy sign of self-esteem and promote intimacy or connectedness with others.

The reverse is also true; when we cannot share candidly about our lives, we can become isolated, struggle with feeling unseen or unknown, and have difficulty making sense of our experiences on our own. All things considered, speaking our truths is good for our mental health and arguably an essential way that we validate our experiences through self-expression and collective witness. However, how do we go about this? In other words, how do we process our important life experiences to begin with — and how does this endeavor affect what eventually becomes the truths we speak to others (and ourselves)?

As a cognitive-behavioral psychologist, I help people understand how perception and beliefs shape the eventual truths or stories they tell. It is common for my patients to come to sessions with a foregone conclusion about an important situation. “X happened, so I think or feel Y, and that means Z,” I am told, in no uncertain terms. And she may be completely right! 

However, as a therapist who practices Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, my job is to help my patients take a momentary step back to examine their thoughts before reaching a final conclusion. The premise of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is that our perception about a situation determines our reactions and understanding of it more than the situation itself. This is why two individuals who share an identical moment can walk away with different impressions and responses and therefore two different truths. CBT respects our individuality while recognizing that much of our mental health hinges on the ways that we perceive and process information. If speaking your truth represents a way that we actively metabolize and describe our experiences to others, then your initial perceptions play a vital role in the genesis and development of that truth.

Information processing is complex and allows us to make preliminary sense of our daily environments, relationships, and internal mental processes. We take in thousands of details in any given moment, which requires a tremendous amount of focus and attention! While humans have the extraordinary capacity to sift through information quickly and assign meaning, we tend to create shortcuts so we can process future information more efficiently and thereby save precious and limited mental energy. Observing patterns, organizing information into categories, and generating theories are all examples of helpful and important processing “shortcuts."  More often than not, these strategies assist us in learning, problem solving, and anticipating outcomes. However, sometimes our attempts at maximizing cognitive efficiency can skew our initial impressions of a situation — and very importantly, the stories, or “truths,” we eventually speak.

Here are two examples of perception “errors”:

1. Sometimes we see what we want to see.

Confirmation bias is a well-known phenomenon that we tend to perceive and focus on information that coincides with an existing perspective or belief. It is often responsible for premature conclusions due to limited information processing. Think about the last time you feared being judged by an authority figure. Due to the concern of negative evaluation, you may have been more likely to interpret feedback or non-verbal cues (e.g., a break in eye contact, checking the time) as confirmation of criticism when that may not have been the case! Confirmation bias also leads to the filtering out of relevant pieces of information that contextualize, balance, or even challenge your perspective. This is not to say that we cannot rely on instinct or intuition. However, having a full and adequate perspective of a situation takes time, observation, and a willingness to gather evidence that may change your present perspective.

2. Sometimes we see what we already believe.

Consider what might happen if you held a belief that, in general, authority figures are punitive. You might then experience all encounters with authority figures as exacting and unpleasant because you misperceive (and misinterpret) information in a way that corroborates your generalized belief. According to CBT, a core belief is an overarching template or lens used to understand daily experiences. We all possess a constellation of positive and negative core beliefs that organize our sense of self, relationships, and space in the world that come from childhood and formative memories. However, like a pair of dark sunglasses that we wear into every environment, negative core beliefs can affect and even distort our perception in ways that are difficult to recognize without taking them off!

Now that we’ve reflected on the power of perception, what can we do? One practical and simple takeaway: Get curious.

Before jumping to conclusions, become an avid observer! Take the time to neutrally notice as much as you can about the situations that are most important to you before making a determination about their meaning. Balancing facts with feelings; eliciting feedback from trusted friends, partners, or family; considering perspectives different than your own; and reassessing what you think and feel after the immediate moment has passed are all great ways to introduce a fuller perspective that will serve you and the eventual truth that you choose to share with others well.

About the Author: Dr. Loo is a licensed psychologist and the director of Manhattan Therapy Collective. She loves film, fiction, and theater because they are wonderful spaces to hear people speak their truth.

Peggy Loo is a Psychologist in New York, NY.

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