The Reality of “Reality”


I have a friend who is inclined to be negative.  This person always sees the glass as half-empty (GHE).  Being a glass-half-full (GHF) type, I often point out the upside to whatever situation is being discussed, only to be told that I’m not being realistic.  Which brings me to today’s topics – that pessimism and realism are NOT the same thing, and how techniques like Cognitive Behaviour Therapy can help you learn the difference.

Reality is a tricky thing. We assume there is a consistent reality, a “real” reality that we all experience. “In reality”, there is no such thing. Experiments in physics and psychology demonstrate that reality is a by product of perception and that the act of observation can change everything. For example, when you look at the image to the right, what animal(s) do you see?

The trickiness of “reality” has implications for psychological health.  GHE types put a pessimistic spin on everything and tell themselves they are being realistic.  What their reality does is give rise to negative thinking which can eventually lead to anxiety and depression when fear, sadness and disappointment become chronic.

My GHE friend knows her pessimistic views are distortions, but she uses them deliberately as a defense against disappointment.  Ironically, the disappointment occurs anyway, because of lost opportunities and frustrated (unacknowledged) hopes.

To the person who says “I see the world as it is”, I say try challenging your point of view.  If it is as true as you now believe it to be, it will withstand the challenge.  If it doesn’t, the path to changing your thinking will be clear.

How do you challenge your own thinking?  This is where Cognitive Behaviour Therapy comes in.  Don’t panic – you don’t have to work with a therapist, lie on a couch and talk about your toilet-training experiences.  All you have to do is have a structured conversation with yourself.  Easy, private, productive – maybe even life-changing.

Challenge Your Thinking

To hold yourself accountable in this conversation, work with pen and paper, and record your thoughts in response to these questions:

Is it true?  What is the evidence that my thought is true? What is the evidence that it is not true? Have I confused an opinion or expectation with a fact? Is my judgment based on the way I feel instead of facts?

Am I confusing “possibility” with “certainty”? Sure, it’s possible, but is it likely? Am I 100% sure that x (the subject of my thought) will happen?  How many times has x happened before? What else could happen?  How likely are the other possibilities?

What would my closest friend say about my thought?

Does my future literally depend on the outcome of x?  Is this problem more like:
a) a lump in my breast?
b) a lump in my oatmeal?
What is the worst that could happen?  If the worst did happen, what actions would I take to handle it?

The Potential Outcomes of the Exercise

  1. You confirm your thoughts about x, but have put it in perspective and have a plan to deal with it;
  2. You realize your thoughts about x where unrealistic, you have a better perspective on the situation and feel equipped to handle whatever comes along.

Whatever the outcome, there is no downside to doing this exercise and you may find that challenging your thoughts leads to a happier, more confident state of mind.