HUMANS ARE hardwired for negativity. Where we can see good, we almost always see bad. Nowhere is this truer than with self-perception.
It seems we all have a bad habit of thinking we completely and utterly suck.
None of us wants to feel perceive ourselves this way. We all want confidence, acceptance, and happiness. Yet most of our lives are filled with the reverse. Insecurity, disappointment, and sadness. On a macro and a micro level, we’re always perceiving things about ourselves and others that don’t please us.
We’re always seeing what’s wrong.
I’ve known countless people, myself included, who were convinced they were socially awkward. As far as they were concerned, the evidence was all around them. People clearly found them uncomfortable to talk to, conversations quickly became dull, and nobody liked it when they were around. If you asked these people, they’d be able to list countless examples.
As far as they were concerned, the reality of their social awkwardness was fact, so they avoided social situations.
But in almost all of these cases, if you asked anyone that’d met them, they’d say the reverse.
Similarly, I’ve known people who had left their relationship for another person. To them, they realized that they just ‘couldn’t live with their partner anymore’ and were therefore left with no other option than to look elsewhere. The fact that their partner was the same as they’d been when they were happy never occurred to them.
As far as they were concerned, the reality of their partner’s incompatibility was fact, so they moved on to someone new.
Yet when you asked them for the traits they did like, these were all things their partner exhibited. This is, in many ways, what I’ve done with many girls. I’ve seen a few traits I didn’t like and I’ve used them as an excuse to bail. In reality, I just had commitment issues.
Perception it seems is less about reality, and more about the reality we’re choosing to see. But why is it that we perceive things not as they are? And if these perceptions lead us to make poor or unnecessary choices, how do we change them?
HOW TO CHANGE YOUR SELF-PERCEPTION
Your perceptions govern your patterns of thought, and the outcomes of your life choices, for better for worse.
Here’s the best method I know for changing them:
1) IDENTIFY YOUR PERCEPTIONS
The first thing you need to do is bring awareness to your perceptions. I.e. Your self-perceptions or perceptions of others.
This is both easy and hard to do. Easy, because they’re so habitual you think about them all the time. Hard, because they’re usually so habitual you do them unconsciously.
To circumvent this, ask yourself these questions:
- What do I always say about myself?
- What do I always say about what I can never do?
- What do I always say about my capabilities in life, socially, romantically, in pursuing my goals?
- What do I always say about my appearance?
- What do I always say about my lot in life?
- What do I always say about [insert person here]?
- What do I always say about [insert social group/ethnicity here]?
- What do I always say about the society I live in?
As you ask yourself these questions, you will begin to notice certain thoughts come to the surface that feel familiar, feel true, and almost feel precious to you. These are the perceptions that you’ve glued yourself to so much that you guard them like they’re a part of yourself. And because humans are hardwired for negativity, most of these are likely to suck:
- ‘My girlfriend doesn’t actually love me’
- ‘I am a loser.’
- ‘My father is ashamed of me.’
- ‘I couldn’t do that’
- ‘Society is unfair’
- ‘People find me uncomfortable.’
2) EXAMINE YOUR PERCEPTIONS
Your perceptions say things about you. Instead of ending in the perception themselves, they end in a justification that directly relates to you and the world you live in.
The perceptions above become:
- ‘I am a loser because I inherently lack motivation and confidence and can’t develop these traits.’
- ‘I couldn’t do that because I’m not good enough.’
- ‘My girlfriend doesn’t actually love me because I’m not as masculine as other men who she is secretly attracted to.’
You perceive X because of Y.
And it’s the Y that is enormously important.
Because it is these elements that link with your feelings and create a sense of meaning within you.
In my example of social awkwardness, this means that there’s something wrong with you, which reinforces your perceptions. In my example of relationship compatibility, this means that your partner has traits that you can’t put up with, so finding someone else is justified (in your mind at least).
But worse than both of these is that negative perceptions take away your ability to be responsible for your own life.
If you’re a loser because of some inherent worthlessness in you, what could you possibly do to change that? If your girlfriend doesn’t love you because of that same worthlessness, how could she or anyone else love you? If you can’t do something because you don’t have what it takes, then that’s final, isn’t it? If society is unfair because of concrete reasons stacking the deck against you, then this, along with all of the above, has simply fated you to be what you are – and nothing can change it.*
3) WHAT ARE YOU NOT PERCEIVING?
Take your negative perceptions and list them all. Now, imagine that if you were to suddenly realize all of them were wrong. What would that mean you were not perceiving?
If your focus on the negative elements didn’t actually reflect the reality of yourself/others/the world then what other elements exist alongside it, and which reflect it in a different light?
- If you’re not a loser …Then what are you?
- If you not “not good enough” …Then are you enough?
- If your girlfriend does love you …Why?
Now, this isn’t so much an act of questioning as it is an act of using questioning to open up your perceptions to the elements you’ve been previously choosing not to see. Like that, your partner cares about you, but she just struggles to express affection. Or that you’re actually quite good at creative tasks, but you’re just applying yourself in a way that doesn’t suit you.
The same principle works for attractiveness. For every set of big ears, there’s a nice pair of eyes. Or societies. For every group of assholes, there’s an exception. This can extend to genders, races, religions, everything.
But as always, it typically starts with how you’re seeing yourself. Or rather, what you’re choosing to see.
4) EXAMINE WHAT YOU HAVEN’T PERCEIVED
Just as negative perceptions take away your responsibility, positive ones give it back.
If you don’t exist in a world that sole function is to shit on you and your inherent worthlessness, but you, in fact, have positive traits and live in an extremely diverse world full of opportunity -then does that not imply that it’s up to you to do something with them?
Likewise, if people don’t despise you and your girlfriend doesn’t find you repulsive, doesn’t that bring a little more complexity to your relationships? Complexity that you owe it to yourself to explore?
Just as negative perceptions simplify your life into easy black and white boxes, positive perceptions expand your life into complex choices, and countless responsibilities.
Responsibilities that, like perception, you have a choice as to how you’ll interact with.
5) WHY ARE YOU PERCEIVING THE THINGS YOU INITIALLY PERCEIVED?
You perceptions are deeply tied to your emotions. They feed into one another like a snake eating his own tail.
You perceive yourself and others a certain way because of something that you feel. Not only does that feeling drive you to perceive certain things, it also drives you to perceive things that justify its existence, and then cause you to feel it all the more.
The more you feel, the more you see; the more you see, the more you feel. And so on.
Therefore it’s incredibly important to bring awareness to the sorts of emotions that are motivating your perceptions. A lack of love, loneliness, anger, sadness, anxiety, love, happiness, fear.
Maybe you perceive yourself as socially inept because you’re lonely and scared of remaining so. Or perhaps you perceive women to be manipulative liars because you’ve been hurt by them and are now angry and, deep down, sad. Or maybe you just perceive yourself as incapable of achieving your dreams because you don’t feel lovable and thus feel worthless.
Find the feeling, sit with it, and try to understand it. This part is in many ways the hardest, and sometimes (read: almost always) requires talking to someone.
6) PAY ATTENTION TO YOUR HABITS OF PERCEPTION
Life exists in tiny moments that are happening right now. Both in the things you do and the things you think.
Many of these moments have been going on as you’ve been reading this article. Hundreds, if not thousands went on as I was writing it. Yet we both paid very little attention to them.
It is in these rarely attended moments that our perceptions exist. They don’t happen in the big moments, they happen in the small ones we pay zero attention to.
If we’re going to change our perceptions, we’re going to need to develop a habit of presence that brings a level of awareness to our everyday self-perceptions and perceptions of others. This sort of change takes time and takes commitment.
You don’t have to bring constant awareness, you just have to bring more.
7) CHANGE YOUR NEGATIVE SELF-PERCEPTIONS
Once you understand your self-perceptions, their motivations and the myriad of alternatives that exist, you put yourself in a position where, with presence and attention, you can slowly start making better choices with what you are perceiving.
What we CHOOSE to perceive is just as important as what we CHOOSE NOT to perceive. It is between these two poles that the art of changing your perceptions lies.
At every moment there are multiple different perceptions, with multiple different meanings that you can choose from – changing your perceptions, especially your self-perceptions comes from paying attention to the ways in which you are automatically perceiving the world, pausing, and then questioning the value, and the reality of those perceptions.
Instead of letting the world been seen for us, changing our self-perceptions is about choosing to take it in the world as it is, in all it’s variety. Where both the good and the bad exist.
It’s about taking responsibility for how you choose to look at yourself and the world and choosing to not let that perception become needlessly incorrect and damaging.
Because it’s through this simple choice, that you begin to realize you don’t completely and utterly suck after all.
*Your perceptions of others also reflect your unconscious perceptions of yourself. For example, if you know deep down that you want to cheat on your partner, you’re a hell of a lot more likely to project that onto her and cast suspicions on her behavior.