How to change your self-perception and untap your hidden potential

How to change your self-perception and untap your hidden potentialIt’s Monday, 6:00 AM, you wake to the sound of your alarm clock buzzing. You shut your alarm off, take a deep breathe, and thank God for this day. Today is going to be an extraordinary day. In fact, you are overwhelmed with joy because today is the day you are going to dramatically change a person’s life.

As you’re getting ready for the day, you have this never-ending smile on your face. You begin remembering, the last time you felt this way was back when you were 7 yrs old. Only now, things are different. You went from happy to sad, back to happy again. You are where you are supposed to be — you are enjoying your life and you absolutely love what you do.

You set out to your car and just as you open the front door a warm breeze of fresh air cuts across your face. You can literally smell the flowers in the air. The birds are chirping, the sky is blue as can be, and the trees’ leaves are bright as you can ever imagine. What an amazing morning.

You are at your Mercedes-Benz, you open the side door, throw in your brief case and jump in. Just as you start your car, you look down to your dash and notice you have a full tank of gas. Ahhh! You put in your key and start the car. The engine is so quiet it almost sounds like a lion purring. As your driving, you pinch yourself and say, “I knew all of this was going to happen. Life is great.”

15 minutes later and you pull up to your first client’s house, exit your car and make your way to their front door. Just after you rang the door buzzer, a women opens the door and suddenly she sees you. Immediately, tears begin to flow down her face. She wipes away the tears, apologizes for crying and says, “These are tears of joy. I’m so glad I found you and that you are willing to help me. I’m truly grateful.”

You answer sincerely with, “Wow! Why thank you so much. How have you been?” She walks you in and before you know it, it’s 30 minutes later. The two of you have been talking — time literally was flying bye and you didn’t even mind. You absolutely loved talking with her. Just then you say, “Well, shall we get started then?”

Another 30 minutes pass and your wrapping up. Just then, she begins crying again but this time you really don’t know why. She tells you, “For a long time I’ve wanted to change and I now feel like I finally can. Thank you!”

You warmly reply, “Years ago God told me this was what I was suppose to do. Even though I was scared at the time, I badly need a change. So I listened to God and he brought me where I am today. I’m glad I was sent this message so that I can help people just like you.”

Right about know you feel a great sense of accomplishment come over you. You’ve done it again, you made another difference for one more person.

If you want to untap your hidden potential so that you can be who you want and do what you want, try playing back your “Theatre of the Mind” in your head just like I did for you in the above story. While your doing this, let your mind go by paying extra attention to what you see and do, who is with you, where are you, and how you feel. Also, play out how you would like it turn out for you.

Chances are you won’t get this right-away. So, if you are getting stuck, do what I do, write it out first and then play it back in your head. By then you’ll notice how much more real it will feel.

Now go live out your “Theatre of the Mind”.

Note: The “Theatre of the Mind” concept comes from Dr. Maxwell Maltz’s book Psycho-Cybernetics.

Five powerful actions we can take to challenge our negative self-perception.

How to change your self-perception and untap your hidden potential

Recently, I wrote about “Living with an Accidental Identity.” I described how painful early experiences, definitions, and defenses affect the way individuals perceive and present themselves throughout their lives, leading them to develop an “accidental identity,” rather than a true sense of who they are. Understanding this process can lead people to question their negative identity and make big changes in the way they perceive themselves. In this post, I will discuss some powerful actions that we can all take to challenge our negative self-perceptions and change our sense of identity.

First, we have to realize that identity is the furthest thing from being fixed. A person can come to be who they want to be by changing their actions at any given moment. However, both our actions and our self-perception feel much harder to change when we’ve lived with them for so long. Breaking out of an old identity often symbolically means breaking the “fantasy bond” or illusion of connection with our family of origin where the identity was formed, a family that was once our source of safety. Many of us treat our inner critic, which supports our negative self-concept, like a welcome guest and are more willing to believe its every word than to challenge the original identity we formed in our early environment. So how can we challenge a prescribed sense of identity, peel back the layers, and find out who we really are?

1. Stand Up to Your Critical Inner Voice

One technique for shifting this distorted self-concept is using the steps in Voice Therapy. Voice Therapy is a method developed by my father, psychologist and author Robert Firestone, to help people identify and act against their “critical inner voice,” a negative internal dialogue that criticizes and undermines us and others in ways that hurt and limit us in our lives. The steps of Voice Therapy help us to identify the destructive things we’re telling ourselves. Some of these are right on the surface: “You’re so stupid, fat, ugly, lazy, annoying, unsuccessful.” Some of these “voices” can be deduced from how we treat ourselves: who we choose to date, how we take care of ourselves, ways we hold ourselves back or struggle in relation to achieving our goals.

Voice Therapy can help us catch on to these voices and externalize them. We start by saying them out loud (or writing them down) as “you” statements (i.e., “You’re so stupid,” etc.) We externalize them, so we can see them as a separate enemy, as opposed to our real point of view. As we get deeper into the voice attacks and experience emotion around them, we can start to make connections to where these thoughts come from. Where did we get these ideas about ourselves? The more we understand their source in the past, the more power we have over this destructive process in the present.

It’s important to challenge those voices. We can respond with a kinder, more compassionate, and realistic point of view, and we can take actions that go against their directives. Even when our voice tells us, “You can’t do that,” we can take the risk and go after what we want in life. We can make alterations from a calmer place of understanding and a belief in our ability to develop.

2. Cultivate an Inner Companion

We can strengthen our real sense of self by adopting a kind attitude toward ourselves. The more inquisitive, patient, and open we can be toward ourselves and who we are, the more we can grow and change to become who we seek to be. This process isn’t about coddling ourselves or building ourselves up, but having a friendly attitude. We should always aim to regard ourselves the way we would a good friend. We can treat ourselves as we do them, as we are willing to see their flaws and shortcomings, while believing in who they are, as well as who they can become. In the same way that we’re curious about their story and how they came to be that way, we can be curious about ourselves. And in the same way that we’re there to root for and support them when they face challenges, we can be compassionate and optimistic about ourselves as we seek to achieve our own goals.

3. Create a Family of Choice

It’s important to choose to be around people who have a positive orientation toward themselves and us. Our family of origin may be supportive and loving or critical and destructive. For most of us, it’s a little of both. As children, we didn’t have a choice to separate from negative influences, so we internalized them, forming defenses and ideas around them to try to make sense of our experiences. However, as adults, we can choose our environment. We can spend more time around people who support a side of us we like, who share meaningful goals, or simply encourage us in ours.

4. Be Adult, and Realize You Have Power

At any point in time, we can make changes that reshape our identity. Realizing our personal power is a liberating process, but certainly not one that’s free of anxiety. When we challenge our negative sense of identity, we can expect a degree of backlash and resistance. Our critical inner voice will usually get louder at first. We may feel very uncomfortable and compelled to retreat into an old shell. Ironically, we can feel like we’re losing a strange sense of belonging by seeing ourselves in a more positive light. Continuing to remind ourselves that we are no longer helpless children, but adults who can make different choices is an empowering way to shift our sense of identity. Ultimately, the new behavior will become the norm, and our inner critic will quiet down.

5. Don’t Be Afraid to Seek Meaning

To become our true selves, we have to continually ask ourselves, Who am I really? and What lights me up? We have to be willing to call into question what we assimilated from our early environment that may not reflect who we are, and what makes life meaningful to us: What pressures do I feel from my early life that shape my choices, and what really matters to me? Do I need this degree to prove to my family that I’m worthy, or am I interested in this subject? Do I want to be on my own, or am I afraid to venture out and fall in love?

Questions like these aren’t about being selfish or only focusing on our happiness. They’re about seeking our own sense of meaning. Recent studies have shown that seeking meaning, as opposed to happiness, actually leads to deeper, long-term well-being. Asking ourselves what matters to us isn’t something we should shy away from or fear. It’s when we seek the things that make us feel the most fulfilled that we have the most to offer the world around us, and it’s these pursuits that allow us to reclaim our sense of who we are.

How to change your self-perception and untap your hidden potential

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An axiom: Setting goals is one of the most necessary steps to effectuating change in your life.

As most of us know, though, it is often quite difficult just to take that first step and make the commitment.

Why is that? Ask yourself these questions:

• Is some particular reason or thing stopping you from taking those first steps on the path to achieving your desired goals?

• Is it just a matter of procrastinating so that you are putting off doing what you know needs to be done?

• Are you worried about the unknown and that maybe there is something you can’t see? Are there missing ingredients?

• Are you worried that perhaps you are not on the right path with the right goals?

• Are you concerned about your follow-through motivation and self-discipline?

Yes, that is correct; motivation and self-discipline are on the list because they are often are absent. However, there is another ingredient that you frequently are not aware is missing. The missing ingredient is high self-efficacy. Lack of high self-efficacy is the most common obstacle I see in working with clients.

What is self-efficacy?

Self-efficacy refers to the strength of your belief in your ability to achieve goals. In other words, does your inner self truly believe that you can accomplish what you want? A lack of self-efficacy can lead to a pattern of dark, hidden, normalizing behaviors, and therefore to the abandonment of the pursuit of desired goals. High self-efficacy, on the other hand, means that you have the ability to take control of your life and be the master of your own destiny. If you have low self-efficacy, you just don’t believe that you can achieve your dreams. Instead, you fail to act and thus consign yourself to a mediocre life without achieving your full potential.

Look for an achievable goal. Setting unrealistic goals doesn’t take you to the pinnacle of self-actualization. Realizing your full potential equals self-actualization, which is the highest component of well-being. That being the case, a lack of self-efficacy is one of the biggest roadblocks to your happiness.

Often we talk about self-esteem and self-efficacy in the same breath. However, although they are both deeply rooted in your childhood and both impact your self-confidence in your abilities, there is a decided difference. Self-esteem is a realistic respect for your ability to achieve and thrive in life, while self-efficacy is how you feel about your ability to function in different situations. You may have healthy self-esteem (I could do it if I wanted to) but low self-efficacy (I probably don’t want it enough to complete it).

High self-efficacy is the optimistic strength of your belief in your ability to complete tasks and produce desired outcomes.

Tired of hearing about the habits of successful people? Me, too. Instead, let’s talk about the habits of unsuccessful people. The main habit of the unsuccessful clients I coach is a continuing exhibition of low self-efficacy. As I stated above, low self-efficacy, or a lack of confidence in the ability to produce and follow through to desired outcomes, is one of the main causes of a lack of success.

According to a saying that has been attributed to many different brilliant figure, “Your beliefs become your thoughts. Your thoughts become your words. Your words become your actions. Your actions become your habits. Your habits become your values. Your values become your destiny.”

By increasing and mastering your self-efficacy, you allow yourself to succeed in life by staying motivated, committed and optimistic about following through without prematurely giving up on achieving your reasonable goals and adjusting your destiny. So, how does one increase self-efficacy?

When you are aware that you set unrealistic goals, your subconscious can say to you, “That goal is not realistic, why even try?”

A common way to break through is to set reasonable, achievable goals. For example, “I will lose thirty pounds by Christmas” may totally unreachable, while “I will lose one pound this week and then set a new goal for next week” is something you can achieve, and doing so will be a confidence builder for the future. Your goals must be not only realistic to begin with but also constantly readjusted to account for what happens as you go along. This is what I mean by using your self-efficacy in order to change your self-confidence about your own ability and follow-through.

The Transtheoretical or Stages of Change Model

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Amy Morin, LCSW, is the Editor-in-Chief of Verywell Mind. She’s also a psychotherapist, international bestselling author and host of the The Verywell Mind Podcast.

Anyone who has ever made and broken a New Year’s resolution can appreciate the difficulty of behavior change. Making a lasting change in behavior is rarely a simple process. It usually involves a substantial commitment of time, effort, and emotion.

How to change your self-perception and untap your hidden potential

How to Get Started

Whether you want to lose weight, stop smoking, or accomplish another goal, there is no single solution that works for everyone. You may have to try several different techniques, often through a process of trial and error, to achieve your goal.

It’s during this period that many people become discouraged and give up on their behavior change goals. The keys to achieving and maintaining your goals are to try new techniques and find ways to stay motivated.

Change might not come easily, but psychologists have developed effective ways to help people change their behavior. Therapists, physicians, and teachers use these techniques. Researchers have also proposed theories to explain how change occurs. Understanding the elements of change, the stages of change, and ways to work through each stage can help you achieve your goals.

The Elements of Change

To succeed, you need to understand the three most important elements in changing a behavior:

  • Readiness to change: Do you have the resources and knowledge to make a lasting change successfully?
  • Barriers to change: Is there anything preventing you from changing?
  • Likelihood of relapse: What might trigger a return to a former behavior?

Stages of Change Model

One of the best-known approaches to change is the Stages of Change or Transtheoretical Model, introduced in the late 1970s by researchers James Prochaska and Carlo DiClemente. They were studying ways to help people quit smoking.   The Stages of Change model has been found to be an effective aid in understanding how people go through a change in behavior.

In this model, change occurs gradually and relapses are an inevitable part of the process. People are often unwilling or resistant to change during the early stages, but they eventually develop a proactive and committed approach to changing a behavior. This model demonstrates that change is rarely easy. It often requires a gradual progression of small steps toward a goal.

“Logic will get you from A to Z; imagination will get you everywhere”

I came across this blog, Is It Possible To Change Perceptions , and it’s absolutely brilliant.It inspired me to take a look at perception, not anyone else’s, but our own, and it got me wondering; how much does our perception define our reality, andcan changing the former then also change the latter?Let’s cut to the chase here and quote the author, Is it possible to change perceptions? Absolutely. Is it possible to change yourreality once you’ve changed your perception? It certainly is.

Some people put a lot of stock into things such asThe Law of Attraction and I am ridiculously unqualified to really even skim this, and where I stand on itis not really relevant anyway. Before we start, I’m not telling you all to run out and read The Secret. The reason that I bring itup though is because if you look at The Law of Attraction, there are some really valuable tools to be had there, it’s all in the way you choose to interpret them. As simply put as possible The Law of Attraction is like attracts like. What you put out, you get back. So if you’re putting out positive energy, you’re getting that back. People use this rule to bring more pleasant things into their lives by focusing on that and letting go of the negative. Basically you’re visualizing what you want instead of visualizing what you don’t want because when you’re constantly stressing about what you don’t want, according to The Law of Attraction, you’re still putting out that negative energy and bringing it into your life anyway. Clear as mud?

I don’t know if this is true for everyone, but for me if I’m having a bad day I sometimes find myself focusing on everything that is bad about my day. These tiny inconveniences that plague me throughout a day can really leave me flustered, agitated and if left unchecked can even start to trigger me. If I get to the point where I do end up triggered the snowball effect happens and it’s terrible. I could have been having a great run where everything had been pretty good and little things didn’t bother me, but somewhere a long the line I let something just scratch me the wrong way and the outcome was that life just started to suck. My perceptions were skewed. Once I decided that people were annoying, worried about things that were entirely out of my control, and let that bitterness take over, my reality became heavy. My choice on how to perceive my own difficult moments led to a spiral of depression. Sure sometimes my mood swings from bipolar disorder play a role in situations like these, but sometimes bipolar disorder has nothing to do with any of it, my outlook, my choices and my reactions are what does it. The consequences of these self-inflicted pity parties have been very unhealthy.

  • Depression
  • Chronic headaches
  • Insomnia
  • Anxiety

This was an extreme case of what a person is capable of doingto themselves with nothing more than the power of unchecked thoughts. Granted this isn’t going to happen to everyone, but it did happen to me. The upside to all of this was that it got me into my first mindfulness class where the instructor focused on the power of positive and present thinking. Basically I learned how to flip my thoughts and stay in the moment. It was very difficult, and I’m doing a refresher course right now. This isn’t something that I can do once and put down, it’s something that I have to work at every single day to get it to stick. It’s so easy to slip back into the old habits. CBT is also great for retraining your thoughts.

Changing your perception is not an easy task. If you don’t like the life you’re living, you need to do something about it. Going back to The Law of Attraction now, there really is something to visualizing. The first step in changing your perception is imagining how you want your life to be. If I had the power to flip my life into chaos and ugliness by nothing more than starting a chain reaction that was set in motion by thoughts, why wouldn’t I have the power to set something positive in motion? I know that some of you may see this as a little hokey, and I understand that, but give it a whirl what have you got to lose? Here are some tips to help you start changing your perceptions.

  • Decide to be in charge of your life.
  • Set goals for yourself and make sure they’re attainable. Don’t set yourself up for failure.
  • Change your inner voice from, “I can’t” to “I can”
  • Visualize where you want to be and write it out. Your imagination is powerful and using it isnot a waste of time.
  • Stop focusing on everything that is bad in your life and focus on the good even if it’s just that great cup of coffee in the morning, appreciate it.
  • Start acknowledging the good qualities about yourself they are there, I promise. If you’ve been self hating for a long time you may have to dig deep,butyou’ll get to know yourself again.
  • You don’t have to settle for less than happy. Happy takes work, and if you have an illness you know how hard happy can be. Take care of yourself, use your doctors and therapists; they’re there to help you.

Your perception is your reality; there is no question about that. Reality and thoughts change and flicker constantly. Everyone has bad days, but if you’re in a cycle of heavy burden, do everything that you can to lift that. Changing your thoughts and trying to go from negative to positive costs nothing. Visualizing happiness and where you would like to be in your life takes a few minutes a few times a day. Appreciating what you have that is good in your life only makes you feel better and opens your eyes to more good things. Once you start the boll rolling it picks up speed very quickly. This all takes work and it’s up to you if it’s worth putting in the effort, but I really hope that you decide to do it.

Uncovering the hidden talent in your organization is the competitive advantage you can’t afford to lose. Winning the talent war isn’t about perfecting your recruitment game – you already have the right employees! You need to learn how to identify them, and how to turn your eyes toward the places you haven’t thought to look.

In my corporate training, “Career Advancement: Release the Untapped Potential of Your Underutilized Leaders,” I explain how to shift your perception and change your senior management’s ideas of what a leader can look like.

Are introverts in your organization being overlooked? Often, great leaders are missing out simply because of what they’re NOT doing to get the attention they deserve. Your company is missing out on truly leveraging the talents they’re regularly exercising, unnoticed. If you want to move forward with the great leaders you already have, read on.

They’re NOT speaking up

Introverts are not big on being the first to speak up in meetings, and they’re almost never going to be the ones to butt in and interrupt someone’s else’s soliloquy just so they can make a point. Unfortunately, this means that even when they have a better idea, you’re less likely to hear it, especially in a crowded or noisy room.

They ARE watching the situation unfold

However, introverts are often watching and weighing out each idea, noting the politics and passions of other players, and evaluating the best way to move forward. If you want to harness that shrewd analytical thinking, look for your introverts and encourage them to share their thoughts, even if it’s just one-on-one with you, in a smaller group or in a less chaotic environment.

How to change your self-perception and untap your hidden potential

They’re NOT offering their opinions

One of the top reasons introverts give, when asked by superiors, why they didn’t weigh in on a problem is that they weren’t sure in the moment that their thoughts were useful. Anyone who has ever been in a meeting room knows that this hardly stops many people from giving their opinion, but introverts often struggle with stepping out of their comfort zones, hesitant about whether they’re actually adding to the conversation. While they wrestle with themselves, the moment passes, and the discussion moves on.

They ARE noting the attitudes and feelings of others

While they’re trying to decide whether to share their view on a problem, they are taking stock of how others think and feel, and the general emotion in the room. Even the most analytical introvert often factors in the prevailing sentiment of others when opting to share, so their observations and ability to “read the room” can be an invaluable leadership tool in finding balance and compromise around the table.

Figure out how you can draw out these hidden leaders and redirect their energies to optimizing that intersection of practicality and emotion, in addition to revealing that opinion they’re holding out on sharing.

They’re NOT self-promoting

Introverts are unlikely to engage in one of the most critical components in career advancement: self-advocacy. Whether they are uncomfortable with putting the spotlight on themselves, or just afraid of being seen as a self-involved blowhard, introverts usually pass up opportunities to inform others of their successes and achievements.

As a result, others often know little of their work unless people have tried to advocate for them.

They ARE genuinely contributing to success

The same tendencies that keep introverts from tooting their own horn often makes them very concerned about pulling their weight with the team. As such, they are often excellent collaborators and dedicated workers, taking on more than their share of tasks. Obviously, someone who is more concerned about the well-being of the group and making sure they’re not holding anyone up can make a great leader when tasked with shepherding a group through a difficult task or project.

If you see traits here that appeal to your sense of great leadership, begin looking for the introverts in the group, and start coaching to raise their visibility with others. All the building blocks of truly great talent can easily be obscured by an understated or unassuming demeanor; you have to be ready to look for the introverted leaders who are hiding in plain sight.

Joel Garfinkle is recognized as one of the top 50 executive coaches in America. Global Gurus named Joel #14 on its list of top 30 global coaching experts. He has 20 years of first-hand experience working closely with many of the world’s leading companies, including Oracle, Google, Amazon, Deloitte, The Ritz-Carlton, and Starbucks. Garfinkle recently conducted an online webinar training to all employees in a Fortune 500 company on how introverts make great leaders. Subscribe to his Fulfillment at Work Newsletter and receive the free e-book “41 Ways to Get Promoted Now!” You can also view 75 of his two-minute motivational videos on his YouTube channel.

If you enjoyed this article, sign up for the daily SmartBrief on Leadership, among SmartBrief’s more than 200 industry-focused newsletters — all free.

The Psychological Exploration of “Who Am I?”

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Rachel Goldman, PhD FTOS is a licensed psychologist, clinical assistant professor, speaker, wellness expert specializing in weight management and eating behaviors.

How to change your self-perception and untap your hidden potential

Verywell / Cindy Chung

Self-concept is the image that we have of ourselves. How exactly does this self-image form and change over time? This image develops in a number of ways but is particularly influenced by our interactions with important people in our lives.

Defining Self-Concept

Self-concept is generally thought of as our individual perceptions of our behavior, abilities, and unique characteristics—a mental picture of who you are as a person.   For example, beliefs such as “I am a good friend” or “I am a kind person” are part of an overall self-concept.

Self-concept tends to be more malleable when people are younger and still going through the process of self-discovery and identity formation. As people age, self-perceptions become much more detailed and organized as people form a better idea of who they are and what is important to them.

According to the book Essential Social Psychology by Richard Crisp and Rhiannon Turner:

  • The individual self consists of attributes and personality traits that differentiate us from other individuals. Examples include introversion or extroversion.
  • The relational self is defined by our relationships with significant others. Examples include siblings, friends, and spouses.
  • The collective self reflects our membership in social groups. Examples include British, Republican, African-American, or gay.  

At its most basic, self-concept is a collection of beliefs one holds about oneself and the responses of others. It embodies the answer to the question “Who am I?”


Like many topics within psychology, a number of theorists have proposed different ways of thinking about self-concept. According to a theory known as social identity theory, self-concept is composed of two key parts: personal identity and social identity.

Personal identity includes the traits and other characteristics that make each person unique. Social identity refers to how we identify with a collective, such as a community, religion, or political movement.

Psychologist Dr. Bruce A. Bracken suggested in 1992 that there are six specific domains related to self-concept:

  • Academic: success or failure in school
  • Affect: the awareness of emotional states
  • Competence: the ability to meet basic needs
  • Family: how well one functions within the family unit
  • Physical: feelings about looks, health, physical condition, and overall appearance
  • Social: the ability to interact with others  

Humanist psychologist, Carl Rogers believed that there were three different parts of self-concept:

  • Self-image, or how you see yourself. Each individual’s self-image is a mixture of different attributes including our physical characteristics, personality traits, and social roles. Self-image doesn’t necessarily coincide with reality. Some people might have an inflated self-image of themselves, while others may perceive or exaggerate the flaws and weaknesses that others don’t see.
  • Self-esteem, or how much you value yourself. A number of factors can impact self-esteem, including how we compare ourselves to others and how others respond to us. When people respond positively to our behavior, we are more likely to develop positive self-esteem. When we compare ourselves to others and find ourselves lacking, it can have a negative impact on our self-esteem.
  • Ideal self, or how you wish you could be. In many cases, the way we see ourselves and how we would like to see ourselves do not quite match up.  

Congruence and Incongruence

As mentioned earlier, our self-concepts are not always perfectly aligned with reality. Some students might believe that they are great at academics, but their school transcripts might tell a different story.

According to Carl Rogers, the degree to which a person’s self-concept matches up to reality is known as congruence and incongruence.  

While we all tend to distort reality to a certain degree, congruence occurs when self-concept is fairly well aligned with reality. Incongruence happens when reality does not match up to our self-concept.

Rogers believed that incongruence has its earliest roots in childhood. When parents place conditions on their affection for their children (only expressing love if children “earn it” through certain behaviors and living up to the parents’ expectations), children begin to distort the memories of experiences that leave them feeling unworthy of their parents’ love.  

Unconditional love, on the other hand, helps to foster congruence. Children who experience such love feel no need to continually distort their memories in order to believe that other people will love and accept them as they are.

Just because you think something is reality doesn’t make it reality.

How to change your self-perception and untap your hidden potential

We hear it all the time, in the business world, in the political arena, in marriages, anytime there is a disagreement or conflict: “Perception is reality.” This aphorism is often used to justify a perception that may be objectively unjustifiable or just plain out of touch with reality. It’s employed as a cudgel to beat others into accepting someone’s preferred so-called reality. At a more philosophical level, this adage creates a sense of relativism (think squishiness) in circumstances that are more likely absolute (think “the world is flat”).

Let me state with an absolute sense of reality and without any perceptual flexibility at the outset that perception is NOT reality. As I am a word guy, meaning I believe that words powerfully shape our attitudes, beliefs, and, well, perceptions, let me start off by showing why perceptions and reality are different. Here is a dictionary definition of perception:

  • “The way of regarding, understanding, or interpreting something; a mental impression.”

And here is the dictionary definition of reality:

  • “The world or the state of things as they actually exist… existence that is absolute, self-sufficient, or objective, and not subject to human decisions or conventions.”

Clearly, perception and reality have very different meanings. The former occurs entirely in the mind in which mental gymnastics can turn any belief into reality. The other exists completely outside of the mind and can’t be easily manipulated. To conflate perception with reality is to reject the Enlightenment and harken back to the Middle Ages.

Perception is not reality, but, admittedly, perception can become a person’s reality (there is a difference) because perception has a potent influence on how we look at reality.

Think of it this way. Perception acts as a lens through which we view reality. Our perceptions influence how we focus on, process, remember, interpret, understand, synthesize, decide about, and act on reality. In doing so, our tendency is to assume that how we perceive reality is an accurate representation of what reality truly is. But it’s not. The problem is that the lens through which we perceive is often warped in the first place by our genetic predispositions, past experiences, prior knowledge, emotions, preconceived notions, self-interest, and cognitive distortions.

Daniel Kahneman, the noted psychologist who received the 2002 Nobel Prize winner in economics, created a veritable cottage industry by identifying what he termed cognitive biases (there are 100s) that are systematic ways in which humans create subjective social reality that deviates from objective reality.

I appreciate that some philosophers argue that reality doesn’t actually exist, but, instead, is a subjective construction because we don’t experience reality directly. Rather, we experience reality through senses that limit how we process reality. For example, humans only see a circumscribed spectrum of colors or hear a defined range of sounds. But, just because we can’t perceive a dog whistle doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist in reality. Thankfully, we have the technology in most situations that can objectively measure reality (of course, disbelievers could argue that reading the instruments requires perception, thus “proving” their point that perception is reality, but let’s not go there).

A key question to ask is: “What’s wrong with perception diverging from reality?” What if I perceive the world in a way that is out of touch with reality? As with most things in life, this question demands a nuanced answer that involves degree rather than kind. For example, there is a psychological theory that posits what are called positive illusions, which involve holding a slightly inflated view of one’s capabilities, which can have psychological and practical benefits (e.g., gives hope, enhances persistence).

However, if the perception deviates too far from reality when it shifts from mild illusion to delusion, it can be a liability (e.g., set unattainable goals, lack of preparation for a difficult task). In fact, a substantial disconnect between perception and reality can lead people to a complete inability to function (severe mental illness is an example).

At a societal level, when different individuals or constituencies develop perceptions that are so far apart, one immense problem is that no common ground can be found. This disconnect is exemplified in our current political climate where people of different political stripes have such diametrically opposed perceptions that it becomes impossible to orchestrate consensus or govern. The result is paralysis (Congress) or hostility (hate crimes). Going to extremes, a massive divide between perceptions in a country would likely lead to a slow, but steady, disintegration of the institutions that hold a society together (dystopian themes in literature and film or, well, our world today).

The challenge we face with our own thinking, as well as the thinking of others, is how to ensure that perceptions remain close to reality. This alignment is essential for us to live in the real world, find consensus with others, and maintain the individual, governmental, and societal structures that are necessary for life as we know it to exist. Here are a few tips to keep in mind:

  • Don’t assume that your perceptions are reality (just your reality)
  • Be respectful of others’ perceptions (they may be right)
  • Don’t hold your perceptions too tightly; they may be wrong (admitting it takes courage)
  • Recognize the distortions within you that may warp your perceptions (seeing them will better ground your perceptions in reality rather than the other way around)
  • Challenge your perceptions (do they hold up under the microscope of reality?)
  • Seek out validation from experts and credible others (don’t just ask your friends because they likely have the same perceptions as you)
  • Be open to modifying your perceptions if the preponderance of evidence demands it (rigidity of mind is far worse than being wrong)

The next time someone tosses that tired trope—“but perception is reality”—in defense of the indefensible, you stand up and tell them that it might be their perception, but it is not reality.