We believe whatever we tell ourselves. We trust ourselves, and, after all, why would we lie inside our own heads? Is that even possible? Actually, yes. You’re probably living your life according to a set of beliefs you’ve held so long that you take them as gospel truth. Maybe you’re telling yourself that your critical boss is out to get you, and you’re keeping a detailed mental list that pinpoints every single time you’ve been victimized. Perhaps you’re convinced that your husband doesn’t really love you because he’s never home on time. Or you’re certain that you know what’s best for everyone, and anyone who dares to contradict you is just in denial. But what if the lens through which you’re seeing the world is terribly distorted?
Could you be viewing the world through a lens colored by depression, paranoia or narcissism? When emotions are involved, you’re not as trustworthy as you think, and if you can’t step back and look at a situation objectively, then you can create all kinds of hell for yourself. Your negative assumptions can even become a self-fulfilling prophecy because you’ll create the results you think you deserve.
If you suspect you’re being held prisoner by your own distortions, it’s time for a gut check: Are you conveniently ignoring alternate explanations that could disprove your arguments about other people’s behavior? For instance, you may not be considering the idea that your boss criticizes because she sees potential in you and wants you to be your best. Or that your husband works those long hours because he intends to be successful and make you proud. Or that when your friends come to you with problems, they may need a sounding board more than your take on everything they’re doing wrong.
One very effective way of getting to the truth is to confide in a person you trust completely — but you’ve got to be open to hearing someone else’s point of view. Does your confidante see the situation the same way you do? You don’t have to agree on every detail, but if your interpretation and hers are really at odds, think about why that’s the case. Remember that you are bringing your own deep-seated preconceptions, hurts and even prejudices to every single circumstance, and though they all may feel very real to you, they’re not necessarily reality. Feelings are not facts.
If you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail. So you’ve got to be more than a hammer! Once you recognize the limitations of the way you’re looking at the world, you can make different choices in how you respond to it. You do have the ability to choose, and it’s available to you every second of every day.
So decide for yourself: Will you continue to let the past dictate your present and future? Or are you going to challenge yourself to stay on high alert for your own filters, unfounded assumptions and illogical conclusions? This is the moment to start holding yourself accountable — to continually test whether your perceptions are grounded in fact and to cast off the beliefs that are thwarting your potential. Take off those goggles and see all the possibilities the world can hold.
Dr. Phillip C. McGraw’s daily talk show is in its 12th season. He has written seven best-selling books; his latest is Life Code: The New Rules for Winning in the Real World. This article was first published in Oprah.