Consider this story that American philosopher and author Wayne Dyer told. While he was living in Florida, a woman he met at a book signing explained that she had just moved there and asked, “What is it like living here?” Dyer replied, “What was it like where you came from?” The woman smiled and explained that where she came from people were warm, kind, and helpful, and that she had a close circle of friends and felt as though she belonged. Dyer replied, “That's exactly what it's like here.”
Later that same day, another woman asked him the same question: “I’m new to Florida. What is it like living here?” Again, he answered her question with one of his own, “What was it like where you came from?” She replied, “We moved because it was terrible there—people were snobby, the cliques were hard to fit into, and I never felt welcomed. I really didn't enjoy living there.” To which he replied, “That's exactly what it's like here.”
This story demonstrates that you filter any situation through your lens of beliefs to help you respond. In other words, reality depends on your perspective. The filter you choose affects the world you see. Choosing a positive filter means living a life filled with opportunity. Choosing a negative filter means a life of limitations.
What do experts say about choosing a perspective?
1. You Have Blind Spots
In her book, The Blind Spot Effect: How to Stop Missing What’s Right in Front of You, mindfulness trainer Kelly Boys presents emerging interdisciplinary research from psychology and neuroscience, showing that everyone has blind spots visually and cognitively, and through learned biases. She believes these blind spots sabotage judgment and lead you to become stuck in behavior patterns that don’t serve you.
Sometimes others see these spots more easily than you see them yourself. At other times, by using self-reflection or through meditation, it becomes possible to witness your own patterns and shed light on a hidden or limiting aspect of your nature. Once you pinpoint a blind spot, you can't unsee it. With this light, new possibilities emerge.
2. Optimism Is Useful When It Is Realistic
Often positive thinking gets a bad rap simply because people are assuming it’s blind optimism, that Pollyanna-ish way of forcing positive thinking because you think you should. Realistic optimism is the ability to see situations accurately and believe deeply that the future will be good even if the current situation isn’t as you would want it to be. The good thing is that even if you are naturally more pessimistic in your thinking, you can strengthen your optimism by practicing. When you catch yourself in negative self-talk, just change your direction.
3. Perspective Isn’t a Thermometer, It’s a Thermostat
How your perspective leads you to act or not act in a given situation is something you control. Imagine you are running late for work. As you drive, you hit red light after red light. If you see perspective as outside your control, this scenario might have your temperature boiling. If you can see it instead as a thermostat, you have the power to think in a way that supports your control of how your respond to the situation. You don’t get to control the traffic lights, but you get to manage your reaction. This is where you can turn the thermostat down using tools like reframing your thoughts, breathing mindfully, or even re-routing your drive.
4. How You Think Is Important
As you think, ask yourself if you are being:
A first step in perspective taking is recognizing whether your thought process is helpful or unhelpful.
- Unhelpful thinking is associated with being rigid, avoidant, and pushing against the reality of the situation. It tends to be black-and-white and can present as refusal to accept a situation, blaming others for the situation, and avoiding and suppressing feelings.
- Helpful thinking is associated with solutions, flexibility, and acceptance of reality. It tends to be problem-focused. It prompts you to seek information, encourages acceptance of situations, and involves humor and positive reframing.
5. Perspective Falls Into Three Areas
There are three types of perspective:
Action sometimes feels like the realm most under your authority. Actions refers to doing something observable. The action is your response to the stimulus after your thoughts and feelings create a filter. You are not a puppet; you are in charge of your actions.
Your thoughts, on the other hand, can feel out of your control. Your inner critic runs a constant commentary of what you are doing and how you are doing it and isn’t always kind. It can also feel challenging to turn the volume of this voice down or to set your mind free of the patterns of thought that have been part of your life since childhood. Meditation practice helps.
Feelings may be the realm where you feel the least in command. In psychologist Daniel Kahneman's book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, he explains the two-system approach to choice and judgment.
- System one is the fast system that operates quickly with little sense of voluntary control. This system has deep influence on your choices and judgments before you have time to think.
- The second system is the effortful mental activity system that requires you to slowly process your thoughts.
System two believes itself to be where the action is, but system one is the hero.
Reflection on past actions, time spent examining your beliefs, or a meditation practice will help you develop the skills of metacognition (thinking about thinking) and be a witness to your own life (observing your thoughts, feelings, and actions in a non-judgmental way).
It takes effort and practice to change your perspective. Over time, you will become more aware of your perspective and with this awareness comes the ability to try on another person’s perspective. This allows for connection to those who may seem different or unrelatable. Use your perspective-taking skills regularly and, like a muscle, they will grow.