“I know that if I think about my boyfriend in a certain way, eventually that’s how he will become. So I don’t want to think he’s cheating on me because I don’t want him to cheat. That’s what happens, isn’t it?”
A whole range of responses flowed through my mind. Clearly, she understood that she was projecting her distrust and fear of betrayal onto him. Yet, it is not that she would force him to cheat because of her thoughts, but that she creates her perception of infidelity from her fear, and that can be even more powerful. Perception is reality after all.
We really don’t deal with each other directly; we interact through a system of preconceptions. We all have filters through which we perceive the world and thereby create our experience, our reality. Our interactions with others are heavily influenced by them, sometimes to the exclusion of everything else. So in that sense, we do create our reality, though sometimes it is a “false” reality.
We are always looking for information that reinforces our view of the world, supporting our assumptions. If she really believes, or even suspects, that her boyfriend is unfaithful, she will automatically sort through every one of his words and behaviors, selecting only those that support that conclusion.
In relating to other people, most of our filters are inaccurate. Some are outright lies. And yet they are how we interpret the world and always have! However, once we know the game, once we recognize how pervasive this systemic perception filtering is, we have a chance to change the rules.
Who Do You Trust?
Most people can easily understand the concept of filtering, yet the next step is often difficult. Changing perceptions takes significant work. Part of that work is to determine whether the filter is accurate or not. It is difficult to know, especially if you do not trust yourself. If you are constantly second-guessing your own wisdom, then that will need to change first.
A trauma survivor once told me, “I don’t trust anyone, but I trust myself.” That is actually quite profound. What it meant for her was that she learned not to walk down blind alleys or get caught in false hopes and promises, and she stopped giving herself away as easily as before. What she did was learn to trust herself and the instinctive wisdom that had tried to guide her all along.
She learned to walk away when her body and instincts said she should, and also to allow the possibility for a “safe” relationship when one appeared. In the process, she earned many friends and colleagues and avoided many pitfalls, though certainly not all of them. No one is perfect.
Changing the Rules
On the whole, in the absence of any other proof and only a budding ability to trust yourself, it may be a good idea to assume that the filter is a lie and test it out.
Once this young woman commits to changing the rules, she needs to catch herself every time she moves into that feeling of distrust of her boyfriend and recognize it for what it is: the result of a filter and probably nothing to do with reality at all. In her case, as with many people with similar issues, the filter has been based on previous experiences, often stretching back to childhood and usually reinforced by past experience.
Indeed, a previous boyfriend did in fact have an affair, and did in fact lie to her about it. Yet that actually has nothing to do with the current relationship unless she makes it so.
There are many ways to address and heal the events that lead to the creation and reinforcement of restrictive filtering. Most of them require some outside intervention. However, a good start can be made with persistence, determination, and creativity … and trust in yourself.
- Recognize in the moment that your interpretation of events is wrong.
- Find a different interpretation than you ordinarily would have, based on trusting your instincts in the moment.
- ACT on that new interpretation. Change the story.
- Actively seek experiences and perceptions that contradict the filter.
It takes a lot of courage to counter the unrealistic though truly powerful effects of filters. After all, you could be wrong and your partner truly may be untrustworthy. As you learn to trust yourself, you may misinterpret what you are sensing. Do not expect yourself to respond perfectly because you won’t. Just do your best and do not “beat yourself up” over misjudgments.
And especially don’t listen to the filter that says, “I can’t change.”