I’m learning about how fluid and powerful perceptions are. They shape our experiences and profoundly affect our emotional states. We never know anything for certain, as even things we witness firsthand can have multiple explanations or interpretations. Our understanding of our existence and the events within it is much more in our control than we generally realize – or want to admit.We choose who we trust, who we believe. We decide whether to take someone at their word or doubt them. We can never be sure they deserve our trust (or mistrust), as we can never climb inside their hearts or minds to find out whether they’re being authentic or deceptive.
There is intense anxiety in the unknown for me, and my understanding is that the majority of people are at least uncomfortable with it. Some thrive on uncertainty, and for them I imagine life to be much more enjoyable. But for the rest of us, we try to be certain – or at least reasonably confident – about most of our perceptions. We do this to ease our stress and anxiety, which is ultimately better for our health.
But there are ways this particular coping mechanism can backfire. We may find ourselves rigidly adhering to certain perceptions. Most of us know this as denial, and perpetual denial is distinctly maladaptive. Worse, we can choose to believe the worst possible versions of things, leading to an increase in stress and anxiety – and, at times, isolating ourselves from those around us, as we mistrust them and push them away.
Now, why would anyone choose to believe the worst? My experience is that betrayal, abuse, or severe trauma, especially with repeated instances, tend to lead people to expect the worst. There is this notion that we can avoid further exposure to these damaging experiences if we can predict them, and so we begin to look for them.
Like your eyes playing tricks on you with shadows in dark rooms, your mind can play tricks on you in these situations. You will find what you look for; this is something well documented, known as the observer-expectancy effect (or expectancy bias). The truth is that our understanding of the world is more perception than reality, so you can just as easily find evidence that someone has ill intentions as good ones. This expectancy bias is well understood by researchers, which is why there is a goal with research to disprove theories rather than attempting to prove them.
So you can choose to believe whatever you like, but if certainty is something you have any interest in, the only way to get closer to it is by questioning your assumptions, challenging your own beliefs, and testing your own theories by trying to disprove them. Of course, you can never know anything for sure (as nothing can be proven), so ultimately, you get to choose what you believe. Just remember that your beliefs are just that, and that you really don’t know anything for sure.