We all have filters. Our filters are created from childhood, past relationships, what others modeled for us by their example, and how we intersect with culture. Everyone has different experiences that inform each person’s filters and lenses. These filters are always present in the midst of our relationships and have an effect on how we view others.
Acknowledging our lenses can make a significant difference in our relationships and our level of happiness. “It is not necessarily reality that shapes us, but the lens through which your brain views the world that shapes your reality. If we can change the lens, we can change your happiness.” (Shawn Achor, 2011)
Here is a common example: Three people witness a car accident. When the police interview each witness about the same accident, their stories are different. Each witness ultimately experienced the accident in a different way. Who is telling the truth? Each one of them.
Couples often share this frustrating phenomenon. Something happens. Each person in the couple “knows” exactly what happened. However, for some reason, the other person does not see it the same way. Both partners spend too much time in conflict trying to convince the other person about reality. They both end up moving on without resolution. The problem with this scenario is that each person’s experience is valid. Our reality is shaped through our filters.
What tools can help us avoid this stalemate in our relationships with others?
1. Acknowledge our unique filter: Terrence Real believes a good place to start is acknowledging the lens we use to interpret reality. A handy phrase like, “What I made up in my mind,” can go miles in a relationship and diffuse the emotional rollercoaster we experience when our brains try to fill in the blanks. (Terrence Real, 2008)
Example: A wife promises to call her husband while she is at work before lunch. The phone call never comes. Her boss pulls her into an impromptu meeting that lasts through lunch. Sandwiches are called in. She is unable to make the call. What choice does her husband have? He can either (a) make up possible reasons why she neglected to make the call: “Does she still care?” “Did she lie?” “Did she have a reason to lie?” Or, (b) acknowledge his discomfort and wait until he has a chance to talk with her to learn what happened. Then, he can begin with, “When you did not call, I made up in my mind…” At this point, she has a chance to reassure him that she loves him and explain what happened. The emotional tone is calmer. This phrase allows them to broach a difficult issue, to acknowledge possible hurt feelings, and to hear one another.
2. Practice listening. Shift the goal from trying to win our position to trying to understand the other person. Receiving empathy, feeling like someone really understands where we are coming from, is healing. When we both feel the other person understands, the conflict often loses its steam.
3. Enhance your lens with gratitude: Instead of looking for what is lacking approach relationships from a place of gratitude. Gratitude is an intentional practice and impacts our level of contentment and happiness. In an interview Brené Brown did with Oprah Winfrey about her research with men and women on “Wholehearted” living, Brown responded: “I made a commitment to everybody I knew, that I will never talk about joy for the rest of my career without talking about gratitude, because in 12 years of research, I have never interviewed a single person who talks about the capacity to really experience and soften into joy who does not actively practice gratitude.”
4. Self-compassion. When we talk to ourselves in negative and self-critical ways, it not only affects the way we see ourselves, it impacts the way we view others in a negative way. Our filter becomes one of criticism and negativity. We gain a greater capacity to face our insecurities when we learn to be actively compassionate with ourselves. When we mistakes, we acknowledge the pain and learn that it is and act of kindness to comfort one another. (Link to self-compassion videos by leading experts, Paul Gilbert and Kristin Neff).
In conclusion, relationships are enhanced when we recognize that we all use filters to make meaning of our reality. When we acknowledge the filters and try to understand the other, we are better able to approach difficult issues and create space for healing. We can enhance our lens and become more content in our relationships as we learn self compassion and actively practice gratitude.
Resident therapist at Fuller Life Family Therapy Institute