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Illusion vs. Reality: How’s Your Reality Testing?

Illusion, n. Something that is false or not real but that seems to be true or real.

~Merriam Webster Dictionary

I once worked for a man who often used an expression (only partly in jest) when faced with a seemingly inexplicable action or attitude from another: “Well,” he’d say with a wink, “His reality testing is not so good….”

How’s Your Reality Testing?

As an integrative nutrition health coach, I spend a considerable amount of time helping clients to tease apart illusion and reality – whether we’re discussing their diets, workouts, spiritual practices, careers, or relationships.

The extent to which our lives are dictated by our perception of reality is striking.

As one of my teachers used to say, “If you consider the etymology of the word, we’re all autistic in our own way.”

(I’ll save you the time it takes to look it up – autism’s root meaning is “morbid self-absorption.”)

Sounds awful, but what this really means is that we each have our own version of what is real.

Nobody else can ever enter fully into our reality, and we can never fathom another’s motivation because not only are we incapable of entering their reality, we also layer on our own (mis)perceptions of what the other thinks/feels when we try.

In fact, the root cause of most miscommunication is a disconnect between external reality and our internal perception of it.

(For a great workplace tool for overcoming this issue, check out the Ladder of Inference.)

One of the biggest illusions about life that I have personally experienced is that excelling academically is of the utmost importance.

As in really, really the most important thing.

As a parent, I view my daughter’s obsession with maintaining a 4.0+ (because that’s now a thing) with mingled pride and concern: pride because she carries it with grace if not ease – it involves a lot of work – while also training for athletics two hours a day, working alternate Saturdays, volunteering, and keeping up a social life; concern because I see her staying up too late, overtraining and over committing, and not enjoying herself enough.

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And, if we’re being honest, concern because she is my mini-me.

Did I get straight A’s in high school? Yes.

Did I go to a prestigious school? Yes.

Did I graduate at the top of my class? Yes.

Did I get a great education?

Yes, but only in the strictly academic sense.

Did I have enough fun and do enough stupid things as a teenager?


I was too busy taking three languages in high school – no free periods for me as a senior!

Did I find time to enjoy all my college offered and really experience life before I had to get a job?

No again.

This became clear to me when I returned from junior year abroad and spoke with other students who had gone away.

Yes, I probably did speak Chinese better than most of them, but my year might as well have been spent stateside for all the socializing I didn’t do and cultural experiences I didn’t try.

And to top it all off, I almost didn’t graduate because it turned out that going away for a year gave me too many credits in my major – not enough variety to qualify as a liberal arts education!

(Thanks to the high school English teacher who insisted I take the AP test even though I eschewed his class for yet another language for making it possible to graduate after all.)

I became an integrative nutrition health coach at the age of 50 – after three other career tracks and almost 20 years of being the “portable spouse,” which often means working a lot of jobs but never settling in a career.

Absolutely everything I did along the way has contributed to my current work (I would not have come across the phrase “reality testing,” the root meaning of “autistic,” or the Ladder of Inference without having traveled this path), but I often wonder whether I would have discovered my calling a lot sooner if I’d been able to separate illusion from reality at a younger age, if I’d listened more to my heart than to what I thought was important because others said it was.

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As an adult, I’m firmly in the camp of Catherine Pearlman, whose Huffington Post piece generated a lot of discussion about where (and whether) kids go to college: I really don’t care where my children go to college.

As in really, really don’t care.

So yes – the reality is that certain schools require a certain GPA, certain test scores, certain memberships, and an extensive list of extracurriculars – the illusion is that it matters that you get into those schools.

I like to joke that I took the Benjamin Button approach to education: I traveled the usual route from high school to college for a B.A. then to grad school for an M.A., but at that point I went “backwards” and got an A.A.S. and finally a certificate from an online program.

I am that person, the one whose complete CV looks as though I have a serious attention deficit disorder, and yet I’m not sure that any employer of mine (and yes, there have been many) has ever closely examined what degrees I received and from where.

I can’t say for certain that my education played a role in me getting or not getting a job.

I do know that employers have checked my references, and I’m quite certain that when one employer told me, “You have quite a fan club!” after checking them, it wasn’t because my former employers went on and on about where I got my education or that I had a 4.0 (no +, because that wasn’t a thing back then).

And honestly, the two “lesser” degrees I received have brought me the most joy and fulfillment.

But to teenagers – particularly to those who fall prey to people pleasing – college counselors are more real than parents, “You must be this and do that to get into a good school and make a great life” echoes more loudly than “I really want you to find your passion and pursue it,” and “Your achievements thus far aren’t really enough” easily eclipses “I love you the way you are.”

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Being the parent in this situation, I’m not sure I will succeed at teaching my own children good reality testing – let’s be honest, they really do listen to others more than to us, since “It’s your job to love me,” and “You have to say that – you’re my Mom.”

But if you’re an adult in a child’s life, if you’re in someone else’s “village,” there are two ways to encourage good reality testing:

1. Play the camera game.

We are so used to assuming that our perception of reality is reality that we don’t recognize how much we bring to that perception, how many layers of past experience we pour on.

But as soon as you view the scene through a camera lens, an action loses not only its motion but its motivation.”

“The coach is really disappointed in me.”

“Did he say so?”


“Then why do you think so?”

“He was frowning when I crossed the finish line.”

“If there was a camera at the finish line, what would it have taken a picture of?”

“… The coach frowning.”

2. Play “And then what?”

“It’s time to sleep – it’s late, pack up the homework.”

“I can’t – I have a test tomorrow.”

“And then what?”

“I won’t do well on the test.”

“And then what?”

“My GPA will drop.”

“And then what?”

“I won’t get into XYZ school!”

“And then what?”

“I won’t become [fill in career here]!”

“And then what?”

You get the idea – there really is no end, no right answer to this “game.”

The point is not to arrive at “the truth” but to realize that we have options, even when it seems we do not.


Play these games – play them with your kids, your spouse, your friends, your coworkers.

If you dare, play them with your parents and your boss.

Every action and reaction and relationship benefits deeply from a little reality testing.

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