As human beings, we constantly navigate the blurred lines between reality, illusion, and perception.
In a world where illusions are meticulously crafted, and perceptions often shape our understanding, the quest for truth becomes an intriguing journey.
It can be a mind-blowing concept, for sure.
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Consider the movie The Matrix, where reality itself becomes an illusionary construct.
Illusions and reality testing
According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, an illusion is: Something that is false or not real, but that seems to be true or real.
Reality testing is a component of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy that evaluates the accuracy and validity of a person’s beliefs and thoughts.
In this captivating realm of reality testing, we find ourselves questioning the very essence of our existence.
What are the distinctions between illusion, perception, and truth?
Can we learn to peel back the layers of deception that cloak our understanding of the world around us?
How’s Your Reality Testing?
As an integrative nutrition health coach, I spend considerable time helping clients tease illusion and reality – whether we’re discussing their diets, workouts, spiritual practices, careers, or relationships.
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….”
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 version of what is real.
Nobody else can ever fully enter our reality, and we can never fathom another’s motivation because we cannot enter 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.
Common life illusions
One of the biggest illusions about life I have personally experienced is that excelling academically is paramount.
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.
And, if we’re being honest, I am concerned because she is my mini-me.
Did I get straight A’s in high school? Yes.
Did I go to a prestigious school? Yes.
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?
Our journey shapes our reality
This became clear when I returned from my junior year abroad and spoke with other students who had gone away.
Yes, I probably did speak Chinese better than most, but my year might as well have been spent stateside for all the socializing and cultural experiences I missed.
To top it all off, I almost didn’t graduate.
It turned out that going away for a year gave me too many credits in my major – not enough variety to qualify for 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 50 – after three other career tracks and almost 20 years of being the “portable spouse.”
Absolutely everything I did along the way has contributed to my current work.
However, I often wonder whether I would have discovered my calling 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.
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 don’t care.
So yes – the reality is that certain schools require a certain GPA, test scores, memberships, and extracurriculars.
The illusion is that it matters that you get into those schools.
I 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.
At that point, I went “backwards,” earning an A.A.S. and, finally, a certificate from an online program.
The reality is that things don’t always go to plan
My complete CV looks as though I have a serious attention deficit disorder.
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 my getting or not getting a job.
I do know that employers have checked my references.
I’m 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.
And honestly, the two “lesser” degrees I received have brought me the most joy and fulfillment.
But college counselors are more real than parents to teenagers – particularly those who fall prey to people pleasing.
“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.”
“Your achievements thus far aren’t really enough” easily eclipses “I love you the way you are.”
Being the parent in this situation, I’m not sure I will succeed at teaching my 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 or 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 experience do we pour on?
But as soon as you view the scene through a camera lens, an action loses its motion and 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 that there really is no end or 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.
Reality testing can help you discover the truth
Play these games!
Play them with your kids, spouse, friends, and coworkers.
If you dare, play them with your parents and your boss.
Every action, reaction, and relationship benefits deeply from little reality testing.
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