Perspective Is Everything

“Some people see the glass half full. Others see it half empty.
I see a glass that's twice as big as it needs to be.”

 —  George Carlin

Sometimes your situation seems hopeless, the problems are overwhelming and unsolvable. Yet if a friend were in similar circumstance the solutions seem obvious. The fan in the stands sees opportunities that the quarterback on the field misses. The perspective of the observer is different than the perspective of the actor.

The perspective of the observer is called the Dissociative Perspective, while the actor sees things from the Associative Perspective. When experiencing events in the here and now, we are in the Associative Perspective. When we review the unfolding of events in retrospect, we are observing them from the Dissociative perspective.

Problems and emotionally provocative events can be viewed more coolly from the Dissociative Perspective, where solutions to problems may be obvious. Developing the ability to shift form the default Associative Perspective to the dispassionate Dissociative Perspective can be useful — especially if you are impulsive.

Jane is taking her dog, Spot, for an off leash walk, and sees some boys lighting a firecracker. Jane, the puppy trainer, is concerned about a real danger: Spot will be frightened by the sound of the firecracker and take off running into the street where he would face the genuine danger of getting run over. Spot, of course does not realize all of this; from his perspective, the firecracker triggers an instinctual fight-or-flight reaction. Jane knows that the firecracker presents no danger to Spot, and that the only danger he faces is his emotional reaction to the loud but harmless event.

Jane, who has the advantage of the dispassionate observer's perspective, is in a better position than Spot to appraise the objective dangers Spot faces. Fortunately, Jane had trained her dog well. When she spotted the danger, she called him, and he came to her before the firecracker went off. If she would have called him after the firecracker went off he might have been too emotionally aroused to follow the command. Likewise, the earlier in the sequence of internal states and external events that you can exercise your will, the greater the likelihood that you will be able to react non-automatically.

The Experiential Processing System determines the reactions of children as well as animals. When a child experiences fear—say in the doctor’s office just before the inoculation—her emotional arousal comes with the tacit premise that the fear is based on a real threat and its intensity is related to the awfulness of the situation. 

Jane has taken her 5 yr old, Sally, to the doctor for her shots. Seeing the needle and imagining what is about to happen makes Sally cry and try to run away. Fearing the struggle will cause injury, Jane tells her, “Don't be afraid, it will just sting for a moment,” which, of course, does no good. Finally, she physically restrains Sally for the moment of the inoculation, and then it is over and in a few minutes Sally is playing without a care.

The impulsivity of children is understandable. They live in the here and now, and do not appreciate the benefits of inoculation. Even we adults are unmoved by dangers that are not immediately obvious. Warning signs of disaster that are obvious from the observer's perspective can be easily missed by the performer whose attention is otherwise occupied. For example, in her excitement to go swimming, a youngster —  who was not born with the knowledge that it is dangerous to jump into a lake without first checking to see if there are rocks just below the surface —  is about to leap in.

Thought Experiment: Taking on the Observer's Perspective —  Imagine that you were a wise and kindly observer who knows there are rocks just below the surface of a lake into which a child is about to dive. You would probably act to prevent the predictable tragedy from unfolding.

Now, imagine this entity, who knows you well and has unconditional positive regard for you, is observing you in a situation that usually elicits a self-sabotaging emotional state, such as anger, shame, or dread. How does this detached observer view this situation? What would that observer want to tell you?

Give yourself about 5 minutes with this exercise and make notes when you are done.

This Thought Experiment is a metaphor for Epstein's Two Minds. The wise observer who has valuable knowledge [your Abstract Processing System], and the actor, who is in danger of making a tragic error [your Experiential Processing System].

As we live, we perceive the world from the actor's [the associative] perspective: We cannot see our own face unless looking in a mirror. However, it is possible to use your cognitive gifts to observe your circumstance from an external perspective — for example, when telling a story about an adventure from your past, or when working with a thought experiment that asks you to visualize a scene as though watching a movie.

The passage from the emotionally reactive mentality of childhood to the more advanced cognitive strategies described here is easier if you fully understand the distinction between process and outcome; what is within your control and what is outside your control; what you must have the courage to change and what you must have the serenity to accept.


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