How to change your perspective and change your life

How to change your perspective and change your life

Controversial but highly influential 19th century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche famously said, “There are no facts, only interpretations.” And while he quipped this more than a century ago, the observation is as relevant as ever today. For any one issue there’s a multitude of viewpoints, so who’s to say what’s right or wrong? It’s all a matter of perspective.

Perspective is subjective because it’s predicated on human judgment, values and experience. But what if your perspective is holding you back? What if changing your point of view could, in fact, positively change your life? By swapping the lens in which you view life you may alter its very course. After all, as the saying goes, “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.” Not a bad perspective.

Beauty in the eye of the beholder

American writer Edmund Wilson said no two people read the same book. Each individual will take something unique from that experience — even if it’s different from what the author may have intended. No two minds or hearts are the same and the lived experience is entirely exclusive, which can never be duplicated.

Have you noticed when viewing an artwork your interpretation might be the opposite of that of your partner or best friend with whom you have so much in common? Why is that? How can two people look at the same object or vista and see something entirely different? From the moment you are born you are conditioned to think a certain way and unbeknown to you, you are moulded by your family culture and experiences, both good and bad, which affect how you view life.

Your perspective is naturally biased, founded on what you have gone through in your own life, your innate disposition and the influences that have affected you.

Your perspective is naturally biased, founded on what you have gone through in your own life, your innate disposition and the influences that have affected you. So one person may indeed see the glass as half full if their temperament is naturally optimistic but for someone with a different outlook, they are inevitably going to see that glass as half empty. Inexorably, no experience is ever really objective; it’s ultimately subjective. While this is neither a good or bad thing, it can lead you to rigid notions about what you believe is right, precluding you from considering another person’s viewpoint.

Perspective in paralysis

Let’s go back to our German provocateur, Herr Nietzsche, whose major philosophical tenet was the emphatic denial of the existence of God. While this is a perfectly valid point of view, was his perspective shaped by the untimely death of his beloved father who happened to be a Lutheran pastor? Had religion let this four-year-old boy down? Could this explain his philosophical rejection of God in later life almost as an act of revenge for taking his father away from him?  His perspective may or may not have been shaped by this one catastrophic blow in his life but it cannot be discounted.

You are your experiences. And you approach life based on each and every event you have encountered along the way. For some of us, we are so defined by our experiences we cannot see past them to consider another point of view or to change our own.

What does it take to change your perspective?

I’m right, but you’re not wrong

Every day in the counselling arena, couples in crisis present with an intention to save broken relationships and yet each partner can be so intractable in their point of view they can’t help but to derail the process. One of the striking things the therapist notices is how attached they are to their own stories of justified dissatisfaction. Their defences are up as they have built a protective wall around their hearts. Hurt has mutated into bitterness and lack of acknowledgment from their partner has created a well of contempt inside them.

Both parties could tell the same story about an experience and even concur with the factual elements of the narrative but the emotional takeout is diametrically in opposition. In this instance, they’re so entrenched in their own grievance they fail to see where the other is coming from. The mindset has become so ingrained because of the build-up of ill-feeling that individuals become distressed. We see this in the workplace, politics and friendships, too. It’s rarely about who’s right or wrong but rather about points of view.

If you can display the maturity and grace to change your point of view or at the very least to countenance an opposing viewpoint with openness, you invite the opportunity for compromise or conciliation.

The secret to genuine reconciliation is when both partners can get out of the way of their own story to listen to what the other has to say. When each partner can genuinely show compassion by seeing things through the eyes of their partner, barriers get broken down and scars can be healed. When a couple can empathise with each other, they can alter their own perspectives and see beyond their own limiting stories, which are still valid but incomplete as they’re each one-sided.

When you can let go of fixed perceptions without forfeiting your values or being true to yourself, you grow as an individual. If you can display the maturity and grace to change your point of view or at the very least to countenance an opposing viewpoint with openness, you invite the opportunity for compromise or conciliation.

Perception vs perceptive

We encounter opposing views in every aspect of our lives. From our own personal lives to political or social issues, we grapple to empathise with views that conflict with our own. This is our perception of life but that does not make us perceptive. To really be perceptive you need to consider all points of view to distil truth. The ideological war that still rages about Australia Day, for example, affects every Australian and, whether or not you buy into the debate, is all about perception.

From the Indigenous point of view this day of “discovery”, when the birth of a nation is celebrated, brings heartache as it signalled the start of genocide and cultural decimation, resulting in inter-generational trauma. But this day also marks a new era of settlement, which has led to some amazing outcomes, including Australia becoming an immigrant nation. Sadly, the argument has become so rigidly binary and toxic that it has resulted in a stalemate.

Changing your perspective takes humility and courage. Finding the heart and intellectual rigour to empathise with someone else takes imagination and self-awareness.

But what if there was empathetic discourse based on compassion and understanding where an acknowledgment of hurts rose above the debate? Both perspectives are valid and, when considered with humility and a genuine desire for conciliation, a cohesive bond could forever be forged.

Whether it’s a couple or a nation in dispute, to genuinely value the other’s perspective means both parties must seek to find a united middle ground where destructive stand-offs are averted. Perceptions can shift if you’re perceptive enough.

“It is a narrow mind which cannot look at a subject from various points of view.” This was an observation by George Eliot, who wrote what is deemed to be one of the greatest novels in the Western literary canon, Middlemarch, and was, in fact, a woman (Mary Anne Evans). Ironically, the problem for this brilliant novelist was that in the Victorian era only men were regarded as serious writers. Thank goodness, that perception has changed.

It takes time to consider someone else’s perspective, which is particularly difficult when things are going badly or when you compare yourself to others. You can lose perspective when you fall victim to feeling inadequate or when life is challenging or overwhelming. Gratitude, perspective and self-compassion can render life meaningful at times when it matters most.

Perspective provides emotional prosperity

Changing your perspective takes humility and courage. Finding the heart and intellectual rigour to empathise with someone else takes imagination and self-awareness. And it all depends on context.

Someone living in a third-world country where survival is paramount may view life as a privilege, whereas in the first world, we can easily forget to be grateful. However, when we see a homeless person in our midst, when we travel to countries where poverty is up close and personal, or when we can put ourselves in the shoes of a refugee fleeing terror, these insights compel us to revise or review our perspective. This is why it’s crucial to seek the perspective from those whose experience has been different from ours so we can road-test our own views.

If you are prepared to change the way you look at something, you inevitably change what you are looking at.

When you use perspective as a coping device or as a gauge to measure your own good fortune you boost your “emotional prosperity”. Your happiness stocks increase and you become wealthier in love, self-regard and regard for others. When you consciously choose to pull focus on your life, step back from yourself and see that your pain sometimes is far less than what others are going through, then you can truly find peace and meaning.

Your bad news may not be so bad after all. By practising empathy, you can acknowledge that, while you may have resources to bounce back, many don’t. Perspective allows you to look beyond your own world and into those of others. The upside of perspective is you stop grumbling about your lot in life and open up your heart to gratitude.

Gratitude is the gift that keeps on giving. You lose that drive to consume and to compete, reverting to that age-old mantra of unadulterated acceptance. You get to live in the here and now as you acknowledge all that you can be thankful for. In this state, you can give to others and your generosity is boundless.

The power of perspective

The power of perspective can truly be liberating and every day you confront problems where you can use this superpower to minimise these pressures or perils. You can, in fact, turn a mountain into a molehill if you wisely use perspective or post-rationalisation, whereby a bad story is revised into a good one in order to put a new spin on life.

Newlyweds Dan and Gabby could not wait to start a family. Already anticipating the pitter-patter of tiny padded feet, they got into baby-making mode only to find two Christmases later there were still only two stockings on the mantel. They embarked on the gruelling and at times demoralising process of IVF, finding out eight years on that a child would be denied to them. Life did not make sense for a while as they grieved the loss of the dream of having their own family.

But this couple made the decision to make lemonade out of lemons. Despite being city slickers, they had promised themselves that once the kids were out of the house they would set up a boutique vineyard in the country. The death of their dream gave birth to another one and it gave them a whole new perspective on life. This psychological reboot was transformational as they made the decision to treat adversity as they would triumph. When they were ready, they changed their story, no longer viewing it as a couple wanting a family but rather as a couple with the freedom to do what they always wanted. The back-up dream became the main game.

Dan and Gabby had the insight and self-compassion to view life through a different lens. Now, some may view this as post-rationalisation where grief is cheated or the truth is conveniently reinvented, but this is a mean-spirited way to look at things. This approach is a useful psychological coping device to alleviate suffering, anxiety and depression. Moreover, it has the effect of bringing solace, acceptance and a genuine higher regard for life where you become more equipped to handle’s life’s downside. It gave this couple the resilience to cope with loss and to find a new purpose in life.

Years on, they run a successful cellar door and providore where they sell locally sourced produce. It’s amazing what can happen when you are prepared to shift your perspective. You can indeed change the course of your life.

What do you see when you look?

We know that two people can look at the same thing, yet see different things. Perspective is not the truth, only an opinion. When you challenge your ready-made perspective you allow yourself to consider things with greater wisdom and compassion — not just for yourself but for those who matter to you. Using such tools as equanimity, empathy and EQ, where you employ positive regard, you can reorient your mind and change that preconditioned natural bias.

If you are prepared to change the way you look at something, you inevitably change what you are looking at. A single blade of grass on a barren field could signal either hope or despondency, depending on how you view it. And it means you have to look into yourself to decide what mindset you will bring to the way you view the world.

American president, Abraham Lincoln said, “We can complain because rose bushes have thorns or rejoice that thorn bushes have roses.” By changing your perspective, you not only can change your own life but you have the power to change the world.

Marie Rowland

Marie Rowland

Marie Rowland is a therapist in private practice on Sydney’s northern beaches helping people resolve the underlying issues that perpetuate conflict or disconnectedness so they can create meaningful and happy lives. Marie speaks at conferences, forums and community events on a variety of topics from wellbeing and positive psychology to practical philosophy.

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