The way we choose to see the world creates the world we see. — Barry Neil Kaufman
What do you see when you look at the imagine above? A duck? A rabbit? Both? If you see the image as one of these options — a duck, let’s say — are the other ways in which you could see the image — as a rabbit, or as both a duck and rabbit — somehow “not true”? If multiple ways of seeing the image are possible, which one of them do you prefer? Which one works better for you, and why?
While these questions may seem a bit silly in regards to an image (You may well be asking yourself, “Do I see a duck, a rabbit, or both … what does it matter?”), I contend that the considerations they represent have significant implications in all aspects our day-to-day lives, including our relationships. To quote Barry Neil Kaufman, “The way we choose to see the world creates the world we see.” In my own experience, I’ve noticed over and over again that what I choose to see in myself and the world around me, including other people — in what they say, and what they do — has a profound influence on the ways in which I’m able to respond and interact. Seeing multiple possibilities for meaning in any given experience gives me a wider range of possible responses; I’m often able to choose one of the more useful options, then.
Imagine, for instance, that I am standing at the counter in a coffee shop placing my order and paying for my purchase. The cashier doesn’t smile, greet me, inquire how my day is going, or thank me for my business. In this situation, I could see the cashier as “rude” or “disrespectful,” and feel slighted, or succumb to my anxious thinking in the form of self-doubt, and worry that I have done something wrong. With these interpretations as context, I might snap at the cashier for being “rude,” or keep my mouth shut and leave the coffee shop disgruntled, either way muttering under my breath as I stride out the door, vowing never to order from that person again. I might feel embarrassed, thinking that I did something to offend the cashier, and accuse myself yet again of being a “loser” in social situations as I shuffle back to my car, berating myself.
Alternatively, I could see the cashier as not having been as courteous to me as I would have liked. Perhaps the cashier is feeling unusually stressed, or distracted by her own worries. If I’m honest with myself, I have to admit that I just don’t know what is going on for her. Even if I did know the cashier’s story, I wouldn’t know — without asking, anyway — how the cashier would explain her own sense of her behavior in this moment. If I could allow myself to see the cashier’s behavior as something less offensive to me than “disrespectful,” I might be able to wish her well — regardless of my discontent — and decide to address the issue of unsatisfying service the next time that I experience it, if I experience it again.
From my own perspective, one of these ways of seeing this experience at the coffee shop works better for me than the others. If I give myself the opportunity to choose the option of softening my gaze — not looking so harshly, or even looking kindly, on the cashier and myself — I will leave the coffee shop in a better mood, feeling good about myself and how I responded, with a sense of calm and confidence — happier all around! While I will be aware of my disappointment in the cashier’s behavior, in the service that I received from her, I will not be consumed by the gap between this experience and the expectations that I had for the interaction, or by a negative way of seeing the cashier, her behavior, or myself that foments feelings of anger, indignation, resentment, or anxiety.
There is always more than one way to look at things. In any given situation, we can choose to see in the way that works best for us and those with whom we’re interacting, given the kind of experience we want to have, how we want to live our lives, the type of person that we want to be, and more. The ways in which we look at things both influence and are influenced by the conversations that we have — with ourselves, usually in the form of thoughts — and with others. Therapy or counseling, life coaching, and clinical supervision are all contexts for conversations that can help make a difference in how we see things by giving us a chance to think and talk in new ways. With these new ways of thinking and talking often comes a greater sense of self-agency and possibility in our lives. Problems dissolve and we see more options for action.
In your life, who or what are you seeing in ways that aren’t working? Yourself? Your partner? Your relationship with a family member or someone with whom you work?
What would a different way of seeing be? If you saw differently, what would the benefits be? What would support you in making this shift in perception?
Why are you waiting?
Adapted from What Do You Choose to See?