There's a well-known adage that perception is reality. How we see something becomes our truth, which can sometimes be self-limiting.

Every day in both our professional and personal lives, we face challenges, decisions, and situations that cause our stress levels to escalate. The ability to step back and take a different view is a crucial skill for our time. What if by changing our perspective on situations that upset, challenge, or frighten us, we could be happier, more confident, and less stressed? Carrying negative viewpoints saps our energy; it weighs us down both mentally and spiritually. Imagine how you could use that energy in other ways.

Perceptions are influenced by a number of factors: experience, personal values, judgments, information (as well as lack of information), and our needs and desires. Yet, it is possible to expand our perception of situations, events, and behaviors by changing our perspective. Changing perspectives is relatively simple, but not necessarily easy. To some extent it is what an enlightened friend of mine called a trick of the mind.

The concept of shifting perspectives is a tool that will give you a wider view of most situations you encounter and, with practice, expand the options for how you perceive your world. Research has shown that positive attitudes produce brain chemicals that give us a lift. You'll naturally be calmer and more relaxed when your perspectives shift to a more positive viewpoint.

Perspectives 101

What is a perspective? One of the definitions offered by the World English Dictionary is the proper or accurate point of view or the ability to see it. How do we know if our perspective is proper or accurate? I believe that the answer is in the pain quotient. If holding that particular perspective is causing pain, distress, or anxiety, something is clearly amiss in how we are viewing the situation—or viewing ourselves in relation to the situation.

In her book, Its Easier Than You Think, author Sylvia Boorstein explains the practice of Buddhism in laypersons terms. She captures the First Noble Truth of Buddhism this way: Pain is Inevitable, Suffering is Optional. What this means is that by accepting the truth that pain is inherent in life because there is always change, and the loss that goes with change, we can free ourselves to experience life in all its many facets. And we also can free ourselves from suffering if we are willing to stop struggling and accept what is. This is not an easy task; rather, it is an ongoing quest that requires a major shift in perspective.

Think of a time in your life when you were suffering over something: perhaps unfair criticism from a boss, or loss of a friendship, or death of a loved one. What happened to make the suffering lessen and eventually end? Most likely over the course of time you came to a different view (perspective) of the situation. Perhaps you realized that the criticism had a ring of truth and you were able to use it to make a positive change. Or you saw that the friendship you lost had not been at the level you wanted or needed, and were able to accept that it was over. Even in the death of a loved one we can find solace by changing our perspective that although the person is gone he remains in our cherished memories. The oft-quoted cliche that time heals all wounds is, in essence, a statement about how perspectives change over time. It is possible to accelerate this process by conscious action.

Tricking the mind

The World English Dictionary offers another definition for perspective that fits well with the concept of tricking our minds to see things differently: a view over some distance in space or time; vista; prospect. Imagine that you are standing at the top of a tall mountain. What do you see before you? Perhaps you see blue sky above, snow on the distant peaks, and a valley far below where everything looks tiny.

Now shift your view to standing in the valley looking around the lush greenery and then up at the mountain. This is quite a different view from the one at the mountaintop. You may see some of the same sights—the snow-capped peak and the blue sky—but your perspective of those sights is different.

Tricking the mind to shift perspectives is a bit like being able to move between the valley floor and the mountaintop without walking or driving there. Think special effects in a movie where characters appear and reappear in different places. Or what about that famous picture that looks like a young woman in one perspective and an old woman in another. This is the trick of the mind.

Perspective shifting


So fasten your seat belt and get ready to shift. Take out a blank piece of paper, turn it sideways (landscape view), and make three columns of roughly equal width. Label the first column Brief Description, the second column Current Perspective, and the final column Alternative Perspectives.

Step 1: Briefly describe the situation. Capture the most important details to gather your thoughts and lay the foundation for crafting your current perspective statement.

Example: I'm well-paid for my work but it's a 24/7 proposition—and I end up working instead of enjoying time with my husband, exercising, or just relaxing.

Step 2: State your current perspective. Framing your view of the situation in proper perspective language is what opens the way to viable alternative perspectives. Your perspective will always be about you, not the other person or people involved.

Example: I'm stuck in this job/company because I make too much money to leave.

Step 3: Develop three to five alternative perspectives. Start with something that is at least a shade or two more positive than the current perspective. Try to have at least three alternatives. Ask a friend or colleague to help you if you get stuck. Avoid writing about actions you could take; those will come later after you've experienced the perspective for a time.

Example: 1) This is an opportunity for personal growth to challenge myself to set better boundaries between work and home; 2) My assumption that I can't make enough money anywhere else could be based on misinformation or fear; 3) My personal values are a foundation for the choices I make in my career and life.

Step 4: Choose one alternative perspective to use for the next week. Think of it as trying on a piece of clothing to see how it fits. Walk around and see how this perspective feels on you. What changes when you look out at the situation through this new perspective? When the old perspective pops up, mentally put it aside and bring the new one to the forefront of your thinking. What new actions or behaviors result?

You've got the power

Cultural anthropologist Angeles Arrien studied indigenous peoples around the world and found a number of commonalities in their worldviews. She captured her findings in her book, The Four-Fold Way. One key commonality was that none of these groups strove for perfection the way we do in modern, Western cultures. Instead, they strove for excellence. Each day, in each situation that unfolded before them, they focused on being excellent and, when possible, being more excellent than the day before or in a previous situation.

Tomorrow morning start your day with this thought: Today I will strive for excellence in my [work, behavior, relationships]. Notice what happens when you design your day around that concept. Are you more at ease, less pressured, or perhaps more energized?

By seeking alternative perspectives, we take control and enlist the power of our own mind to make significant changes. When we change our perspective, we change our mind—and our actions and behaviors change in tune.