How to Transform False Perceptions and See Past the Funhouse Mirror
by Daniel D. Maurer
The "hard" days will come. That's something I remember from treatment; although the advice today sounds like a **well duh** kind of realization.
But how true it is. Life inevitably brings a new challenge for each day. Some days are easy. Or at least they seem that way. Other days it seems like nothing you do is right and the whole world is the proverbial chimp throwing its shit in your face.
This past week I had one of the latter types of day.
I've been planning for some time now taking a trip with a journalist buddy of mine. He's going to be taking a trip to the Pacific Northwest and documenting some of the people he meets along the way. The guy's an amazing interviewer and he's had well over 1 million (yeah!) views on videos in his YouTube channel.
I was planning on tagging along, not only because I thought the trip would have been amazing, but also because I would end up in Portland, Oregon, a destination where coincidentally many of my sober writer friends have ended up. It was going to be my one, big excursion I'd do this year. I felt like a high school boy going on his first road trip with only his compatriots to accompany him.
In any event, I got a call this past weekend from my friend. He said that his brother-in-law had been involved in a tragic car accident and was killed. Of course, after feeling truly horrified and offering my condolences, what went through my brain next was how it was going to affect our planned trip.
As it turned out, it messed everything up. I was on a tight schedule and the window of opportunity was razor thin. I had to be back in St. Paul on a certain date and I had already put deposits down for Air BnBs for specific dates along the way. Because our travel plans were changed, I had to cancel the trip.
I don't blame my friend. In fact, I encouraged him to spend time with his family. The reason I mention my disappointment is because it put me in a tailspin. The bad news seemed to taint everything. It infected my mind with a distorted perception of everything around me.
The first victim of my distorted reality was a gal who works in publicity who I'm considering hiring for additional work on my next big book Endure: The Power of Spiritual Assets for Resilience to Trauma & Stress. Suddenly, I saw the fruitlessness of writing. It seemed like nothing I've blogged about over the past three years or had published "made a difference" to anyone, anywhere! Over the phone, she tried to encourage me and set me straight, but I was in the zone—the distortion zone.
The next victim was my wife, who had to listen to me rant and rave how I didn't get anything I wanted within my career as a freelance writer. The reality is nothing could be further from the truth—thousands of thousands of people every month lurk on this blog and many, many have read my books, some of whom have taken the time to tell me.
It seems like anytime I fall overboard in the great Sea-of-Poor-Me, my world becomes a fun-house mirror, twisting and warping reality so that all that remains is pessimism, self-loathing, anxiety, and (above all) FEAR.
From my understanding of addiction, it's a problem many in recovery deal with, and, in fact, ALL human beings tend to assume things and distort reality for a number of fallacies.
It's like putting on a different pair of glasses—the world just doesn't look the same.
So what's the solution?
How to Overcome Perception Distortion Syndrome
I did manage to pull out of my slump. Amazingly, because I remembered to apply recovery principles, I soon recognized the F.E.A.R. or False Evidence Appearing Real. I began to see that my current mood or feelings were lying to me and that I could choose to take actions to change my situation.
I've made a list of these things. Tell me if you also find them to be helpful in times when the reflection of the world around you comes back warped like a carnival mirror.
1) Gratitude and Empathy
Empathy is key, because it removes YOU out of the center of IT ALL. Take the story I shared with you above . . .
A man had lost his life. A brother-in-law and an entire family was grieving. Whatever disappointment I was playing with in my mind was NOTHING compared to what they had to go through. Empathy doesn't say: "Well . . . sucks to be you." Instead, it says, "I am sorry for the pain. I cannot comprehend the loss, but it must be unbearable." (And, better yet, to say nothing at all, but simple be present within their pain in the capacity that you are able.)
Empathy also takes whatever you're fussing about and places a new perspective on it that doesn't put you in the center of all there is. Yes, it sucked to cancel the trip. Yes, it's a disappointment for me not to meet my friends. Does it ruin my life? No.
That's where empathy's corollary gratitude comes in. I am grateful that I have friends I care about and I can be there for my friend who lost his brother in law. I am grateful that I can write today and others can read and continue to transform their lives.
2) Be Suspicious of Feelings
Emotions are a central part of the human experience and help us interpret the chaos of information we see all around us. They help us to act quickly without conscious awareness and offer important signals between interpersonal relationships. But emotions can also lie, especially when you're a person who struggles with addiction.
One of the things I've found as a person in recovery is that life suddenly doesn't get magically easy without drugs or alcohol. Yeah, I know . . . duh, right? But the fact is that I struggle today perhaps more than I did when I was actively using.
I believe it has something to do with the way that addicts or alcoholics are wired. We're more sensitive than the average joe. We tend to misinterpret cues others give us and catastrophize even the smallest bit of bad news that comes our way. Who knows—maybe it was this demeanor that led us to drugs and alcohol as a "solution" in the first place.
A rule I've tried to apply (and I'm successful only some of the time) is to be suspicious of my feelings. It's tough to do, because my feelings rise to the surface so quickly. Instinctively! If anything, cognitive behavioral therapy and dialectic behavioral therapy (CBT & DBT) have given me the tools to stand back and reevaluate my initial emotional reactions.
Saying to myself, "What I'm feeling right now might be the result of a distorted perception" is easy to do in theory, but takes a rule of habit to get it to stick! But, amazingly, it often works when I remember to do it.
3) Listen to Others and Ask For Help
I've really gotten to love Twitter. There is a group of people on that platform informally known as the #recoveryposse (or #soberposse). I'm not sure how we got that name, but I'll take it, because I've grown to love these people. They're there when I've needed them, and I try to offer the support whenever I see any of them reaching out for help themselves. They are truly amazing human beings.
Anyway, I mention them because one of my friends (a superb writer who only recently finished his first book, one that I'll mention you SHOULD BUY, because I've read it and it's great) who goes by the esteemed moniker Nacho Ricardo (@surelybutslowly) reached out to me when I knew that my current state of affairs was distorting my perception like a bad acid trip. (Okay, probably not the best example.)
He reached out, first via Twitter, then via email to encourage me and set my perception back to normal. In fact, he quoted some dialogue from an episode of M*A*S*H*, the old TV show. I was dealing with the problem that I didn't feel like anything I wrote or did ever made any difference. And, well . . . I'll let you watch a clip, because it's the same sort of struggle Father Mulcahy was fighting, that he never "saw" the results of his work as a priest. Here it is:
Writers, bloggers, speakers, and even everyday normal folks often don't get to see the fruits of their labor. Writing, especially, isn't like cabinet-making or other woodworking—I write about the thoughts I'm having, I tell stories, and I release my words out into the wild. After that, who knows.
I struggle often as a writer feeling like I need an audience, but is that why I really write, for accolades (or worse yet, money)?! No. The truth is I write because I love to. I've had to work hard to do it, and I don't always hit the mark, but I care about creating a world (and let's face it, both non-fiction and fiction are about world-crafting) to pass along to someone else. Even if it's just one other person who reads it, I've made a difference for them.
Gaining a new perspective and reducing the perceptual distortion that false emotions communicate to me isn't easy work. However, the life of recovery and the slow, but sure progress is reward in itself.
Here's to smashing the fun-house mirrors.
About the Author
Daniel D. Maurer is the founder and curator of this blog Transformation is Real. As a writer in recovery from addiction, his first three books dealt with transformation, personal change, and resilience. His fourth, soon-to-be released book Endure: The Power of Spiritual Assets for Resilience to Trauma & Stress will also be featured in the near future. Stay tuned! Daniel lives in Saint Paul, Minnesota with his family.