Correcting faulty perceptions --validating or having our
perceptions confirmed by others is sometimes a critical step. We are
frequently not aware of our specific misperceptions, but we can, in
most cases, learn to recognize our tendencies to distort, such as
exaggerating our importance, denying our responsibility, expecting the
worst, being overly optimistic, blaming ourselves, distrusting others,
and other ways. If we are aware of our own perceptual biases, we
must constantly check our impressions or views in that area with
others. If we are not aware of our perceptual distortions, we must
occasionally compare other people's honest assessments with our own
to make sure we are seeing things accurately.
If persons, who are afraid of spiders, see pictures of spiders paired
equally often with a tone and a shock, they will strongly believe that
they have seen spiders associated much more often with a shock than
a tone (de Jong, Merckelbach, Arntz, & Nijmam, 1992). This distortion
of reality does not occur in people who are unafraid of spiders. Thus, if
you are phobic, you can not blindly accept "what you see with your
own eyes." You must make systematic observations, keeping careful
records. And you must check out your observations with others.
Martin Seligman (1991) and many other researchers have shown
that optimistic or pessimistic "explanatory style"--how you
automatically see and explain things--influences many things,
including how well you do in school and on the job, and even your
general health. That is, optimists do better. So if you have a
pessimistic, "I'm helpless," attitude, it needs to be changed (see
chapters 6, 8, and 14). How? Test out your expectations. If you
believe that you can do nothing that would help with a problem you
have, try some approach anyhow and see if it fails. If it does, then
make three or four more good efforts using a different attack, and see
if they all fail. Likewise, if you believe that no one would help you or be
honest with you, test out three or four people and see if your
predictions are accurate. In time, you can develop a more optimistic
attitude based on actual experience; look for the opportunities to learn
and grow that are hidden in every problem.
Cognitive therapy also uses distraction and "rational responses" as
substitutes for depressing or catastrophic perceptions of the situation.
Example: a person with a panic disorder may first experience nausea,
then shakiness, heart racing, lack of breath, and finally panic. The
accompanying thoughts are "I hope I don't get upset here," "I'm
getting sick," "I'm having a heart attack!" "I'm going to die," "I've got
to get out of here," and later "I'm a nervous wreck... I'm going crazy."
The therapist might teach this person to reproduce the same physical
symptoms by hyperventilating, to control the tension by distraction
("sit down, read the paper, and relax"), and to replace the catastrophic
thinking with rational, reassuring thoughts: "I can prevent this panic
attack," "my heart is beating fast but that is okay," etc. You can teach
yourself these kinds of things.