Is the ‘problem’ in the eye of the beholder?


When studying psychology, they love to ask the question “what is the difference between seeing and perceiving?”  How would you answer that?

I once went to Egypt, and one evening the difference between perceiving and seeing was beautifully demonstrated.

I was invited to attend the ‘sound and light’ show at the great pyramids.  We were ushered to our seats, the lights are dimmed and the show begins.

All of a sudden, lasers are shone onto the face of the sphinx.  It lights up the face and makes it appear as if the sphinx is talking.

What I ‘saw’ was laser lights moving over stone.  What I ‘perceived’ was a huge face, coming awake and telling me a story.  With the sound track and the lights in synch, it is easy to stop seeing and only perceive – to be carried along by the idea that the Sphinx has come to life and is sharing a story with us.

Consider where you are now.  Any object in your line of sight can be seen – as an object with a description and function, or it can be perceived (where you add ‘meaning’ and you no longer see it for what it is, but make it something ‘more’).  If you have a wedding photo on your desk – you will see a piece of paper with coloured inks.  What you perceive may be all the emotions, memories and a high value on that picture.

We create perceptions based on the past.  All the previous meanings that we have given things are anchored to those items.  In the end, we stop ‘seeing’ and spend most of our time ‘perceiving’.

In a way, it is a great short cut to help us make sense of the world around us, but it also gets us into trouble.

What we perceive is based upon what we project onto what we perceive.  If we feel that we are lacking something, that we are less than, that things are scarce – then I will project this onto objects and situations. We can also project from situations in our past, which may have nothing to do with the present.   For example:

I feel that I am not good enough.  When someone does something good, I project my own lack of self-worth onto their achievement, rather than see it for what it is.

If I am anxious, I will project my fear into any ambiguous situation.  If I don’t know how I will cope, I can project my worst fear and perceive danger and risk, and perhaps hopelessness and overwhelm.

If I am addicted, I can perceive that what I am addicted to has ‘control’ over me – as I project my lack of control onto that thing.  Food, alcohol, gambling – can all be ‘perceived’ to have controlling powers, insidious capabilities – which are projected from within ourselves.

A childhood situation which affected me greatly is projected into my current relationships.  I stop seeing the people who are here now, and perceive based upon people and relationships that are not here, but in my past.

If perceiving is getting you into trouble, perhaps it is time to start ‘seeing’ again.  Here are some exercises to help you:


  • 1.       Look around you.  Note everything in your line of sight.  Say to yourself – “I see  (the item).  It has no meaning except what I give to it”.
  • 2.       Repeat the exercise.  This time say out loud “ I see (the item). The meaning I have given it was (…).  I can choose to give it another meaning, such as (add different meaning).
  • 3.       Spend 10 minutes relaxing, noting your thoughts.  For each thought, say to yourself “ I see that thought.  It has no meaning but what I give it.  I give it meaning and power, I can give it another meaning, or different power, such as (…).



You may notice that you automatically want to give things meaning as you do the exercises (“ I see my mobile phone – that means safety, connection, contact, I’m not alone…..etc).  Notice that ‘meaning’.  If that was being projected from a part of your self-concept based upon an idea that it is something you should fear, or something you feel you are ‘missing’ or haven’t learned, what could that be?

Let me know how you go.  The more you see, the more you choose what you want to perceive.  You get to make meaning out of the world.

  • What are your default ‘perceptions’?
  • How do they get you stuck, or are unhelpful?