On February 11th, 1990, Nelson Mandela was released from a South African prison after spending 27 years behind bars. Mandela, who was 71 at the time of his release, was sentenced to life in 1964 for his leadership role in the Umkhonto we Sizwe militia. The group, which was formed by members of Mandela’s African National Congress political organization, fought against discrimination and racism towards black South Africans. Upon his release, the charismatic leader shocked many with his assessment of his time in prison. Instead of looking at his lengthy prison stay with bitterness, Mandela chose to look at the nearly 10,000 days he spent behind bars as preparation for his life’s bigger purpose.
While the vast majority of men would hold onto resentment and anger for being imprisoned so long, Mandela chose to look at the situation from a different perspective. He famously said,
Forgiveness liberates the soul. It removes fear… Resentment is like drinking poison and hoping it will kill your enemies.”
Instead of sulking about his circumstances while he was in prison, he found ways to bring meaning to his experience by using his time to do things such as teach uneducated prisoners. In the years following his release, ‘The Father of South Africa’ would go on to become the president of his country, undue decades of racial hate, and win a Nobel Peace Prize.
By exhibiting the ability to shift his perceptions in a beneficial way, Mandela’s story can serve as a prime example of how each of us has the capability to see any experience as an opportunity for personal growth. Numerous other examples similarly point to the fact that while we don’t have the ability to dictate many life circumstances, we do have the ability to choose how we view unwanted situations. If you so desire, you can perceive everything as a life-affirming opportunity.
What are Perceptions:
Psychologists around the globe hold a variety of differentiating views about how humans experience life and how the human brain operates. One thing that psychologists can unanimously agree on, however, is that humans naturally perceive sensory input in order to understand their environments and make meaning out of their experiences. The process of perception starts when we use our 5 senses to selectively relay information about the environment to our brains. Perceptions are then formed based on how we categorize, label, and interpret the messages. After we have made judgments about our circumstances, we make decisions and take action based on how we view the particular situation. Celebrated Social Psychologist Fred Luthans defines perception as,
An important mediating cognitive process through which persons make interpretations of the stimulus or situation they are faced with.”
Unfortunately, because the human brain is so powerful, many of us habitually perceive the world negatively and fearfully. As we grow older, our perceptions often shift towards the negative because of our past experiences in similar situations. The human brain is biologically wired to focus on the negative, so when we think about current or future situations, we more quickly recall unpleasant experiences we have had in the past. For example, it would be challenging for a woman who learned that her significant other was cheating on her to enter into a new relationship without a doubt.
There is no doubting the fact that our perceptions about people, situations, and circumstances greatly influence our decision-making abilities, as well as our levels of life satisfaction. Fortunately for us, it has been shown time and time again how two people who have had a nearly identical experience perceive it completely differently. By understanding how your perceptions naturally affect your levels of fulfillment and personal well-being, you can find ways to creatively look at any experience or situation as an opportunity for personal growth and empowerment.
Seeing Everything as an Opportunity:
In order to see everything as a life-affirming opportunity, it can be helpful to uncover particular situational perceptions that cause you to feel anxious, fearful, angry, or emotionally uneasy in any other way. By first becoming consciously aware of limiting perceptions, you can then creatively find alternative ways to view the circumstances. There are a number of limiting perceptions people may need to work with, such as a fear of public speaking, a fear of social situations, or an inability to trust others. Many of these perceptions are caused by anxiety and can be placed alongside phobias such as Ochlophobia, or a fear of crowds.
It is possible to overcome anxiety-based phobias and fears with therapeutic support and aid. Regardless of whether you have to limit perceptions that differ from these, there are a number of universal tools that can help you see the experience, situation, or circumstance in a positive way.
In order to view every experience as an opportunity, you will also have to switch your situational goals to much simpler objectives. For example, you can keep your focus contained to becoming a better person, making the world a better place, learning from every experience, and increasing your levels of spiritual consciousness. One of the most liberating things that you can do for yourself is to cultivate the belief that failure and rejection are nothing more than opportunities to learn. Keeping all of this in mind, let’s look at four distinctive tools that can help you shift your perceptions in a positive way:
- Remove the Emotion: While working with your perceptions, it can be helpful to take the emotion out of the particular experience. You can do this by visualizing your situation from a third-person perspective. When the ‘I’ is removed from a particular problem, it becomes much easier to find the silver lining that it offers. To remove the emotion attached to the situation, you may also want to think of yourself as a close friend you are offering advice to.
- Consciously Search for the Positives: The popular saying ‘what doesn’t kill me makes me stronger’ is a favorite amongst Americans because of the truth it holds. There will always be two sides to a coin, and there will always be positives that can be found in negative experiences. Asking yourself conscious questions can be especially helpful. A few that you may want to keep in mind are: ‘How can I use this to my advantage?‘ ‘What can I learn from this experience?’ and ‘How can this make me a better person?’ If there happens to be an experience that you can’t find any positives for, you always can use it as an opportunity to increase your levels of consciousness and understanding of the impermanent nature of reality.
- Focus on Shifting the Perception & Overcoming the Problem: Instead of unconsciously thinking about how hurtful a past experience was or how painful a future event will be, you can use your time to think about how you can overcome your problem. It is all too easy to get caught in a mental trap of fear, anxiety, or sadness, and this truth makes it that much more important to consciously lay out a plan that will help turn your negative into a positive.
- Take Action: In order to shift your negative perceptions into positive life-affirming alternatives, it is vital that you take action that confirms your desired perception. If you have an irrational perception of people judging you while public speaking, you will have the greatest success in transforming it by creating positive experiences speaking in front of crowds. Action will always be the most important step to overcoming problems and shifting perceptions.
There is no question that you have the ability to limit or expand your perspective in a way that benefits the well-being of yourself and those around you. Now that you understand how perception shapes reality, you have the ability to see everything as an opportunity for growth, happiness, empowerment, and spiritual development.