Are Perceptions Our Only Reality?

Are Perceptions Our Only Reality?

What I love about running a workshop is when a delegate comes up with a great challenging question. On the working with ego workshop recently, I was asked how do we tell between perceptions and reality? This led me to do some research and run a couple more workshops to explore this topic further. Despite that, I cannot give a definitive answer, only my perception of the facts!

What became apparent is that the question of perception versus reality is a contentious issue that is still being debated by scientists and psychologists. However, it is a fascinating topic with major implications for our day to day lives and leadership. It does require an open mind and the chance to suspend our current beliefs.


Perception is defined as the way sensory information is organized, interpreted, and consciously experienced. Is that just an etymologist’s perception? Another way of looking at it is that perception is the sensory experience of the world. It involves both recognizing environmental stimuli and actions in response to these stimuli and is critical for our survival

Our brain exists in a silent black box and can only perceive or make sense of the world though the senses. Sight, sound, touch, taste and smell are the messengers to the brain of what the world outside our skull is like. We can only make sense of the information we have at that time and there is the classic story of five blind people trying to describe an elephant.

There are two forms of processing the brain uses for this data.

Bottom-up processing is where perceptions are built from sensory input, whereas top-down processing is how we interpret those sensations, which is influenced by our available knowledge, experiences, thoughts, values, beliefs, and feelings.

At the end of the day, it is therefore all thought and just because we think something is true, it does not mean it is real. Now there’s a thought! And what if one (or more) of our senses is not fully functioning?


One definition of reality is that it is everything that there is in terms of space, time, energy forces, consciousness, and abstract ideas. It seems so solid and yet when we try to grasp it, it seems to melt away like the end of a rainbow. You could say that reality is not what it seems. Questions remain like when did it begin, why does it exist or does it really exist? It seems that as science tries to understand more about reality, the greater the mystery and the more complex it becomes, or else it is defined in terms of quarks and energy. The scientists lost me at this point, but you may like to explore it further.

Reality of leadership

As leaders, we may want to interpret reality in terms of ‘Who is telling the truth, how did that accident really happen, why can’t those two people work together, etc?’ Most of these things will be down to perceptions, but do we get closer to the truth the more facts we have? Again, we could have a major debate on what is truth!

Impact on our lives

This discussion may seem unreal, but the difference between perceptions and reality has a big impact on our daily lives. Perceptions are powerful and can influence how we see ourselves and others, and how they perceive us. Whether a situation is right or wrong is down to perception and depends on how strongly we feel about it. We have had some global examples of that recently. People have argued, sometimes violently, about Brexit, Presidential candidates, how the pandemic should be handled, wearing masks, and so much more. How many wars have been fought where both sides believe they are fighting for what is right? How many arguments have you got into because you KNOW you are right?

“There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so”

William Shakespeare


There is a wonderfully profound childrens’ book called They All Saw A Cat. The premise is that the same cat walks through the world and yet everything sees it differently. The child, mouse, dog, bird, worm, bat, etc all perceive the cat, but in totally different ways, even though it is the same cat. Which is the reality? Scientists may argue that the reality is there is no cat until we look, and we know curiosity killed the cat!

Ultimately, how does the cat see itself? If it looks at its reflection in ruffled water, then it gets a blurred view of itself. How many of us have a distorted perception of who we really are? How do you see yourself and is that the same as others do? A delegate on my workshop had an insight at this point as to why her brother, who had learning difficulties, may see himself in a totally different way to how she saw him.

“We judge ourselves by our intentions, others judge us by our behaviours”

Stephen Covey


What do you see?

Frustration can occur in the workplace as people perceive things differently. It is not necessarily about being right or wrong, but simply different viewpoints, as this classic picture demonstrates. Some people are realistic and accept the world as it is, whilst others may be idealistic and see the world as it should be or they want it to be. There is value in both views. Just like the story of the elephant, the more perspectives you get, the better your judgement can be. The danger is surrounding yourself with like-minded people to reduce frustration, but you can end up with a limited perception of reality!

Calming the waters

Like the cat in the story, if we base our perceptions of the world or ourselves, by reflecting in stormy waters, our image may be distorted. At this time, stress levels are high for many people, their perspective may be ruffled and good judgement may diminish. It pays to calm the mind and let ‘the waters’ settle before concluding on a situation. You can accurately measure your capacity for good judgement with the Judgement Index.

This is just a toe-dip in the waters of this topic, but I hope it has raised a few new perceptions for you. The next time you are in a difficult situation, you may like to challenge the perceptions involved and what the reality of the situation is. Just a thought!

Main image by John Hain from Pixabay

Also published on Medium.

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