The Value of Perspective
Perspective is often cited within therapy as a useful tool in facilitating insight, understanding self-and-other, and coping with various situations. While perspective alone does not solve problems or guarantee success, at times it can make the difference between a difficult situation and a disaster, or a good and bad mood.
Here are a few fictional/non-fictional illustrations of helpful applications of perspective taken from comedic television:
Coping with things that don’t go well:
In the first couple episodes of NBC’s Parks and Recreation, we learn that its main character, Leslie Knope, is a [bordering-on-excessively] optimistic person. As Deputy Parks Director of Pawnee’s parks and recreation department, we see that she is unappreciated, surrounded by disheartening bureaucracy and passivity, and that her job requires her to field several complaints from various people.
In the second episode, after her subcommittee’s first harrowing town hall meeting, she states:
It was tough. But you know that’s Pawnee. That’s democracy. There are a lot of people here that want this park. You just gotta get past the negative people. But guess what? My subcommittee held its first town hall meeting tonight. God I loved it. I loved every minute of it
Subsequently a man leaving the meeting exclaims:
“Hey park lady—You suck!”
After which Leslie says to the camera:
“Hear that (she says smiling)? He called me park lady.”
Leslie’s positive perspective is one consistent with the ABC model of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, which posits that interpretation of A) the activating event, is mediated by B) beliefs about the event, ultimately shaping C) the consequences (i.e., one’s subsequent feelings, thoughts, or actions). If Leslie chose to believe that the meeting or the person’s comments were an indication that she did a terrible job, her feelings might have been different. She chose, however, to funnel her attention to the accomplishment of something meaningful, and seeing that this act in itself is worth appreciating, while also acknowledging the inherent challenge that comes along with holding the meeting in a hostile, nonresponsive environment.
photo credit: basementrejects
Dealing with Stress:
Taking another example from Charlie Day’s episode of the Nerdist podcast. Chris Hardwick asks Day about his experience of hosting Saturday Night Live in 2011:
Hardwick: Was it a [terrifying] experience?
Day: No because I knew that it would be. And so like I trained my mind like an athlete to really make sure I wasn’t nervous. So it was sort of this trick I do where if I get that tingling nervous sensation, I have to sort of translate that into “oh you’re a kid on Christmas morning who’s super excited to do this thing and you can’t wait to open this present – as opposed to – it’s the fight or flight thing – as opposed to saying “oh you’re gonna throw up and fail.”
Day’s use of perspective is reminiscent of Schachter and Singer’s Two-Factor Theory of Emotion, which suggests that people tend to interpret unexplained physiological arousal by searching for emotionally relevant and environmental cues. Schachter and Singer observed that participants injected with epinephrine without knowing what it was or what its effects are would infer their emotional state based on their observations of an actor who they believed to be another participant reacting to the same injection. Although all participants were administered the same injection, depending on the cues they were given, some participants identified feelings of anger while others named feelings of euphoria. Consistent with Day’s “trick”, the Two-Factor Theory emphasizes the subjectivity of how one emotionally responds to stress/ physiological arousal. While Day’s initial reaction to his stress might have been “you’re gonna throw up and fail,” he practices reframing his stress as positive excitement.
photo credit: cliqueclack
Reframing Resentment or Anger:
In the second episode of NBC’s Community, Jeff, the coolest person within the study group is begrudgingly paired with arguably the least cool person within the group, Pierce, for a small Spanish class project. In the episode, Pierce irritatingly overshoots the project, while trying to make it a bonding experience with Jeff. Jeff ultimately bails on him – leading Pierce to an emotional reaction that manifests as him accidentally setting his sleeve on fire amidst a drunken rant.
After this incident, the other group members discuss Pierce’s behavior. Despite the collective agreement that “Pierce is crazy,” Britta brings the group to a more empathic reaction by changing their perspective:
Britta: You know what he did that’s really crazy? He offered me a hundred dollars to switch cards with him just so he could be partners with Jeff. I think he thought getting closer to Jeff would bring him respect in the group. I think he spent his whole life looking out for himself, and he would trade it all for a shot at some kind of family.
In this scenario, what was so aggravating for Jeff was, from his perspective, Pierce was getting in the way of him completing the assignment and being able to court Britta. It wasn’t until Britta convinced Jeff to consider Pierce’s point of view that he had a change of heart.
Similar to this episode, we have all at some point been irritated by seeing other people as getting in our way, which may have been alleviated by considering what others may be experiencing themselves.
In his published speech, This is Water, late writer, David Foster Wallace spoke to this phenomenon, as well as how—as portrayed by Community—change in perspective can help deal with everyday aggravations:
So the checkout line is incredibly long, which is stupid and infuriating… Because my natural default setting is the certainty that situations like this are really all about me. About MY hungriness and MY fatigue and MY desire to just get home… [and] how deeply and personally unfair this is…[but] I can choose to force myself to consider the likelihood that everyone else in the supermarket’s checkout line is just as bored and frustrated as I am, and that some of these people probably have harder, more tedious and painful lives than I do.
Although shifting perspective has various applications and benefits, it is not a universal solution, and like any change in habit, it can be a taxing process that takes practice and effort. Nonetheless, as these examples illustrate, it can sometimes be helpful to consider of how our thinking may be affecting our experience of a given situation, and to remind ourselves, as Wallace concludes in his speech, “…there are other options.”
photo credit: avclub
Kong Psy.D., B. (2013). The Value of Perspective. Psych Central. Retrieved on February 13, 2016, from http://blogs.psychcentral.com/psychology-culture/2013/11/the-value-of-perspective/