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Why Do I Fear What I Fear?

The Power of Perceptions and How They Are Formed

In this post we continue exploring the power of our perceptions in shaping our view of reality. If you haven't already, you may want watch the video "I Judge People. Do You?" first.

If this content appeals to you, I invite you to join our Intention Circle at IntendWell.US .


Picture me as a small child climbing up to the dinner table surveying each dish in turn. As soon as I identify boiled Brussels sprouts, my little child brain interprets danger. In my childhood home, I was expected to eat everything that Mom put on my plate. Years later I was enjoying dinner with my book club when someone at the table insisted that we order enough roasted Brussels sprouts appetizer for everyone. When the order arrived she insisted that everyone try them. (OK - even as an adult, peer pressure is a thing.) I spooned out the smallest possible serving and clutched my water glass. Well, you know what happened. Roasted Brussels sprouts are a standard appetizer on menus everywhere because they are delicious!


Why do you think that you think what you think? After we calm down enough to reengage the prefrontal cortex, what happens next is a highly individualized and emotional activity shaped by the interweaving of our beliefs, values, social conditioning, sense of self, and especially our unique past experiences.

  • Belief: a belief is our interpretation of what a past experience meant. Beliefs do not require facts or external validation. It is our personal “truth” because it happened to us. I believed that Brussels sprouts tasted terrible because my Mom served them boiled — yuck! But beliefs can change when we are receptive to new encounters.

  • Values: our values are shaped by our beliefs, which means that values can change as our beliefs evolve. Someone who achieves a prosperous lifestyle after laboring long hours for many years values hard work because they believe that hard work pays off. But that is not a universal perspective. Someone who struggles financially despite working hard all their life has different beliefs and values because their experience was different.

  • Social conditioning: these are expectations of our tribe concerning dress, food, individual behavior, and relationships with others. Talking during a movie, for example, violates my expectations of acceptable behavior but plenty of people do it. Once a friend commented to me that there are certain outfits that look ridiculous on an older woman. A 2004 study out of the UK concluded that patients are more likely to trust a doctor wearing a white lab coat.

  • Sense of self: this is our perception of the characteristics that define us. Are you comfortable with how you see yourself or do you have a list of things you want to change? Research from 2022 revealed that we are more likely to judge other people’s bodies if we are dissatisfied with our own. If you wish your stomach was flat, you may feel critical of people with poochy bellies.

  • Past experience: our life experiences are particularly powerful in shaping our perceptions — even childhood memories buried deep in our subconscious. Many of the over 70 million pet dogs in America are considered members of the family. Some dog owners throw birthday parties replete with cake and pointy hats. But 1 in 9 Americans suffer from cynophobia, which is an overwhelming fear of dogs arising from a frightening encounter with a canine usually during early childhood. The fear persists even if they do not consciously recall the experience. Children growing up in the same household have different recollections from childhood just as Janet and I have different perceptions of our lunch together. My brother has pet snakes but I cannot imagine intentionally inviting a snake into my house. This may be the result of my mother’s reaction when a barefoot 5 year old me nearly stepped on a copperhead in our backyard.


How we perceive our world is how it is.


Our rational prefrontal cortex is not as logical as we like to imagine. Our beautifully unique “truth” is subject to change. If Janet wants to move past her initial judgments, she could start by exploring her beliefs, social conditioning, and sense of self upon which they are based. Our beautiful prefrontal cortex is self-aware; it can think about its thinking. With an air of curiosity we can ask observe why do we disapprove of what we disapprove of? Why do we fear what we fear? Why do we think that we think what we think? When we understand the source of our perceptions, isn’t it curious that throughout history humans been willing to demonize — or worse—anyone who didn’t see the world their way? Journaling is a wonderful tool to explore what these aspects of our psyche teach us about ourselves. Then we can use the neuroplasticity of our brain to abandon beliefs that no longer serve us and find our new truth.

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