What You See is What You Get: The Power of Your Perception

tentI lived in a tent for almost a year once up North.  I was 19 years old and had just finished a trip cross-country with my then-boyfriend.  We had grandiose visions of a 6-month trip to backpack across Europe and we carefully laid all of the plans.  We would set up camp in an empty field on  my friends property, spend the summer landscaping ridiculous hours, eat like college freshman and spend every penny we saved on backpacking gear, plane tickets, Eurorail passes and youth hostel reservations.  It was fool-proof, right?

Everybody else seemed to think I was crazy.  I’ll never forget the look on my poor mother’s face the first day she took the dirt road down my friends property line, swung a hard right into the field and pulled up outside of my new digs.  I think she said something along the lines of, “Oh my God, you are kidding me, right?”.  Her husband just kept shaking his head as we proudly showed him around, continually mumbling, “Wow” under  his breath.  My sister laughed her ass off at me and told me what a dipshit I was.  Even my cat, Doja, tilted his head disapprovingly when I showed him the perch we built in a nearby tree to keep his food away from the coyotes.  He gave me that look implying I must be fucking joking.  Had it really come to this?  Not that I could actually blame any of them…this wasn’t exactly the first in my long line of questionable decisions, but I wouldn’t be deterred.

I worked my ass off that summer, digging trenches and pits, planting trees, grading properties, spreading mulch and rocks, mowing and trimming trees.  Bruises bloomed all over my body with the physical labor and my muscles ached like nothing I have felt before or since.  I still have a giant scar on my left thigh from the damned hedge trimmers!  The boys called them rat bites, and I imagine the feeling was quite similar.  Still, we would go back to the tent each night, full on fast-food, exhausted and sun-drenched, but ready to face the next day with nothing but our end goal in sight.  Nothing could slow me down.

While everybody else saw a shitty little tent, boyfriend and I saw freedom and opportunity.  I saw myself getting closer and closer to pursuing a dream that I was determined to make happen.  I was able to overlook the lack of amenities, running water and hot food.  I was able to find some comfort in taking my showers at the landscaping office loft in a rickety stand alone stall while my fellow co-workers milled around below.  I was able to smile confidently when others scoffed at what I was doing, because I saw it so differently.  It didn’t matter what anybody thought of me…I was following my dreams.

Fast-forward to September 11, 2001.  Ring a bell?  That’s right…the day the Twin Towers went down.  We had been tent-dwelling for 7 months by this point and our departure date was fast approaching.  The reality of the news broadcasts hit me like a ton of bricks.  Everywhere I turned were warnings that Americans should not travel abroad…that it was not safe.  I remained undeterred, still completely convinced that this was my fate, but I was soon to learn that she (fate, that is) is a tricky little Diva.  For whatever reason, boyfriend and I had purchased our plane tickets at different times.  As we sat down by the light of a kerosene lamp in our teeny little tent, unpacking and repacking our backpacks for practice, something rather important came to our attention.  We realized suddenly, that unbeknownst to either of us, we had booked our tickets 10 days apart.  I was beside myself pissed!  How could this have happened?  October 01 was just weeks away and, instead of getting on a plane to skip off to London for an adventure, I would have to spend another 10 days milling around Cape Cod while a gray, dismal Autumn set upon it.  Boyfriend urged me to stay positive and promised to meet me back in London the day my flight came in.  He left a few weeks later, leaving me and my tent and the gray weather some time to think.

During this time of introspection, a few things became clear to me.  The first was that lots of people had some pretty valid reasons why they didn’t want me to take this trip.  I was urged not to go by every childhood friend I’d ever had, my parents, my sister and countless others, which of course, only made me want to go more.  Then one night, I had a random conversation with a stranger, and for whatever reason, his words resonated and I had a moment of realization that indeed, this was not my trip.  It was boyfriends trip and I was just along for the ride, living somebody else’s dream.  This knowledge was further compounded when 2 days later, 3 days before my flight was set to depart, I received notification from boyfriend that he had missed his flight back to London and would not, indeed, be able to pick me up at the airport.  I would have to meet him in Amsterdam.  I clenched my teeth and painstakingly made the decision to cancel my trip.

All of a sudden the tent morphed into something sinister right before my eyes.  All of the long summer nights spent sweating my butt off within its walls, sharing a single mattress with a man that moved too much in his sleep, the relentless sweeping and sweeping and sweeping to try to get nature back on the outside of the tent…I resented it all.  I hated the musty odor, the way I had worked myself to the bone every day doing physical labor and the fact that I had not a penny to show for it, spent as it had been on this trip.  And now, it was getting colder and rainier outside every day and I was sitting here alone…cold, tired, aggravated and feeling like a failure, stewing in all of this anger, while boyfriend flitted across Europe with my portable cutlery set.  My perception of the situation transformed as my relationship to it did.  Suddenly, I saw no hopes and dreams manifesting, but a waste of 8 months of my life instead.

I share this story for two reasons.  Number one, because it was a pretty interesting time in my life and it’s always a funny story to share.  Number two, hindsight being 20/20 like it is, I have come to find so much value in this experience and I have realized how greatly it has helped to shape the woman I have become…particularly my rather warped sense of humor (tee hee).  Most importantly, it has really helped me to realize how much our perception influences our emotions and life situations.  When we can stare a difficult situation in the face and find a silver lining, we are giving ourselves an opportunity to create possibility for something positive.  In coaching, this is called a turnaround.  Alternately, if we get so entrenched in the negative aspects of a situation, we are allowing ourselves to fall prey to its perceived power over us.  In coaching, we call this a limiting belief, holding us back from the greater possibility that lies within the lesson.  In the story above, my relationship to the greater goal helped me drive myself forward and look beyond the hardships of the situation, however when that goal was removed, it was easy to let myself slip into dismal territory.

This happens so often.  Maybe all of a sudden the job you prepared for, interviewed for and were hired for, loses its luster 5 years down the road.  Perhaps its a relationship you are in or a way of thinking that has become engrained.  Possibly its a habit you deem bad.  Your wants and needs have changed and whatever you are doing, isn’t growing with you.  Do you sit back and stay where you are, knowing that perhaps its “easier” or it’s what’s expected of you, even though your relationship to the situation has changed, or do you see that you are being offered an opportunity to change?  Do you get lost in the routine and monotony, or do you find the silver lining?  What have you learned from this place which has provided tools for you moving forward?

So where are you holding yourself back?  Where are you perceiving the people, circumstances and situations that make up your life in a negative light?  Where are you getting stuck?  Name all of those things, and then spend some time searching for the possibility.  What have you learned from these perceived trials?  What might they potentially blossom into for you if you could try to see them in a more positive frame?  How have these things helped to motivate and inspire the current you?  How have they showed you who you are and what you want from life?

Each of us holds the key to our own happiness.  The pen is in your hand, so write the story that you want to live.  If what you’ve written so far isn’t making you feel happy or excited, crumple up the paper and start over again.  Change your perception and change the whole game.  You are the only one who can decide whether to see it as a tent or the Taj Mahal.

Note:  The above picture is not of my camp sight, but it definitely gives the basic idea.

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