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How We Construct Our Own Reality

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For centuries, philosophers and sociologists have pondered the idea of reality. Sociologists generally accept that reality is different for each individual. For instance, Albert Einstein reminds us that reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one. Let me expound on this through a scenario:

Mary is a student in a primary school. Her belief that she is worthless and unlikeable is a problem for her, a persistent illusion. What ‘thinking rule’ has she constructed that causes her to feel and act as she does? What opportunities does she deny herself because she believes she’s not worthy or that she is not good enough? These are questions the counsellor will explore with her young client. This is the ‘non sense’ to be teased out of Mary’s subconscious and placed in the clear light of day for very close scrutiny and examination.

Today you are you!
That is truer than true!
There is no one alive
Who is you-er than you!
– DrSeuss

A lot of meaning in so few words and that was the unique capability of Seuss, to condense a lot into a little. But what does this mean? Our ‘me-ness’, what or who we believe we are is as varied and unique as a fingerprint or an intricate snowflake.

Our children, I believe (so as Seuss did), cram a lot into a little. They process the messages they receive and make logical deductions about what these messages mean. They determine how worthy they are as people according to the sense they make of their experience. They are constructing their reality of who they are, parsing out what makes sense to them from the things that  could be nonsense. What happens when the nonsense makes sense and the sense is nonsense? And what are they missing out when condensing so much information into a one-word meaning: good, bad, smart, ugly etc.? Who or what is the ‘me’ beyond the one word label we assign our person hood?

Seuss again says: ‘I like nonsense, it wakes up the brain cells. Fantasy is a necessary ingredient in living; It’s a way of looking at life through the wrong end of a telescope. Which is what I do, And that enables you to laugh at life’s realities.’

Nonsense, as a fantastic inversion of reality, a temporary world of fantasy and fun of our choosing contrasts with what we accept as true and we can revert back to reality; our reality when we choose to. But it is not a game or adventure when our worldview is built on nonsensical constructions that our reality tells us are true. It is a dark fantasy to learn that we are worthless or dumb and that no one cares about us.

Everything you see or hear or experience in any way at all is specific to you. You create a universe by perceiving it, so everything in the universe you perceive is specific to you
– Douglas Adams

Adams reminds us that the reality experienced is unique to the person who is living that experience. All we perceive via our sense experience (sight, sound, smell, feel) creates the universe we know. But it isn’t the same universe that others have created.

A child in the classroom will be as unique as the fingerprint we referred to earlier. How one sees the world will be particular to them, specific to them. They are constructing their version of reality according to their interpretation and understanding of their own lived experience, as aptly put on this article: ‘People construct their own understanding and knowledge of the world, through experiencing things and reflecting on those experiences.’

In an ideal setting our children are active participants in their learning. They do not only receive and automatically accept what is given to them but they process and test input against the evidence available and make informed decisions. It is the job of teachers to help children learn how to think; to enquire and test the hypotheses they are encouraged to make. What’s true or not at the time? How are these truths challenged by new evidence? And so on…

Imagine this: the counsellor who sits before the young person who seems to be living her ‘nonsense’ induced dark fantasy of her ‘reality?’ How does the counsellor know this is the case? What do we do? Why? How do we know this? Her demeanour, how does she present? Is this usual or characteristic of her general behaviour? What have others observed? What is revealed in her talk? (‘No one likes me; I’m dumb, what’s the point’)

What do we do? We work out together to find out the nonsense that we assume is causing the young person to feel and act as self-defeatingly as she does. We listen to what she says and we isolate those ideas that we agree don’t sound right. We challenge those ideas with evidence and make new assessments of old constructs. We work hard to understand our new learning, to replace old habits of thinking with new more helpful and sensible ones.

Why? So the young person can help herself know when nonsense is gaining ascendency and to quickly relegate it to the nonsense files when needed and to be able to monitor emotions and mindset as a matter of course.

Alfred Korzybski through his general semantics, asserts that we ought to be more thoughtful about the language we use and to be mindful of the messages we are trying to convey. Too many and inappropriate words can confuse understanding and he suggests we develop a ‘scientist sensibility’ for listening. He talks about creating a ‘verbal pollution free zone’ by asking three questions that encourage specific answers. They are:

  • What do you mean?
  • How do you know?
  • What did you leave out?

When applied to Mary’s situation this is how a discussion may unfold:

  • Mary – ‘I am dumb and no one likes me.’
  • Counsellor – ‘What do you mean? What is your understanding of ‘dumb’? What do you mean when you say no one likes you?’
  • Mary – ‘I can’t do anything! No one wants to be my friend.’
  • Counsellor – ‘How do you know? What evidence is there to prove you can’t do anything and no one likes you? ’
  • Mary – ‘I never get anything right! People don’t want to hang out with me.’
  • Counsellor – ‘What did you leave out? What things can you do? What have you ‘forgotten to remember?’ What can we find that proves you cannot be dumb and unlikeable and that this could all be nonsense?

I’d like to leave you with these words from Bo Dahlbom: ‘The major lesson to be drawn from the idea of social reality construction is not one of increased freedom, but rather a strategy for utilising the freedom we have. To see that science and technology are socially constructed is to realise the importance and role of social institutions in the production, justification, and legitimation, of science and technology. It is to realise the importance of construction as opposed to interpretation, or the constructive element in all interpretation. And it is to realise the importance of being one of the ones constructing, of the role of power in the construction of reality.

Giulio Bortolozzo is a school counsellor and teacher/counsellor trainer in Rational Emotive Behaviour Education. He resides in South Australia and has just commenced his Ed. D. studies at the University of South Australia. He has written two educator/counsellor REBT based resources (People and Emotions and Have a Go Spaghettio!) both endorsed by the creator of REBT, the late Dr Albert Ellis. He enjoys running and reading (not at the same time!). He also enjoys travelling; Eire, Scotland and Italy being his current most desired destinations. You can read more about him on his website



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