Schemas: The lenses through which we see the world.

November 30, 2023

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Have you ever been told, "You sure see the world through rose-tinted glasses"? Or, perhaps not – as there’s this persnickety little tendency we humans have which is called the negativity bias. Whether your worldview is rosy, sepia, or black-and-white, this colloquial saying highlights the very real idea that how we see the world affects our reality.

What we see (or hear or smell) gives us a gut feeling – a sense of ease or alarm. This informs how we perceive the situation and, naturally, any actions that follow.

Is a dog smiling at us with both its mouth and eyes? Then we’re inclined to approach and offer him a scratch behind the ears. We smile back and murmur, "Good boy, a very good boy, who’s a good boy," to anyone within earshot.

Is a dog watching us with bared teeth and slanted eyes? We shy away, and with tense shoulders gauge how strong the fence is between it and us. Our hands stay stuffed in our pockets. No pets for that one.

This sort of pre-thought perception is a survival mechanism in a world where a lot is coming at us – it helps us react quickly when we need to. But here’s the rub: just because we have a gut feeling doesn’t mean it’s always right.

In the face of conflict, it gets more complicated. Gut feelings bubble up in the heat of the moment, and emotions fuel actions instead of thought. If our perspective is off even a little bit, then things can unnecessarily escalate.

So how do we manage these gut feelings? Where do they even come from?

Our sense organs provide our window out to the world. Sight, smell, sound, touch, and taste…each stimulus is sent as information to our brain, which makes sense of all this input.

Since we are constantly being bombarded by stimuli, we have evolved to build mental maps so that we are less overwhelmed. In psychology, these are known as schemas: mental frameworks or structures that exist in our minds to help us organize, interpret, and make sense of the world around us. In life, this translates to the biological superpower of automatically seeing something, categorizing it, and reacting. Everything we perceive is filtered through these mental maps. But no map is ever perfect.

Looking through eyeglasses with a friendly dog on the left side and an aggressive dog on the right side

When we encounter something new, our schemas instantly come into play, influencing how we interpret and make sense of the information presented to us. These mental lenses filter and organize our perceptions, enabling us to categorize and anticipate the behaviour of others. Schemas help us navigate social interactions by providing a set of expectations and assumptions about how people should behave in different situations. They streamline our cognitive processes, allowing us to make quick judgments and responses based on past experiences and learned patterns.

To quote Anaïs Nin, who put it quite succinctly:

We don’t see things as they are, we see things as we are.

Or, to use the language we’re unpacking here:

We don’t see things as they are, we see them as our schemas see them.

Schemas are hard to notice, in and of themselves. Rather, we experience their manifestations through the automatic thoughts and responses that they result in. Some lenses work well for us, and others…less so. Any distortions in our schemas also show up in our perceptions.

We all have our blind spots which, as their name implies, are unconscious. Maybe it manifests as a discriminative categorization of people by gender, race, or whatever. Or maybe it’s details that we add in to make sense of a situation. These blind spots can warp our perception of reality. Fortunately, it doesn’t have to stay this way: with a bit of courage and determination, we can refine our schemas.

The next time a conflict arises in your life, it’s worth taking a moment to consider how a schema might affect your perception of the situation. Why might you feel that way? Is your feeling valid? What is the other person feeling right now?

A bit of curiosity goes a long way in unpacking what’s playing out in our lives. Over time these situations become opportunities to refine the lenses through which we see the world, ultimately changing our responses into more fruitful acts. Conflict is natural and doesn’t need to be a bad thing.

While a gut feeling is something to be listened to, it’s important to remember that it’s not everything. When you notice a strong reaction arising from within, can you replace the feeling of knowing or judgment with curiosity? The practice of returning to an attitude of beginner’s mind is helpful – even if it takes time to make a habit out of it, it’s worth the effort.

Want to unpack this more? Check out our free online webinar: Conflict 101: Demystifying Conflict Through a Psychological Approach. In it, we dive deeper into this concept of schemas and challenge our automatic responses that arise from within. Through study and daily practices, this introductory course presents an opportunity to improve both our relationship with conflict and the communities in which we live our lives. Start today here.

If you have questions,
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