Reality Definitions
My shadow imposing itself on an art space at Sonic Bloom 2012. Card URL:

Card #658 – Reality Definitions


“The struggle for definition is veritably the struggle for life itself… In ordinary life, the struggle is [for symbols]…whoever first defines the situation is the victor.”
— Thomas Szasz

Reality definitions are one of the chief factors governing the quality of our lives, perceptions, relationships, and power struggles between individuals and groups.

A reality definition is a cognitive template that the mind of an individual or group superimposes on reality to categorize and control it.

Politicians, political parties, corporations, nation-states, and relationship partners are among those who struggle to impose their definition of reality on a situation to gain control.

For example, in the 2012 U.S. presidential election, Democrats and Republicans engaged in an intense competition of reality definitions via campaign speeches, public events, and a couple of billion dollars of advertising money. The Democrats defined the Republicans as a party that favors the wealthy and corporate interests and doesn’t care about women, minority groups, or the middle class. The Republicans defined the Democrats as tax-and-spend liberals who aren’t financially competent and want to provide ruinous entitlements to special interest groups. Romney tried to define Obama as a failed president who is out of touch with the people. The Obama campaign more successfully defined Romney as a ruthless venture capitalist out of touch with the needs of the middle class. Putting aside the factual veracity of each of these definitions, we can see that, like all political campaigns, this was a competition of reality definitions. On the same election day, a competition of reality definitions occurred between consumer activists (who were campaigning for Proposition 37, which would have required labeling of GMO products in California) and a consortium of corporations led by Monsanto, who opposed this. The corporations out-spent the activists dramatically and ran a barrage of ads that defined the proposition as something that would kill jobs, dramatically raise prices, etc. Many of their reality definitions were based on outright lies, but it’s perfectly legal to lie in political ads and campaigns. The corporate definition of reality prevailed with a majority of voters, and the proposition was defeated.

The competition of reality definitions is also a continual struggle in many relationships. For example, a man and a woman in a romantic relationship are arguing. The woman brings up various insensitive and inconsiderate things the man has done, and the man becomes defensive, arguing that she is overreacting and being unfair. The woman’s reality definition is that she is forever the long-suffering victim of the gross misbehavior of men. The man’s reality definition is that no matter what he does, women always find fault with him, exaggerate transgressions, overlook the good things, and try to make him out as the bad guy. Each of them can find evidence to support their opposing reality definitions. Each of them wants their definition of reality to prevail and for the other to acknowledge it as exclusively valid. But these are mutually exclusive reality definitions. It would create cognitive dissonance for either of them to give ground to the reality definition of the other. Therefore, it’s likely that variations of the same argument will continue throughout the relationship.

When there’s an intense competition of incompatible reality definitions, as there was between the Republicans and Democrats of 2012, or the romantic couple described above, the result is toxic stagnation. It’s hard for two entities to cooperate when they’re in a power struggle of competing, incompatible reality definitions.

Reality definitions we create can be empowering or disempowering even when they are not in competition with the reality definitions of others. For example, someone has an encompassing reality definition like: “Nobody likes me and I never get my fair share. Life sucks, and then you die.” This person will project their withering template onto every person, situation, and opportunity that comes their way, and the definition will operate as a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Another person’s general reality definition is: “Life is full of possibilities. I am a creative problem solver, and people like me. Life provides continual challenges/learning experiences, and I’m up for the adventure.” This person’s life definition is also likely to be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

An encounter between two people is also an encounter between reality definitions that may or may not be compatible.

When a person encounters a novel situation, it may cause dissonance with one or more of their reality definitions. Perhaps they have a stereotyped reality definition of an ethnic group, but then they encounter someone of that ethnicity who defies those expectations.

Sometimes situations or other people are compliant enough that a person can impose their reality definition onto the situation/person. For example, people around Steve Jobs frequently referred to his “reality distortion field.” Jobs had enough will, creativity, and charisma that he often successfully redefined reality to go the way he wanted. But Jobs also frequently hurt himself and others by his reality distortion field, and reality sometimes pushed back on his desire to redefine it. His reality distortion field was not able, for example, to dematerialize his cancer, and he may have shortened his life by refusing to incorporate cancer into his self-definition, causing him to delay necessary surgery, etc.

One answer to the reality definition problem is to impose fewer definitions onto reality. Meditation is a practice that seeks an experience of reality without imposed definition. Meditation seeks to reduce the activity of the “narrative mind,” the mind that is imposing definitions on everything. “Beginner’s mind” is a state of cognitive innocence and openness where, instead of imposing preexisting definitions onto reality, we approach it with child-like wonder and see what it has to teach us.

Another approach to the problem of reality definitions is to bring them into awareness where we can adjust and modify them to work more creatively and positively with relationships and other situations. We begin by realizing that “The map is not the territory.” A reality definition is a map we superimpose onto a territory that is much more complex than the map. When we look at our reality definitions, it is helpful if we remind ourselves of what J.B.S. Haldane said, “Reality is not only stranger than you think, it’s stranger than you can think.” We recognize, therefore, that our reality definitions are incomplete and provisional but are sometimes helpful, working constructs. We update our reality definitions to adapt them to new situations. In a conscious relationship, both parties will compare reality definitions and work to modify them so they can play well together.

Survival research shows that victims impose outdated, pessimistic or wish-fulfilling reality definitions on dangerous, dynamic situations. Survivors are continually updating their maps to respond effectively to an unfolding situation.

Consider this an auspicious time to bring reality definitions into consciousness and to remove or modify them to allow for greater life-affirming possibilities.

“In the typical Western two men fight desperately for the possession of a gun that has been thrown to the ground: whoever reaches the weapon first shoots and lives; his adversary is shot and dies. In ordinary life, the struggle is not for guns but for words; whoever first defines the situation is the victor; his adversary, the victim. For example, in the family, husband and wife, mother and child do not get along; who defines whom as troublesome or mentally sick?…[the one] who first seizes the word imposes reality on the other; [the one] who defines thus dominates and lives; and [the one] who is defined is subjugated and may be killed.” — Thomas Szasz (1920-2012) wrote this in 1974

Gas-lighting is a form of manipulation that seeks control by imposing a reality definition that an other is crazy. If you have time to watch an 8-minute antique Thurber cartoon, it illustrates such a competition of reality definitions: The Unicorn in the Garden

This website is the product of tens of thousands of hours of work. Making all this content available free and without ads means this enterprise runs at a lifetime six-figure loss. That hurts my feelings as well as my finances! Please help out!
please donate

Listen to Zap Oracle SteamCast in your favorite apps.

Contact Jonathan

Notice any glitches with the site? Please do us a favor and report these, along with the browser you were using, to our webmaster ([email protected]).
Verified by MonsterInsights