“It’s not me – it’s you” – a problem of perspective

Have you ever heard someone describing an ongoing problem they’ve been having with a friend or colleague and thought to yourself, “The problem is you, not them!”

Why is it that if a man’s own behaviour is the major cause of his own problem he can rarely see that it so – while it may be painfully obvious to others?

The problem lies with perspective. We all look at the world through our particular unique filters that make up our perspective of our world. Different people usually have slightly different biases: One woman assumes everyone she meets is trustworthy; one man believes that children don’t like him. There are also a number of biases that are nearly universal: for example, the confirmation bias which involves favouring information that supports our existing beliefs (e.g., choosing to read more articles by climate change skeptics than proponents because you are skeptical of climate change and, what’s more, being highly critical of proponent’s arguments but accepting skeptic’s arguments without cross-checking their supporting data).

These biases and the narrowness of our perspective make us vulnerable to errors of judgment – including the failure to realise when we are the source of our own problems.

Friends are a great antidote to our naturally narrow perspective. Sure, we tend to favour like-minded people as our friends, so they may merely reinforce some of our biases. But since no two people are identical, involving the opinion of a friend in our management of a problem inevitably broadens our perspective at least a little bit.

There are things we can do ourselves, though, to combat the problem of our own narrow perspective. At the Thrive Wellness resources page there is an interactive PDF tool called the interpersonal problem grid that can be used to facilitate looking at a problem outside the boundaries of your own perspective.

This tool invites you to look at three aspects of a given problem from three perspectives: your own (“self”), that of a friend or someone else close (“other”) and that of an uninvolved fly-on-the-wall (“detached”). From each perspective you consider three aspects: the goal, the exceptions (times when the problem isn’t there) and the hypothetical outcomes of the problem being solved.

Imagine Sally has been having continual conflict with her housemate, Chloe, over the tidiness of the bathroom. Specifically, they have had several heated arguments over the toothpaste tube and Chloe’s toothbrush being left on the sink instead of put in the cupboard.

Brush With Toothpaste by Petr Kratochvil

The interpersonal problem grid

Sally decides to complete the problem grid:

The problem

Chloe won’t keep the bathroom sink clean, despite having been asked repeatedly. It is causing repeated arguments and I’m worried it might harm our friendship.

Goal

Exceptions

Hypothetical

Self

I want Chloe to keep things tidy without having to keep arguing and risking our friendship. There isn’t a problem when Chloe remembers to put it away, or when one of us isn’t home. If the problem was solved our house would be more peaceful; I would not be getting angry with Chloe.

Other

My sister would probably say my goal is to have a perfect house with nothing out of place. My sister has said the problem isn’t there when Chloe isn’t at home, and when I am in a good mood and less demanding. If the problem was solved my sister would notice I am less stressed and getting along with Chloe better.

Detached

Someone who doesn’t know us might say my goal is to get Chloe to be as tidy as I am. An outsider might say there isn’t a problem when I’m not home, or on weekends when I’m a bit more relaxed. An outsider would notice the house is more peaceful when the problem is solved.

Notice a few things that have happened for Sally in doing this exercise: Firstly, although keeping the house clean was part of her goal, it didn’t rate a mention in the reflection, from any perspective, on the problem being hypothetically solved. Sally might be led to conclude from this that although she wants a tidier bathroom she actually values peace and her friendship with Chloe more than a perfectly clean bathroom. She might feel able (though still not entirely comfortable) to choose to overlook the toothpaste and toothbrush being left out in favour of things she now sees matter to her more.

Secondly, the “other” and “detached” perspectives both highlight to Sally that she might be a little more fussy about tidiness than is strictly necessary. While Sally has been feeling Chloe is inconsiderate, this exercise might broaden her perspective just a little to see how she is coming across to Chloe.

A broadened perspective doesn’t instantly change how we feel about something: Sally will undoubtedly still cringe when she sees the toothpaste on the bathroom sink. But once we have broadened our perspective we give ourselves flexibility to consider alternative behaviours. Now Sally might cringe, but tell herself it isn’t such a big deal: it doesn’t mean Chloe is selfish and that she doesn’t have to spoil the peace of the household over the issue.

About Paul McQueen

Dr Paul McQueen is a Clinical Psychologist, holding a Doctorate in Clinical Psychology from the University of Melbourne. He has experience working in both adult and child mental health services in Queensland and Victoria. Dr McQueen is comitted to providing high quality, evidence-based interventions for a range of mental health conditions. He specialises in the treatment of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, Borderline Personality Disorder and Depression.

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