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A little perspective goes a long way

Perspective-taking is at the heart of just about everything we do. I'm talking about those moments where we imaginatively check-in with what other people might be seeing—whether it's about how they see us (as in, "Do I look a little awkward here?"), or maybe when we look around or about us to find out what's going on (often when we see others looking).

When you hear a loud noise, or see people looking in one direction, your attention gets called to it. And you make a decision about whether or not to linger or get involved based on your reading of the situation, which will involve you in appraising the perspectives of others. Do they need help? Or is it nothing to worry about? Has someone else stepped in? If so, maybe I'm not needed. Or maybe I am. It all depends on how you assess the situation based on what you perceive the other person or persons involved need. What would I want or need in their shoes? Would I need or want help?

It's not that you consciously think these things. You've been weighing up situations your whole life. You don't need to think about it. You are expert at taking another point of view.

As we navigate our day, taking perspective helps us keep on track, out of trouble, and in the good books with those who matter in our lives. It keeps us on our path, however we choose to walk it. You know your boss won't be happy if you're repeatedly late with assignments. That's knowledge comes from taking his or her perspective. You know you probably should call your grandmother because your mother or father wants you to and because you know how happy your grandmother is to hear your voice. You know that the wait staff at the cafe on the corner would probably feel appreciated if you gave them a larger tip than expected. You know all this and so much more because you are adept at perspective-taking..

I’m talking about a skill you began to develop from childhood. You’ve already mastered this skill if you’re reading this. It grows with us, and we hone it throughout our lives. In fact, you are so adept at perspective-taking, you hardly notice that you’re doing it. Whether it’s the simple reading of your material environment so as to move safely through the cluttered spaces of our modern world, or the rapid interpretation of a situation when you walk into a social space (at home, at work, at the supermarket or a local cafe), you read these spaces, taking the measure of what people might be thinking and doing, and you manage your behaviour accordingly.

Human culture is built upon these processes. It is the outcome of every individual managing their emotional, social, and physical interactions within shared spaces, in ways that are responsive to the situation and each other.

Perspective and feeling

I wrote, in an earlier post, “Can't put that book down?,” how our feelings are messengers in an internal appraisal system that keeps us on track in our daily lives. We use our bodies and our minds to get a sense of how we’re doing. Perspective-taking is a mental process—a strategy that supplies important information to us about our social and material world.

When that information indicates something important, we become even more attentive to the situation. In the context of danger, this involves understanding the physical space and working out the attitude and mindset of any other person in that space.

We can see this represented in films and in novels, when characters are shown walking into a veritable hornets nest of strife. The protagonist usually plays it cool, but you can see, by the way they scan the room that they are taking stock.

Perspectives on the physical space and the mindsets of the antagonists determines the hero’s actions. Screenwriters know this. They know that we, the audience, will recognise the character's actions in reading the room. And they work these features of thought into the protagonist’s subtle movements in the lead up to a battle or fight.

We don’t need to be in danger for perspective to play an important part in our lives. Our ordinary feelings—those simple measures of the situation when we appraise something as either good or bad for us—become complicated by the variability and ambiguities of life. Things might feel goodish, with a touch of doubt, for example (doubt, because there’s a tiny flurry of discomfort beneath the overall positive vibe).

Or the things that we recognise as being bad for us, which cause our body discomfort over the long-term, might provide immediate rewards that cause us to overlook this. Sometimes it’s food, alcohol or other drugs that send us these mixed signals. Sometimes it’s another person.

In love, we go back and forth, trying to understand how the other person sees us. Sometimes the reading we take is disappointing or worse. Then we feel bad—possibly even sad or depressed. Sometimes the vibe is good and we want some more of it. And so we gaze into the eyes of our loved one, sending each other reassuring signs of our affection.

Even when the relationship is good for us, we have to keep it on track by checking in. That’s just ordinary life. We do this with our kids, our parents, our friends, our co-workers, our lovers.

These little micro-check-ins do more than keep us on track. They give us a re-assuring feeling when the vibe is good, or indicate that a course correction is needed when the vibe isn’t so good. Whichever way it goes, these moments add up. Our perspective-taking on the other (as in, how are they seeing me right now? Am I doing good or bad in their eyes?) leads to a build-up of feeling that accrues over time into a recognisable emotion.

When our feelings intensify, they call attention to themselves, activating our thought processes as we try to understand—is this love? or is it just something I ate that’s causing that fluttering in my stomach and this light-headed feeling?

In the broadest sense—that is, taken out of any specific or individual context (yours or mine), love is built on perspective. Love is an intensification of feeling brought on by perspective-taking. But so is anger. And shame is definitely embroiled in appraisals of perspective.

As we go back and forth between our own view on things and the views that we imagine others hold, our feelings get more and more involved. If you hang onto thoughts about an embarrassing situation, if you rehash your memories of what others did and said, if you reflect on what they might have been thinking, your embarrassment will only intensify until you feel angry or ashamed.

In positive contexts, remembering and reflecting on loving experiences, reacquainting yourself with those experiences by building more episodes of mutual affection into your relationships, will intensify your feelings of love.

The upshot is that perspective-taking, when it is involved in our appraisal of a situation, becomes the stimulus to further feeling, sometimes resulting in recognisable emotions like love, anger, fear, sadness, and shame. Knowing this can help you in life. You can remind yourself of this and stop the hamster-wheel of negative thought that happens when you fall into patterns of excessive perspective-taking on an adverse situation after it has passed. Or you might give yourself permission to indulge a little more of those feel-good vibes instead. (Next time you're feeling down on yourself, try envisioning the perspective of some who looks favourably upon you—a boss, a colleague, a family member, a lover or a friend. Even a complete stranger who smiled at you or offered some positive gesture of connection can supply you with positive perspectives on yourself when you're feeling down. Just writing out that last sentence gave be a glowing feeling of wellbeing as the merest recollection of small but happy social interactions on the street over the course of my life came rushing to mind.)

Ultimately, I'm here to tell you that perspective-taking can help with your writing. If you’ve been working at writing for a while, you probably already know that the more you tune into the feelings of others, the better your writing becomes. Understanding the role that perspective-taking has in the build-up to any emotion will help you to develop scenes that involve the reader in constructing the imagined scenario in feeling terms. That's how you engage readers in the emotional pull of your story.

We'll cover this in the coursework "Using Mood to Structure Your Writing" Part 2, coming soon. Until then, take some time to recall any brief but positive encounters you've experienced in life, and see if I'm not right :)

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