Around this time of year, when college finals have been given and grades recorded, I frequently get some version of the following message in my email: “Dr. Jenkins, I am so unhappy about my grade on the final exam. I knew the material forwards and backwards. I studied for a long time! I cannot believe that I received a D on the final.”
I usually respond with compassion, explaining that no test is perfect since it is only a sample of what we really know. Taking a test can be an eye-opening experience because it points out to us what we don’t know. My student had a hard time accepting this reality and went on to blame the test. You might say that his reality check bounced.
The brain is all about making predictions on what is going to happen next. The baseball outfielder predicts where he needs to be to catch the ball. When you walk out into the parking lot after getting groceries you predict where your car should be based on the last time you saw it (unless you are older than 60, then someone keeps moving it!). The musician predicts what note will play when a certain key is struck. We are constantly predicting what is going to happen next, and when our predictions fail we experience a reality check.
When life is stable and predictable, we feel safe and secure. If life is filled with unexpected experiences, we start to feel anxious and upset. In fact, anxiety and worry are primarily experienced as an anticipation of future negative events, not the actual events themselves.
In this way, we predict a reality, but when events actually unfold it’s not nearly as bad as we thought it would be.
Sometimes things go the other way: We expect something good is going to happen and yet we are not prepared for them. For example, teenage drivers sometimes predict that their driving ability is so good they will not have any problems. It can be quite a shock to receive that first ticket from law enforcement.
But reality checks are good for us. They bring us back to where we truly are on the continuum of skills and abilities. Failures are just a fine-tuning of our understanding and expectations of the world. My student, for example, may think he deserves an “A” for studying a couple hours, but after a few failures he may revise his study habits. For most of us, a reality check is feedback that has a way of correcting our expectations.
Did you know that 9.1 percent of the population does not have this ability when it comes to relationships? Research indicates that individuals with personality disorders have a rigid and unhealthy pattern of thinking that prevents them from learning from relational reality checks.
Here are different types of personality disorders, a variety of conditions with one thing in common: the inability to learn from experience. In consecquence, the same maladaptive coping mechanisms are used over and over again, with a corresponding failure rate.
King David’s lesson
In therapy, the biggest challenge is simply getting a person with this diagnosis to accept responsibility for his or her own problems. Blame is always placed at someone else’s feet. Without acceptance of personal responsibility, reality checks are going to bounce all over the place and not provide corrective feedback.
A wonderful biblical example of a reality check can be found in 2 Samuel 12, where the prophet Nathan confronted David over the death of Uriah the Hittite. David really wanted Uriah’s wife, Bathsheba, so he sent Uriah to the front lines to ensure he would die on the battlefield. Nathan used a therapeutic analogy to bring the truth home to David. It was a brilliant reality check that didn’t bounce because David received the feedback and confessed the evil of what he had done.
God has a magnificent way of using reality checks to turn a temporarily bad situation into something exceptionally good for eternity. We are all “diamonds in the rough” and if we can see how painful feedback can improve us, then we draw closer to becoming the person God wants us to be.
— by Daniel Jenkins, Ph.D.
Jenkins is a licensed clinical psychologist at Lighthouse Psychological Services in Mission Valley. He is also a professor at Point Loma Nazarene University. Learn more at www.lighthousepsy.com.