The Function of Illusion

So. A previous post explained the research regarding how people can continue with an illusional sense of reality, sometimes without their own awareness. We believe the world is a certain way, and we pay attention to evidence that endorses that view. Meanwhile, we do not see, or we ignore, evidence that disproves what we think.

Now, you have to ask yourself why nature, which seems to want to select for adaptive mechanisms, would allow us to survive and even succeed, all the while in an illusional state about some aspects of reality. Why do we cling to our illusions even when they are contrary to fact and even when, at times, they make our lives more difficult or more unhappy?

As a matter of fact, we celebrate our own “unique” viewpoints as if they are some authentic expression of who we are, disregarding the many, many interpersonal experiences, influences, and educational experiences that inform our views. Of course we are reflective about what we choose to accept–at least once we are grown-ups. Still, much of what we are willing to accept as true and real is filtered through those unexamined frameworks that were imprinted before we were old enough to question them.

Part of growing up is re-examining those accepted notions and rethinking what we believe and what is important to us. We are exposed to other ways of being and other ideas, and we open our own assumptions to questioning. Still, it is difficult to change our perspective at the core, even when it is not serving us well. Why is it so hard to let go of what is patently unhelpful?

In some measure, at least, it is because when we were small and vulnerable, the people who protected and nurtured us taught us what was healthy and what was dangerous. They tried to pass on what they had learned about the world. But their world was different from ours, and some parts of what they taught us do not match up. At the time, though, our safety and our survival depended on those grown-ups, and we accepted wholesale what they taught us because they knew better than we did how to be safe, how to be healthy, and how to be happy.

Now, when those teachings aren’t working as well, we find it hard to let them go. It is not because we are stuck or belligerent. It is because letting go of the viewpoints that no longer work for us feels like it means letting go of those relationships with the people who were so crucial to our survival and well-being. Sometimes it even feels dangerous to question what we think is true. We need our relationships, and so we stick with the illusions that allow us to have them.

Of course if we stop to think about it, having different ideas and interests than someone else does not at all mean we cannot have a relationship with that person. But even now, as adults, sometimes it feels as if that is precisely what it means. Even as adults, differences feel like distances, and we hesitate to know ourselves deeply because it may mean we are taking a step away from the relationships that matter to us.

About norasblog

I am a psychotherapist with a private practice in downtown Chicago.
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2 Responses to The Function of Illusion

  1. jss says:

    “Now, you have to ask yourself why nature, which seems to want to select for adaptive mechanisms, would allow us to survive and even succeed, all the while in an illusional state about some aspects of reality”

    I would suggest the answer to this question lies in the fact that “nature” knew this would happen and needed to provide us with a way to survive through our illusion until we could hopefully come to some realization of the pervasiveness of our state of blindness.

    This illusion forms so subtlely we don’t even see it happening, in fact it is impossible to see it happening and so how could we possibly know it happened?

    Now that I can see things at least a little more clearly after many years of illusion the thought keeps occurring to me that we don’t generally stand a chance given that most people live under some level of illusion. But of course in our illusional state even our definition of “succeed” is questionable. Maybe that’s why we think we are succeeding.

    I have no answers, only the experience of being able to see my own illusion and only because of some fairly significant little curveballs that nature tossed at me. I am appreciative of those curveballs (most times) and if they hadn’t come I’d still be living the illusion and I wouldn’t even know it.

    One thing I do believe; it’s not something you can tell people – they absolutely must find out for themselves. Sometimes in really hard ways.

    • norasblog says:

      Thank you for your thoughtful comment. It certainly is uncomfortable to be pushed out of our familiar ways of understanding the world. Perhaps our illusions protect us early on, and then we do not need them any more.

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