Power of Perception

Conscious Discipline S.T.A.R.

Big Idea: No one can make you angry without your permission.

Goal: To teach adults and children to take responsibility for their own upset.

Skill: Composure

Structures: Friends and Family Board, Safe Place, Brain Smart Start, Safekeeper Ritual, Greeting Rituals, Goodbye Rituals

Join me for a life-changing journey through all Seven Powers, including the Power of Perception, in the new online course Powers of Resilience: Social Emotional Learning for Adults


Perception isn’t something we think about often, but it has a huge impact on our emotional state and our behavior. Our perception defines who we believe we are, how we believe our interactions with others should go, and how we believe the world should operate. We view all experiences and conflicts through this lens.

Ultimately, it is our perception of an experience that creates our feelings about it, not the event itself. In turn, our feelings determine our behavior (our reaction to any situation).

In challenging situations, our perception will either help us maintain our composure or make it almost impossible to remain calm.

Power of Perception in Practice

Let’s say you see one child hit another. How do you perceive this situation?

If you perceive the situation as sheer meanness, you are almost guaranteed to lose your composure. You’ll then react in a punitive or attacking way toward the child you perceive as aggressive. For most, the reaction is automatic, and it’s likely to look and sound like the model you had growing up (a parent or another caregiver).

But what if you perceive two children who need help with their social skills?

Seeing the same situation through this lens enables you to remain calm and choose a wise response. Remaining calm empowers you to teach the skills the children are missing.

One perception escalates the upset, while the other perception fosters new learning. In this article, I’ll share four steps that enable you to choose a helpful response rather than a hurtful response.

But first, you must learn to reclaim your power.

Reclaiming Your Power

The Power of Perception says: No one can make you angry without your permission.

Any time you believe that someone or something has made you angry, sad, or even happy, you give your power away.

Yet every day, we send the message that other people can control our feelings and behavior:

  • Don’t make me call your father!
  • Look what you made me do. Now I’m running late for work!
  • These children are driving me crazy.
  • Look how you made your brother feel. Was that nice?
  • You make me so mad!

Whomever you put in charge of your feelings, you put in charge of you. You give up your authority, responsibility and respect. This leaves you feeling powerless.

The Effect of Placing Others in Charge

When we believe that others can make us behave a certain way, we naturally believe that we should be able to make others behave a certain way too. Both beliefs are myths.

The belief that we can make others change puts a lot of pressure on parents and teachers. It leads to frantic attempts to manipulate, threaten, and coerce children into changed behavior.

When these methods fail, we blame ourselves and feel guilty. We think: If I were a good parent or a good teacher, I would be able to make these children behave. This, too, is untrue.

These false beliefs teach other-control rather than self-control. Other-control destroys communication and connection. It cannot lead to lasting changes in behavior.

Reclaim your power and model self-control by:

  • Reminding yourself, “The only person I can make change is myself.”
  • Avoiding “make me” language. Instead, say something like, “I feel frustrated when I arrive to work late. I need your help in the morning to get out the door on time. Will you help me?”
  • Shifting your energy from “making children behave” to connecting with children and helping them be successful.

This is how you reclaim your power, model self-control and teach children to respect authority. Accepting that you alone are responsible for your upset is the first step toward permanent behavior change—for you and for the children in your care.

Next, you must learn to recognize and manage your perceptions. This gives you the power to choose how you respond to challenging situations.

Where does our perception come from?

Some perceptual preprogramming is in our DNA when we’re born. The rest of our programming comes from our early childhood experiences. This programming becomes automatic and unconscious, and it can be healthy or unhealthy.

Unhealthy programming may include perceptions like:

  • If you want something done, you must do it yourself.
  • Asking others for help is a sign of weakness.
  • To stay safe, I must never trust others.

Do any of these sound familiar to you?

These unhealthy messages stem from ruptures in the adult-child bond. In moments when an adult seems out of control and scary to a child, the child unconsciously feels flawed. They fear they don’t belong and are doomed to be kicked out of the tribe. To guard against this, children create unconscious mental models, like, “I will never ask for help again.”

These fear-driven, unconscious mental models control how the child views, interacts with and responds to the world, even as an adult. We use these mental models to maintain a sense of certainty and predictability as we navigate the world. Since we believe these mental models keep us safe, we constantly look for confirmation. When the world does not align with our mental models, we feel threatened and become triggered.

The good news is that we don’t have to be controlled by our unconscious perceptions forever. With the Power of Perception, we can consciously work toward positive change.

Can we choose our perception?

We don’t want to be unconscious adults who run on programmed perceptions. We want to choose a healthy perception so we can respond, rather than react, to what life brings. However, you can’t choose how to perceive a situation unless you’re aware of your perception. Changing your perception and mental models requires consciousness.

Our perceptions happen at a rapid-fire pace, making awareness tricky. In fact, we often think the behavior happened first. We fail to notice the perception and then the feelings that trigger the behavior in the first place.

So, the question is: How do we get to the point where we can choose how to perceive a situation rather than running on autopilot?

Power of Perception Step 1: Notice that you’re triggered

The first step is becoming aware when you fall into an unconscious state. Signs that you are in this unconscious state include:

  • Tightening in throat
  • Tightening in chest
  • Holding your breath
  • Experiencing loss of energy
  • Inability to focus
  • Using defensive humor/sarcasm
  • Certainty that you are right and everyone else is wrong

Think of the last time an event really pushed your buttons. How did you feel physically? Did you experience any of these sensations?

Power of Perception Step 2: Change your state from upset to calm

When you recognize these signs, catch yourself. Pause before saying or doing anything. Take a few deep breaths. Remind yourself, “I’m safe. Keep breathing. I can handle this.”

Bring yourself back to a state of composure and consciousness. If you’re conscious enough, you will hear in your inner speech the unconscious beliefs and perceptions behind your trigger.

Recognizing the unconscious programming beneath your upset gives you the opportunity to change your perception from negative to positive.

Power of Perception Step 3: Change your perception from negative to positive

We tend to default to the negative perception that a child is bad, stubborn, disrespectful, or intentionally pushing our buttons.

Instead, we want to use the Power of Perception to consciously offer a perception to others that will be helpful instead of hurtful. This is not “letting them off the hook.”

The goal is to see others in a positive light so we can access the higher centers of our brain, giving us the power of choice and the ability to behave and model in a healthy manner. Without this change in perception, we will model the exact same behaviors we are trying to eliminate in children.

If you’ve made it to Step 3, you’re calm and conscious enough to recognize your negative perception, meaning you have the ability to change it.

Let’s go back to our example of one child hitting another. You now see that your default perception is: “That child is mean.”

In Conscious Discipline, we recognize that all behavior is a form of communication. Ask yourself what the child’s behavior is communicating:

  • What need does the child have that is not being met?
  • What does the child want?
  • What skill is the child missing?

Now, consciously shift your perception. Why did the child hit?

Tell yourself: “The child needs help learning social and emotional skills. He may need to learn how to ask for a turn or how to manage his frustration.”

Power of Perception Step 4: Respond

Now that you’re viewing the situation from a positive perceptual lens, you’ll be able to choose a wise response. Rather than verbally attacking the aggressor, you can teach helpful skills to both children involved in the altercation.

Did the child hit because he wanted a toy? Tell him, “You may not hit. Hitting hurts.” Then teach him to say, “May I have a turn?” instead.

At the same time, you have the opportunity to teach the other child to be assertive. Responding to the victim, you may say, “Did you like it when he hit you? Tell him, ‘When you want to play with my toy, ask me for a turn.’”

If hitting is the only skill a child has, merely telling him not to hit is not helpful. He can’t get rid of this old skill until he has a new, improved skill to replace it. You must be composed enough to teach the child what to do instead.

Suggested Free Resource: This free Hitting Book helps teach children who express anger through hitting to find socially acceptable alternatives to get their needs met. It also provides strategies for adults to help the child in moments of upset.

The Result: Changed Behavior

I’ve broken the Power of Perception into a four-step process, but it happens in a matter of seconds. Mastering this process takes effort, practice and time. Be kind to yourself as you “Oops” along the way. Stick with it. If you can do this, you can make huge changes in your behavior—and then in the behavior of children.

In Conscious Discipline, we teach children to make permanent behavior changes through a similar process:

  • We tell them, “You seem angry,” or, “You seem sad,” to help them recognize their upset state.
  • We say and model, “Breathe with me. You can handle this,” to help them change their emotional state from upset to calm.
  • We say, “You wanted ________,” or, “You were hoping _________,” to change their perception from negative to positive.
  • Finally, we provide them with helpful responses: “When you want ____________, say/do ______________” or “Tell your friend, ‘When you want _________, say/do ___________.’”

We can’t teach children a process that we’re incapable of mastering ourselves. So, commit to consistently practicing this four-step process. As you improve your own skills, it will become second nature to model them and teach them to children.

Final Thoughts: Power of Perception

If we can change our perception, we can make permanent behavior changes. Then, we can teach children to permanently change their behavior too.

Start by acknowledging that when you are upset, it’s because you feel threatened or the world is not going your way. No one can make you feel anything. Take back your power.

Remember to:

  • Notice that you’re triggered. Pause.
  • Change your state from upset to calm. (I’m safe. Keep breathing. I can handle this.)
  • Change your perception from negative to positive.
  • Choose a helpful response instead of a hurtful reaction.

With this process, you can compose yourself when triggered, change the neural pathways in your brain, and cease to pass your guilt and triggers down to the next generation. The Power of Perception is powerful indeed.

Next Steps

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