It is incredibly disorientating when something happens to make you realise that your understanding of the world may be desperately wrong. This is often an issue for trauma survivors. People who have faced a traumatic experience may need support in rebooting their reality and going back to feeling safe. It’s also an issue when you’re emerging from abuse – especially gaslighting – and realise that you’ve had your reality damaged. When you’ve been lied to a lot, finding out about it can leave you unsure of what can now be trusted.
Then there are the people emerging from belief systems – that might mean cults, or family stories, religious belief, political affiliations or anything else that dominates a person’s world view. If something happens to make us doubt our world view, that can be a real blow. At the same time, if we’ve been persuaded by something inaccurate, toxic or controlling, then recovering from that is in our best interests.
When the reality you encounter doesn’t fit with the reality you think you know, what do you do? Who can you safely talk to? How do you ascertain which version is real? How do you decide what to trust?
I’ve been here a couple of times, and I can’t say it gets easier with practice. As a very young adult I was drawn into a web of lies, which enabled someone else to commit fraud, and sexually abuse others. I was used as a decoy duck to make the situation look valid, which was a tough thing to have to square up to. Once I started unpicking what was going on, there was a long period where I felt totally lost and bewildered. All I could do was look for the solid, objective evidence. When it’s personal, this is a lot more feasible than when you’ve had your reality broken by something that has more power over you. If your entire culture has told you that you’re evil because of who you are attracted to, finding a space where you can challenge that idea is much harder.
Trust makes us vulnerable. Trust the wrong person, or the wrong news outlet, or the wrong politician and you can leave yourself open to considerable harm. But without trust, we have no points of reference to build our sense of reality on. Deciding who and what to trust is such a huge issue, and yet most of us make the choice unconsciously, assuming that whatever we grow up with is normal. If we find that we’ve misplaced our trust, especially if that’s around things we’ve trusted since childhood, then rebuilding is really hard.
It is possible, though. I’ve done it twice now in a substantial way. If you are short of useful points of reference, focus on whatever is least subjective. A few pieces of evidence about what’s real and what isn’t can help you unpick the rest. (Choose your sources carefully and consider the qualifications of any expert you turn to. Youtube conspiracy theorists will not help you.)
If you’re obliged to question your reality, or re-build it, one of the most useful questions to ask is what it’s going to allow you to do. There is no single objective truth about existence, or how to live, or what to feel. When you’re building your reality from scratch, you actually get to pick how you want to think about life, the world, people, yourself. You can do that in a deliberate way and it is entirely reasonable to pick based on what you think would most help you. Start by considering how you might be kind to yourself. If you pick kindness, things tend to go better than not from there. It’s a better basis for making mistakes. Better to be too kind, too patient, too good, than to choose a path of anger and wounding.