Subjective Thinking Versus Reality: What’s the Truth?

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Fifth Agreement" by Don Miguel Ruiz. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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How common is subjective thinking? What can you do about it?

Don Miguel Ruiz and don Jose Ruiz, the authors of The Fifth Agreement, discuss the issue of subjective thinking. They assert that we perceive only a fraction of reality. This causes us to have wrong and often harmful beliefs about the world and ourselves.

Read more to learn about subjective thinking.

Subjective Thinking Versus Reality

The authors’ first point is that the world we perceive through our senses is only a subjective interpretation of a thin slice of what actually exists in the world. They argue that the information our senses give us is heavily filtered and fabricated. For instance, our brains interpret a narrow band of radiation as “color.”  Without eyes—and brains to interpret their signals—colors would not exist; in a literal sense, they don’t exist outside of us. We all engage in subjective thinking.

Furthermore, “reality,” the authors explain, isn’t perceived the same way by everyone who experiences it. Some of us are more sensitive to smells, see fewer colors, or can hear at higher frequencies. Plus, other creatures on our planet interpret the same world in very different ways—bats, for example, “see” reality in a way that’s so foreign to us that we can’t accurately imagine it. In short, we can’t assume that we all perceive the same world.

Shortform Commentary: Magenta Doesn’t Exist

As the Ruizes say, the world we experience using our senses isn’t an accurate portrayal of what’s really out there. We often take our brains for granted and don’t realize we are engaging in subjective thinking. We aren’t aware how untrustworthy our brains are—and that sometimes, they just make things up. You may have heard, for example, that the color magenta doesn’t exist. In the image below, you can see the frequencies and wavelengths of each of the visible colors (colors generally correspond to a particular wavelength of radiation). Magenta isn’t there

Subjective thinking is at work. The reason we see magenta in our daily lives is that our brains are used to averaging the colors we see into a blend. Green and red, when seen together, become yellow because yellow is the average wavelength between green and red. When red and purple appear together, we should see green—it’s the average wavelength between the two. But it doesn’t “make sense” for red and purple to mix into green, so our brains substitute “magenta.” Essentially, we only see magenta because “it looks right”—not because it reflects reality.

Language Conveys Subjective Beliefs

Further, the naguals argue that our beliefs are also subjective—and that, because we use language to describe those beliefs, our words carry preconceived notions about what is true, what is good, and what is bad. The naguals believe that, as a result, when we communicate with each other, we describe our subjective reality in subjective terms. Two people can hear the same words and interpret them differently.

(Shortform note: Modern science supports the authors’ claim that the language we use reflects and shapes our fundamental beliefs about the world. For example, linguistic researchers have discovered that people who speak different languages have different beliefs about blame and punishment in the case of accidents. In this way, the specific words people use impact their beliefs about the situation—just as the Ruizes describe.)

According to the authors, even if words aren’t universal and their meanings are variable, they do have a powerful effect on us. The words we use to describe ourselves, our environment, and the people around us set the tone of our perceived world. In short, the language we use dictates our beliefs.

(Shortform note: The segment of our personal language we use to describe ourselves or our world—both vocally and internally—is called “self-talk,” and it heavily affects our mood. People who use their internal voice to attack themselves are more likely to be depressed or anxious. When your internal voice keeps telling you, “I’m too stupid to do this,” or, “I’m too ugly to be loved,” you stop feeling hopeful about your future. As a result, you’re less likely to invest in that future by taking care of yourself or focusing on long-term goals—which, like the authors say, can profoundly impact your life.)

Belief Determines Happiness

The naguals’ point is largely that it’s our belief that matters most—how deeply we believe the things we “know” informs how much power those beliefs have over us. This is particularly important given most of our beliefs come from our society; we don’t choose those, so much of our perception of reality is out of our control.

Indeed, a core point the authors make is that in most cases, societal standards, norms, and beliefs are both deeply unhealthy and totally fabricated. The benchmarks we use to determine who’s good, bad, successful, unsuccessful are social constructs. In most cases, they’re nonsense, and they only matter because we’ve agreed they do. In short, the naguals suggest, we wouldn’t feel deficient if we weren’t taught to believe we’re deficient.

But—the naguals say—just because we believed everything our culture taught us as we grew up, when we didn’t have the capacity to doubt, doesn’t mean we have to keep believing it now. If each of us lives in our own subjective reality, why not interpret that reality in a way that encourages us to be happy?

Positive Psychology: Four Happiness-Killing Mindsets

The naguals don’t explicitly state which societally-advocated beliefs get in the way of our happiness, but positive psychologists (those who study happiness) identify four particularly damaging beliefs that prevent us from being happy. Each one identifies a success condition that’s impossible to achieve and ties our value or satisfaction to our ability to achieve it.

To be sustainably happy, positive psychologists say, we must discard the following beliefs:

Perfectionism: “I can and should attain perfection.” When you hold this belief, you attempt to meet unrealistic expectations and intangible goals. You can’t be happy unless you’re perfect and consistently generate perfect results.

Social Comparison: “I must compare favorably to others.” When you hold this belief, you compare your attributes to those of others and focus on the ways in which you fall short. You can’t be happy when you’re not the best.

Materialism: “I’m only worth as much as I have.” When you hold this belief, you can’t be happy because there’s always more to accumulate. Worse, if you lose your possessions, you lose what makes you feel valuable, so you’re always at risk.

Maximizing: “I can always do better.” When you hold this belief, you can’t enjoy what you have because it’s inferior to what you could have. There’s always a better job, a more attractive partner, or a faster car.

We all are susceptible to subjective thinking, but when we are aware of it and strive to rise above it, we can get a better grasp on the truth.

Subjective Thinking Versus Reality: What’s the Truth?

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Don Miguel Ruiz's "The Fifth Agreement" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full The Fifth Agreement summary:

  • The five “agreements” to make with yourself that adjust your outlook
  • How to rediscover your true self and recapture the freedom you felt as a child
  • A five-step process to escape the mirage of “the real world”

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, science, and philosophy. A switch to audio books has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a creative nonfiction book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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