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When he named a brand of jacket associated with the criminal fraternity, I lost all sympathy for him

As my perceptions – based on the reputation of the city centre – took over, I was seeing threats everywhere

My most recent lesson in perception began on the top deck of a bus to Dublin city centre. A man sitting across the way from me greeted, like a long-lost friend, a new arrival who had just been to St James’s Hospital. He explained he had been getting treated for injuries after an attack in town when four men jumped him to take his jacket.

“That jacket?” the other man asked, sceptically. “No,” he said in a stage whisper. Then he named a very expensive brand of jacket associated with the criminal fraternity.

I lost all sympathy for him. The other man commiserated, and they went on to have an incomprehensible whispered conversation.

While we waited to get off the bus at the north end of O’Connell Street, I noticed one of them glancing at the black shoulder bag I was carrying. I kept a sharp eye on him until he disappeared into the crowd.


If you have had shaming experiences, you may perceive yourself through those eyes, and you need to allow the possibility that you are better than you’ve been told

By now my brain was primed to look out for threat. I began to notice other people checking out people passing by or waiting to cross the street. Their eyes would flicker over them, maybe unconsciously. But I thought of all the stories about bad things happening in the city centre and paid even more attention to my bag.

I looked down and saw a seagull walking around busily, also seeming to be eyeing the people on the street. Was he checking them out to see if they had anything worth snatching?

At this point, I realised that perception, based on the reputation of the city centre, had taken over. All I was seeing were threats.

In a recent letter to the editor, Ciarán P Lynch suggested that an opera house be built on that very part of O’Connell Street. It felt like a startling idea. But when I thought about it I realised that it felt startling only because of the reputation of the north city centre. Now I think it’s a splendid idea.

But perception rules. If the suggested location was some fancy-pants place on the southside it wouldn’t seem startling at all.

So there’s the reality of things that happen in the city centre, and then there are the fears of things that might happen, and I’m as prone to these as anybody else.

A bad thing happens – I’m not denying this at all – and this forms a perception in the minds of many, many people. That forms the lens we see through, as it did when I was checking out people who were checking out other people on the street.

A couple of days after my trip up O’Connell Street, I spoke to a woman who recalled waiting to meet a friend on the corner of a nearby city centre street at 7pm. No, nothing happened. But, even though she would not be given to letting her perceptions run away with her, she still felt edgy. I think it’s fair to say that women on a city street have more reason to feel on edge than men. But the negative assertions about the city centre also, I believe, played a role.

The same, of course, applies to people. If told on your first day at work not to trust so-and-so, then you might approach them from the start through a perception that could be right but, equally, could be wrong. Maybe leave a space open for having your mind changed?

Similarly, if you have had shaming experiences, you may perceive yourself through those eyes, and you need to allow the possibility that you are better than you’ve been told.

In writing this, I realise I brought a prejudiced perception to the whole experience. I didn’t feel anything but smug disapproval for the man who had his jacket stolen because of the brand he was wearing. Getting beaten up by four guys at least deserves some human sympathy.

But I was looking through a lens of assumptions – and perception is everything.

  • Padraig O’Morain (Instagram, Twitter: @padraigomorain) is accredited by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. His books include Kindfulness – a guide to self compassion; his daily mindfulness reminder is available free by email (