If there is a rope in your path and you perceive it as a snake, fear-based thinking will follow.
The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching by Thich Nhat Hahn
It can be crazymaking when someone infers something about an action you took, or thinks they know how you feel or what you think just by looking at your expression or body language. Intuition can be great, and sometimes spot on, but people’s assumptions bring up a lot of anger in a lot of people. At least they do in me.
But just like in that distorted picture above, sometimes we see only part of what is fully there and sometimes (often?) we’re wrong.
And when someone thinks they know us and makes an assumption based on what they only half see…that can really suck.
But working so hard to try to control how people see me sucks too.
How People See Me
I know I’ve spent too much time trying to manage how people see me. Whether it’s the way I dress, the way I decorate my office, the tone of voice I use, or the topics I bring up in conversation. I am very aware that people are constructing their own version of Justin.
And, man, I hate it when they come away with a different version than what I want them to have.
They make judgments that come from assuming about what they’re perceiving. And then I’m assuming about other people what other people are assuming about me and…well, it all gets very Inception-like very fast.
It’s rare that I’m in circles where people feel totally free to let me in on their thoughts about me. There are close friends and family members whom I know will be honest if I ask. Although even they will probably give me just a version of their version about me.
It’s important to take in those other versions. It’s good information. Not necessarily what they think, but I need to be okay with the fact that they get to decide what to think of me.
Everyone else is fully entitled to have their own perception of me and that might be distorted, it might be accurate, but they will each have their own version of me in their minds. In fact, everyone I’ve ever met, or who has read a post, or just heard about me has their own version of me.
And I have very little control over what that is. How people see me is basically…just how people see me.
Most of us spend more time thinking about who we want the world to see than who we really are. Our authenticity may change whether we’re in a work space or in a more casual setting, but it’s rare that we are really in touch with all that we are. With our truest self.
Even as I write this I’m aware that I want readers to think a certain way about me. I want them to judge me in a positive light, but I also want the reader to come away with an understanding that I’m
- somewhat smart
- in touch with my own emotions
- have experience in understanding other people’s emotions
- am relatable and down to earth
- have a sense of humor
I can edit this post for years and there will be people who read it who will not think any of these things about me.
And that gets me angry.
It’s like when I’m in a disagreement with someone and I’ve laid out great evidence for my side. I think I’ve made an indisputable argument, but someone else still disagrees.
And then I get very egotistical and arrogant and resent that other people have their own mind.
(That was the sense of humor part.)
Freedom Through Broccoli
In the brilliant–and only–self-help book you’ll ever need, Be a Perfect Person in Just Three Days! by Stephen Manes, the protagonist, 7th grader Milo, is instructed to wear a stalk of broccoli around his neck for 24 hours. I’d challenge anyone who’s concerned about what others think to try this too. I know that if I did this and could get through a day of all the ridicule and weird stares then I’d stop worrying about how people see me.
Granted, though, Milo wasn’t trying to convince people to vote for him, or running a business that needs customers. He was a kid dealing with some self-esteem issues.
Many of us want to be truly ourselves (whoever that is), but also need to keep a job, maintain a relationship, influence others (our kids, our employees, even just our friends to go see a different movie).
I guess it would be easy to simply say
- Be yourself.
- Stop caring about what others think.
- Dance like no one is watching.
- Do you.
And…if you have that strength, yes, that is the ideal. (I think it is. I haven’t gotten there yet, so I’m not sure.)
But I believe it’s also OK to think about how you might be perceived. To shift your tone or your topic depending on the people you’re with.
But for your own happiness, remember there is a limit. Don’t let too much distance get between the self you’re wearing and who you truly are.
Within the journey toward knowing yourself, it’s important for you to know what that limit is. It’ll be different for all of us, but if we have some self-awareness we can know when we’re working too hard for others and not giving ourselves enough freedom to just be.
There’s always another side and another layer to an action. Words we say are heard differently by each person who hears them. There are no definitive stories. In trying to control how people see me it’s all too easy for me to get tripped up..
We can read someone’s autobiography as well as four biographies on the same person and we’ll come away with five different versions of that person’s life, none of them being definitive.
Authentic Living is Possible!
What do you want the world to know about you?
Live that as authentically as possible and stop wasting time trying to fine tune the many different ways people may shift, distort, or add to that sense of who you are. Unless it is severely damaging your credibility or your standing in the world or workplace, take a moment to consider how much energy really needs to be spent in changing what others think about you.
That battle may have already been lost and, frankly, we need that energy.
If you’re tired of trying to meet everyone else’s version of who you are and don’t know how to stop, please give me a call or drop me an email. We can talk further about what might be helpful for moving toward a more authentic you.
Justin Lioi, LCSW is a men’s mental health and relationship expert. He practices counseling in Brooklyn, NY (and online throughout New York State and internationally.) He received his degree from New York University and has been working with men and their families for over 10 years. Justin is on the Board of the National Association of Social Workers and writes a weekly column for the Good Men Project called Unmasking Masculinity. He can be found on local and national podcasts talking about assertiveness, anger, self-compassion, all with the goal of becoming the man you want to be.