Face Value

Maybe no one really seems to be the person that they mean to be.

Conor Oberst

The other day my coworker paid me a compliment that took me by surprise. She told me that she envies the way I seem so calm and present all the time. She said I come off as truly content and mindful. Part of me literally cannot believe this is really the way that she sees me. Perhaps she is just telling me what she thinks I want to hear? I don’t know why she would bother though. The comment seemed to come out of no where.

Although I already think about it often, this really emphasized the idea that my perception of people and their perceptions about themselves are quite likely extremely different. I never feel calm and content or that I’m able to enjoy the present moment. I’m exceptionally pleased that I may come off that way to people, but it’s hard to wrap my head around how that could be. Inside I am in a near constant state of fear, anxiety, and agitation. Often I am even ruminating on thoughts of bitterness and anger, playing the victim in my own inner story.

My coworker’s comment made me realize just how easily we become consumed by the image we imagine of ourselves, that we forget others may not view us in the same way. We’re so familiar with the reoccurring thoughts and patterns in our own minds that we forget others have no awareness of them. In the same way, it’s easy to forget that the information we have to work with on the surface isn’t necessarily giving us an accurate understanding of the full complexity of another person.

With the limited information we have, it’s easy to just write someone off as an asshole or an idiot. However, if I reflected on my own actions day to day from an outsider’s perspective, I’d likely label myself in this hasty, inaccurate, dismissive way just as easily. It’s uncomfortable to see someone doing something that we think is inconsiderate or irrational and just let it go with the acknowledgement that we don’t (nor can we ever) know the full story. It’s easier to construct a story to tell ourselves with the small pieces of information we do have.

As a social worker, I hear all kinds of crazy circumstances that people deal with every day. I really couldn’t make this stuff up if I tried. With that in mind, you’d think it would be easier for me to give someone the benefit of the doubt and assume they have a lot going on and reasons for behaving the way that they do. On the contrary, I still find myself constantly falling into the trap of cynicism and judgement..

Another helpful way to think about this is to consider that, at least in my experience, I am able to find redeeming qualities in just about everyone that I get to know on more than a surface level. When you only see a handful of moments in a persons life, it is much simpler to judge them harshly. The same tendencies in someone we know are more palatable to us than in someone we don’t know. I believe this is because we are able to weigh them against all of the positive qualities of the person we know, whereas we have no other points of reference for the person that we don’t.

On the flip side of this, my interaction with my coworker reminded me just how silly it is to worry about what other people might be thinking about me. I spend a great deal of time worrying about how I come off to other people. I’m terrified that they will think of me in the same harsh, unforgiving manner that I think of myself. While that might be true, it may also be true that they think more highly of me than I think of myself. The point is that I can never know for sure, nor can I hope to precisely shape the way another person thinks of me intentionally. It’s best to just express myself as I see fit in the moment and not worry about the rest.

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