Perception is in the eye of the beholder
January 19, 2009 12:43 AM   Subscribe

How can you make sure that the way you view yourself is not too far removed from how you're perceived by others?

Once in awhile I come to the realization that a friend or family member has an opinion of him- or herself in a way that is completely opposite the way that I (or sometimes others) perceive them. Recently I have experienced that same jarring dissonance in one or two ways, and want to find ways to make sure I'm not deluding myself about my own lifestyle.

One example: An old friend is in his early 40s and has a low-paying government contracting job. He lives with his parents to save money, and as far as I know does not pay rent or contribute to household expenses. He has, in total, perhaps a couple of thousands of dollars in savings to his name. He has no traditional kinds of investments or savings (CDs, an IRA, 401(k), bonds, etc.) Instead, he has put any extra money that he has into a microloan lending site. If he gets a loan paid off, he lends the funds right back out again. Sometimes he has lost money this way. Anyway, he likes to call himself an "angel investor". Whenever I hear him say that I just have to roll my eyes. I see that he likes the cachet of this label, but he's not even living life as a financially independent adult.

A more personal example: As the mom of a young child I like to think that I can provide helpful advice to new moms (when asked!). I find myself weighing in (I'm talking about in real life with acquaintances and friends, not online on sites like AskMeFi) on topics like whether or not children should have TVs in their room to how to deal with a tantrumming toddler at the supermarket. But then I worry that instead of sounding like a wise been-there-done-that resource, I come across as a judgmental know-it-all.

I know it's not really possible to truly know how you present yourself to the rest of the world, and that if I'm talking to two people at once, they might easily each come away with totally different impressions of me, depending on their own experiences or prejudices. But is there some way of thinking about this that can help me give myself a reality check about my own perceptions of myself vs. how I present myself to the world?

Thank you all in advance for your thoughtful responses.
posted by lgandme0717 to Human Relations (20 answers total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
Comes with time and wisdom is about all I can come up with. No one is born with the innate ability to see how others see him. IMO that only comes with plenty of sensitivity and reflection, combined with a willingness to take the focus off "what's in it for me". Pretty rare and precious stuff.
posted by telstar at 1:09 AM on January 19, 2009

The best way to do a reality check is to simply check. With advice, sometimes it is helpful to check before - "Are you looking for ideas on how handle that?" And to avoid being a know-it-all, make it clear that you are sharing your own experience - "of course every child / family is different so that might not work so well for you" Depending on the relationship, you might be able to ask something after the fact like "was that helpful or was it off target?" With a really good friend, you can just ask point blank "was I acting like a know-it-all back there?"

And please try to be more generous in your assessment of your friend. You don't know all the details of his finances or his arrangment with parents. Living frugally to support others who have even less is admirable. Even if you don't think he has his overall priorities straight, you can still respect the impulse.
posted by metahawk at 1:11 AM on January 19, 2009

To begin with, there's the matter of your approach - do you want to be able to see yourself as others see you, or do you want what you imagine yourself to be to be the you that others see? It sounds like you're going for the former, in which case, there are a few things to keep in mind:

Consider the backgrounds of the people around you, the life-shaping events from their pasts, the place where they are in life right now, and where their priorities lay. Try not to speculate, but consider only that which you're pretty certain about. This gives you an idea of what mindset is shaping the way this person views life to begin with.

Although you're bound to at least unconsciously put up blind spots are rose-color different things you said or did, try to see yourself plainly.

Now shift your point of view from yourself to the people in your life, and look at yourself from where they are.

Do keep in mind that ultimately, you have to look at yourself in the mirror every day and the way other people are perceiving you should be a limited priority, especially considering who those people are - you'd give more importance to your spouse than your boss, for example. But in the end, if you're not comfortable in your own skin, you're not going to be much good to others.

I understand that feeling of listening to someone who doesn't "get" how absurd/annoying/rude they really are, and then wondering, "Oh gawd, what if I'm just like that in a different way, to someone else, and I'm just too clueless to notice" but I wouldn't let it hold that much sway over my life. If you listen to people, are able to look at yourself plainly, and can empathize with others, chances are no one that matters will think you're a jerk. Most of the time.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 1:16 AM on January 19, 2009

People will make their own judgments on you based on their experiences. How they view you is more of a reflection of how they see the world.

Just do what feels right and let them judge.
posted by ThFullEffect at 1:23 AM on January 19, 2009

Some personality types have it much worse than others:

Whistling in the Dark: Narcissism and the Grandiosity Gap

"The disparity between the accomplishments of the narcissist and his grandiose fantasies and inflated self-image - the Grandiosity Gap - is staggering and, in the long run, insupportable. It imposes onerous exigencies on the narcissist's grasp of reality and social skills. It pushes him either to seclusion or to a frenzy of "acquisitions" - cars, women, wealth, power." [...]

On the other hand, if someone's coping mechanism is working (i.e. they're reasonably happy and not hurting anybody) then who are you or I to cut them down for it? There's far too little happiness in this world as it is than to go around laying metaphorical turds in people's punchbowls.

It's a vicious circle: businessmen think artists are losers for not being financially responsible, and artists think businessmen are losers for not being creative. Who's right? Both and neither, yet everybody is self-righteous and smug. Personally, I think whatever you have to believe to get yourself through the day shouldn't affect me or the way I live my life in the slightest. To each his own.

The fact that you roll your eyes at people with different values from your own is at the heart of the problem. Either develop your sense of empathy, or "judge and prepare to be judged", as Ayn Rand once said.

P.S. when you think of it, that contractor really is an angel to somebody. If that's the main thing he values in life, then more power to him.
posted by aquafortis at 2:09 AM on January 19, 2009 [7 favorites]

I think for most people, the level of self-awareness, not judging the choices other people can make, those things vary... kinda like in the two examples you provide. Maybe you're making a subtle point by one example that's a lot less pleasant than the other?

In the first example, your attitude reads ugly. Lots of assumptions about things, about someone's choices and values that differ from yours and "Whenever I hear him say that I just have to roll my eyes."

Like bloody hell you "have to."

You choose to.

As aquafortis notes, If I'm in Cameroon or Uzbekistan and this guy's $40 or $400 has a profound impact on my life, you bet your boots he's an angel to me, at least a lot closer to one than people who "have to" roll their eyes at how he speaks of what he does.

You're so much cooler than he is. You deserve an organic, gluten-free cookie made with fair-trade grain and fruit, loving baked and sold by people who get great wages and benefits, can identify portobello mushrooms on sight.

Ya see, that's me being how you come across in that example.

The second example comes across as one that's more likely to get a better reaction, speaks to a healthier... call it what you will... mindset, energy, outlook, vibe, tone, attitude.
posted by ambient2 at 2:25 AM on January 19, 2009 [3 favorites]

The best way, I think, to find out how other people view you is to ask them. How much that is going to be welcome when it comes to the pinch is going to be up to you. For example, going by your first example above, I'd say you were quite critical about things that don't really concern you. The guy has the right to spend his money on what he wants to do. His life experience and choice is very different to your own. He behaves in a different way to you, which is his right. It's got little to do with you what he does with his money.

Your second example makes you sound quite arrogant. You do come across as a judgemental know-it-all. Again, different people & different families = different life plans, choices and experiences.

I'm mentioning this to get the point across that what others see of you isn't what you are. I'm just looking at a few lines of text on a computer screen, and making a snap judgement. It isn't "true", as such. It's just an opinion, and one that is quite probably wrong. Maybe you aren't like that at all. Perhaps you're quite angelic. But you come across as a bitch. Are you a bitch? If no, my opinion doesn't matter. How you see yourself is what is important.

My point is that if someone else's opinion of you is wrong, why does it matter to you?

But is there some way of thinking about this that can help me give myself a reality check about my own perceptions of myself vs. how I present myself to the world?

Video tape yourself going through your daily routines, and watch the tapes back. Or you could ask yourself WWJD (or whoever) and filter your thoughts and behaviours through that. Or you could just pretend to be something you aren't, based on who is in the room with you. Been there, done that. And I can assure you that that kind of life gets old very quickly.
posted by Solomon at 3:27 AM on January 19, 2009

Here's a couple things to help:

#1: listen to yourself talk. Feeling like you might be saying less than stellar things? Assume you are, and knock it off. If you weren't, it won't make much difference (nobody ever got in trouble for not opening their mouth!) and if you were, you just changed yourself for the better.

#2: ask at a low level to figure things out at a high level. Afraid you're looking scraggly and awful, but nobody will say so to your face? Ask about your hair: "I'm really getting sick of this haircut; do you think I should change it, or am I better off sticking with it?" Ask about your shirt (when wearing a "typical" one for you.) Ask about your makeup. Phrase it so that people have every reason to tell you to change, and have to be pushy to tell you to stay the same. This works for non-physical stuff, too; just make sure you're asking for validation that you should go through with a change you've already decided to make, not asking "should I change?", to get an honest answer.

#3: pay attention to people you admire. Do you talk like they do? Do you act like they do? Do you live like they do? Why not? You admire them; you should take steps to emulate the things about them that you admire (and that fit into your worldview) so that you can admire yourself as well.

#4: don't sweat it too much. Everyone is loved by someone, and everyone is hated by someone. Most people are indifferent to, or at worst, annoyed by some other people they know. it's okay, we marry the ones that don't bother us at all, and all those annoying people are our friends and relatives. They're not judging you that harshly, just like you're not judging them harshly. Oh, wait, you ARE? Well, that doesn't mean THEY are -- it just means you should stop.

Hope that helps.
posted by davejay at 3:29 AM on January 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

Whose opinion is right? You may be both helpful and annoying at the same time. Your friend is both dependent on his parents and kind and forward-thinking to lend his small amount of money as he does. Roll your eyes, or enjoy the view.

I'm an eye-roller from way back. There's almost no one who "deserves" respect or admiration, unless you believe in some kind of divine caste system, or have a morality that's more inflexible that I'd like. I don't. But you know what? People's conceptions of themselves are what keeps them going, and I may go in for a little self-delusion/reframing myself.
posted by amtho at 4:20 AM on January 19, 2009

You need some friends who you are close enough that they'll call you on your bullshit and make fun of you when you do something deserving ridicule. That's how you keep yourself in check.
posted by TheOnlyCoolTim at 5:12 AM on January 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

What other people think of you is none of your business.
posted by uhom at 6:41 AM on January 19, 2009 [2 favorites]

Be sensitive to other people's reactions to whatever you say. They won't necessarily tell you, "I regard you as the fount of all wisdom, so please continue" or "you're being a pompous gasbag". Watch for facial expressions and verbal cues. Try not to interrupt anyone. Make sure you understand where they are coming from when they say something to you. And if in doubt, ask them what they'd like from you in terms of response to them.
posted by orange swan at 6:44 AM on January 19, 2009

What others think is immaterial. What you want is to not be an idiot. Focus on that by asking yourself the attitudes you hold about yourself are true.
posted by Ironmouth at 7:06 AM on January 19, 2009

if you REALLY want to know what your loved ones think and how they see you, there is this really great interview you can do. you have to be COMPLETELY OPEN AND WILLING to hear their honest responses.

you ask them these 5 questions and let them know they can be totally honest and you wont freak out or get defensive. you have to listen actively but without reacting:

1. what do you like about me?
2. what don't you like about me?
3. what do you see as my strengths?
4. what do you see as my weaknesses?
5. is there anything else you've ever wanted to say to me?

if you are up for it, it can be a pretty AMAZING experience. very enlightening.
posted by beccyjoe at 9:06 AM on January 19, 2009 [2 favorites]

For another data point, you might try recording yourself interacting with a group of people. Once you get over how weird your voice sounds (this takes about 20 minutes for most people) you might see some patterns in the group dynamics that you weren't aware of.
posted by StickyCarpet at 10:46 AM on January 19, 2009

Yup uhom's right. Get to the point where you don't care what others think - that will free you to be yourself all the time.
Also, guessing what others think, guessing their motives and neuroses etc. will only lead to disappointment.

So just be you, and f*** everyone else!
posted by HolyWood at 2:53 PM on January 19, 2009

What others think is immaterial.

Get to the point where you don't care what others think

i strongly disagree. if everyone thinks you're an asshole and you want to be liked, then it does matter what they think. maybe you are acting in a way that offends people without knowing it. i used to be extremely opinionated and judgemental and i never realised it bothered anyone. once i expressed an opinion about my little sister's taste in music and she got so upset with me, i realised how my opinions and judgements could be belittling to people i cared about. i made a real effort to change my ways because i didnt want to make people feel bad.

posted by beccyjoe at 3:13 PM on January 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

My opinion of what other people think of me is based on the things they expect me to do, ask me to do, seemed surprised if I claim I can't do...

When I was a kid, if the riding instructor said, you go ride Hell Beast, then I believed that the instructor either wanted me dead or thought I could handle Hell Beast.

This would be a clue that you give good advice: If, for instance, you show up at the park, and one of the moms says, "Great, lgandme0717, we were hoping you would show up today. We were discussing this other mom's problem and wondering what advice you would have."

If that kind of thing doesn't happen, that doesn't mean no one values your counsel. I'm just saying that's a strong indication.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 6:10 PM on January 19, 2009

The fact that you roll your eyes at people with different values from your own is at the heart of the problem.


Why do you care, for example, that your friend lives with his parents and doesn't handle his money as you would like him to? That, more than the anecdote about parenting, is what makes you come across as judgmental... at least to me.

Just to get into this a bit more, you say of this friend: "he's not even living life as a financially independent adult." So... what? From the tone of your description, it sounds like you think that he ought to not be living with his parents, and that he ought to have a retirement account and more savings. Why? It doesn't effect you. What if he likes living with his parents, or one or both of his parents like him living with them? It's not unheard of. And scores of people don't have any savings or spend their money on things you'd think are stupid. Do you judge all of them like this?

Furthermore, why is money so important to you -- and other people's money, at that -- that you would let yourself become that kind of person over it? Money is completely unimportant to some people, and they purposely only pursue as much as is necessary to sustain themselves. You act as if your friend is doing something wrong, but why should he move out and get his own place and put his money in things he clearly doesn't care about? To make people like you happy? When he moves into his own place, which he may not even want, what is he supposed to get out of it? "Whew, I'm doing what everyone else wants to do, and maybe now lgandme0717 can rest easy that I'm living my life like she wants me to."

It really does seem to be one of those judgments that says more about you than your friend.

I will say this: in my observations, it is usually judgmental people who worry the most about being judged, because they know how they think about other people and do not wish people to think about them that way. Your question seems to mirror this: you don't want to the person that everyone judges and doesn't realize it, because you know that you judge people who don't realize it. To everyone else, being judged seems to be more of a nuisance -- you have to deal with people telling you what they think when you don't actually care.

Being self aware is one thing, and it's a commendable thing to strive for, in my opinion. But life is a lot easier, at least in my experience, when you remove yourself from the whole judging arena altogether. If you make a conscious effort to be less judgmental, I'm willing to bet you'll realize how silly it was to begin with. And once you do that, you'll be able to worry less about being judged: you'll have been in that mindset before, and you'll know that their judgment says little about you and more about them.

If you're trying to be a better person, you can do better than avoiding things that people will judge you for. That won't make you a better person so much as a stereotype of what society finds valuable: you might have a decent amount of savings and not live with your parents, for example, but that doesn't say a whole lot about you as a person.

What I have found helpful is trying to be more introspective and admit my faults. Knowing that I'll admit my faults is what gives me the confidence to make decisions and move forward. That way, when other people want to judge me, I either feel too secure about myself to conform to whatever they want me to be, or I'm able to admit when they have a point and learn from it. But any way you put it, your self-esteem has to come from within and can't be based on what other people think of you. As many others upthread have noted, usually judgments say more about the person making them than the person being judged. If you change your behavior because your friends are obsessed with money and having nice things, for example, you're not becoming a better person. You're just becoming the person your friends want you to be.
posted by Nattie at 4:16 AM on January 20, 2009 [2 favorites]

Well, to be frank, you don't come off in these examples as a person who is particularly overflowing with empathy, which might make it difficult for you to gauge how others read and react to you.

Regarding the first example, it's really important to understand the actions of others in the context of their own character and circumstances. As others have mentioned above, it is extremely human to relieve anxieties we have about our lives by gently (and typically harmlessly) constructing other narratives to lessen those aspects urgency or weight. It's not that you're expected to not notice these inconsistencies or small edits or whatever they are, it's that--legitimately--why do you care?

Until someone else's pathos negatively impact you personally (in what degree and in what way is obviously for you to decide), rolling your eyes at someone else's personal failings, small or large as they may be, implicitly suggests that you might be unable to recognize your own irritating qualities which others regularly forgive.

For example, my good friend is dating another friend of mine who is interested in a similar academic field as I am; sometimes if he and I get going on an issue, she feels uncomfortable that she doesn't know the subject matter as intimately as we do, and will then get a little aggro/condescending if we stumble upon something that she does feel more at ease talking about. I could get all, "NUH UH!!!" on her, but uh, why? Who cares? I understand why she's doing it, it's not an attack on me, and god knows the little peculiarities she has to suffer through with me.

In the second instance, I think is really a problem of language. I tend to have really passionate, intense opinions/feelings on things, and I know I can come off as intimidating in conversation, especially since I sort of delight in arguing/debate, and don't take it very personally. When I was younger, it became occasionally alienating.

I learned to phrase things I believed or wanted to discuss in "I" statements, rather than making sweeping declarations about everybody's "universal" experiences. Instead of saying "TV rots the brains of all children," you can talk about your own specific experience, and what you observed within your own family that brought you to whatever decision you made. That's all you can offer, and perhaps that other people you know have found similar dynamics happening in their families. Otherwise you probably sound superior and pedantic, and people tend to perceive that kind of speech as somewhat invasive.

Just be careful, attentive, and willing to apologize if you see somebody withdrawing from you in conversation. Just by reaching out to someone you notice in retreat, you immediately soften yourself and affirm their space within the discussion as well.
posted by snizz at 2:34 PM on January 21, 2009

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