I was lazily lying by the pool in Puerto Vallarta over the New Year when Shawn inquired if I had ever asked any of my friends their perception of me. The question wasn’t totally out of the blue. In the cab the night before we discussed whether we should take other people’s perceptions into account when looking at our lives. But still, I paused.
It felt like a loaded question. Was there something Shawn thought I should know? After thinking for a bit, I answered that I had that conversation a fair amount when I was younger but hadn’t recently. One of us cracked a joke and we moved on to other topics. But the question has stayed with me. How much and for how long should we really take other people’s perceptions into account when developing a sense of self? Do I really know what my friends think of me?
In the beginning of my career I had a new boss tell me that his perception was my reality. I strongly disagreed. Mainly because he was telling me that it didn’t matter what I thought about the company or my job, what mattered is what he thought and the sooner I figured that out the better off I would be. He positioned it as an absolute; it was a way for him to make his employees powerless. Eventually he was fired for his lack of management skills. However, there is some truth to his saying. It is important to understand your boss’ opinion of your work. He or she has the power to promote you or fire you. Companies conduct annual performance reviews so employees can clearly understand how their work is perceived.
Should we have an annual review with our friends as well? Being a friend is a personal choice. An assumption can be made that your friends wouldn’t be your friends if they didn’t like you. Maybe it depends on the types of friends you have. For the most part I have friends that are very open people, they share their feelings and thoughts and that includes telling me if I am being difficult or insensitive or helpful. I can presume that they enjoy my company because they want to do things together and their laughter still rings in my ears days later. I figure they think I’m supportive since they call me for advice and comfort. These interactions give me a sense of the person that I am and the value I offer my friends without having a specific conversation on the subject.
But what of the friends you inherit; the ones that are close to your significant other or your friends? These people can be in your circle for a long time. But it is harder to make assumptions about their feelings. If we believe that you need to take other people’s perceptions into account when looking at your life, then it would presumably be helpful to know what these peripheral people think.
I’ve been debating that since Shawn’s question. You see she is one of the friends I inherited, originally a friend of my partner’s. I could have asked Shawn at the pool what her perception of me was but I didn’t. There was a time I worried extensively about what people thought of me; will they think I’m intelligent, was I funny, did they like me, am I pretty? Through my teens and twenties I was obsessed with these insecurities. But as I’ve gotten older, I discovered that wanting to please everyone is a futile and destructive goal. It’s just not possible and it can beat up any sense of self-worth you have developed. I’m not saying that I don’t care what other people think; I do. But now I prioritize the opinions of others. First and foremost is my opinion. If I can look at myself in the mirror and see someone I like, then I feel good. Next is my partner, do I make her happy, does she confirm I am the person I want to be. Close friends and family follow. And at that point the list is long enough – between five and ten people. How these key people perceive me is paramount. The rest, well I have to admit, I just don’t have the courage to ask.
Unless of course you have really great things to say, then I’m all ears.
“What people in the world think of you is really none of your business.”
― Martha Graham