Do you sometimes feel like even the people who know you best don’t really know you at all—or that they’ve missed some essential part of you? Like they say things to you that they really should know better than to say, or make what you feel is an unfair and inaccurate assessment of your character? In my Myspace blogging days, I think I wrote a blog about the discrepancy between the way we see ourselves and the way others see us—how disheartening and even alarming that discrepancy can sometimes be.
It’s not like this is a new observation, and it’s not like I don’t probably sometimes do the same thing to other people—people who I know well and about whom I care very much—as much as I pride myself on being perceptive. Because sometimes, let’s face it, even the best of us get way too caught up in our own daily trials and triumphs to pay that much attention to someone else’s. And the truth, also, is that no matter how perceptive anybody is, no matter how good at putting themselves in someone else’s shoes, not one of us can ever truly know what it’s like to actually be that other person, with their particular collection of thoughts, memories, experiences, motivations, genes. We may think we understand, and to some extent maybe we do—but unless there’s a lightning strike in the right place at the right moment and/or you just made exactly the right wish at exactly the right time in exactly the right way and/or it’s Friday the Thirteenth, or whatever, and the two of you magically switch places…we never can really know.
I do think I have the ability more than most people—when I choose to exercise it, which admittedly isn’t always—of putting myself in other people’s shoes, reading their feelings. A couple of years ago, while reading the Sookie Stackhouse novels, I finally figured it out: rather than a telepath, I’m an empath. But, like telepathy for Sookie, empathy is exhausting. I think this is why I’m an introvert: meaning not that I don’t sometimes enjoy the company of other people, but that the only real way for me to recharge is by spending time alone. As one of my friends put it once, I’m a sponge for other people’s emotions. I’ve gotten a little better at protecting myself as I’ve gotten older, but I’m afraid that this makes me sometimes come off as aloof, even snobby. Definitely, in certain situations, people mistakenly still think I’m just quiet and shy, even meek, which couldn’t be further from the truth. I’m just trying to get away from them.
I came across a quote in a Margaret Atwood book (The Robber Bride—I highly recommend it) a couple of years ago, and I thought, “Oh my God, someone understands!” Ms. Atwood writes of this particular character, "She can picture the response of anyone—other people's reactions, their emotions, their criticisms, their demands—but somehow they don't reciprocate. Maybe they can't. Maybe they lack the gift, if it is one." I think it was a long time before I realized that not everybody could do what I did, and maybe that’s why sometimes I seemed to feel that painful discrepancy between their vision of me and my vision of myself more than they seemed to feel a gap between how I saw them and how they saw themselves…or maybe it’s just something we never, or rarely, do notice in another person.
Sometimes it’s a case, especially these days, of misreading someone else’s tone, in a text or an email or a Facebook status comment…this is why I use lots of smiley faces and winks. ;) I think Facebook can also sometimes lead to the problem of thinking that someone you haven’t seen in years is the same person they were when you knew them, and thereby misinterpreting something they’ve said—maybe not even something they’ve said to you, just a general statement—and responding too harshly or with unnecessary, unsolicited advice—such as advice given to an adult who you only knew as a child. Then there’s our problem, as a society, with attention spans. We too often skim rather than read an article, a blog, an email, whatever, word for word, taking the time to weigh what the person is actually saying rather than what we’ve concluded that they must be saying, in an instant of judgment that is all the time we have to devote to it. I fall prey to this too of course, but what I try to do now, especially if I’ve had a strong initial harsh reaction to something that may lead me to respond impulsively, is reread, weigh the words carefully like I was once taught to do a million years ago while earning my English degree—what I still have to do in my job as an editor—and make sure I’m getting the meaning the person is trying to convey. Then, if I decide that I am and that it warrants a response from me, I try to craft that response carefully, diplomatically, in a way that is unlikely to be misunderstood. Of course, sometimes I’m misunderstood anyway.
So what am I trying to say? That because it’s so hard to know another person, maybe we should be more careful with each other, sometimes? I think, maybe, my point is something like that. As I’ve titled this blog: Please don’t mistake me for the person you think I am. Try to keep an open mind and understand that not one of us is a stereotype…we all have more dimensions than that. And not one of us is going to have desires, dreams, and ambitions that are in perfect accord with anybody else’s. Some days we’re all more fragile than others. Sometimes rather than telling the over-emotional pregnant woman what you really think, you should just tell her what she obviously wants, maybe needs, to hear. Sometimes we need to keep in mind Plato’s words: “Always be kind, for everyone is fighting a hard battle.” Even if we can’t understand their particular battle—it doesn’t mean it isn’t as important to them as ours is to us.
I’ll leave you with the question I was asked a lot as a kid and am still asked sometimes as an adult, and the poem I wrote about it a few years ago while conducting a creative writing camp for teenage girls in which we all wrote “Upon Being Asked” poems…
Upon Being Asked Why I’m So Quiet
-after Dean Young
I say, because, wait, do I know you?
I say because there’s enough noise anyway
I say was I supposed to say something?
I say because there was something
really interesting going on in my head—
a dialogue between two of my cats,
between my dog and the dog next door,
between me and the girl in high school
who suddenly shunned me for
no reason or never told me why,
or another long-lost acquaintance of my youth.
I say not when I’m with my friends.
I say not because I don’t think I
have anything to say—I have a lot
to say, it’s just—a matter, I think, of
when to say it.
I say it’s none of your business,
just like you don’t need to know
where I live, if I’m married, why
or why not. If I go to church, if
I pay my taxes. I do—pay my
taxes—but what do you care?
I say, once I sat on porch steps with
a boy I liked—maybe loved—
smoked cigarettes, and talked, until
the sun came up, surprising us with
its appearance, and we laughed at our
unawareness of the passage of the night.
Once I walked eight miles—or something
like that—back to Nice when Ele and I missed
the last bus, talking the whole time,
remembering all the previous weeks: last
Friday, and the Friday before that and
the Friday before that, and the Friday
before that. I say, believe it or not—
sometimes I talk too much. Can’t shut
me up. How many times have I sat
on the porch swing, with Starla or
Beth, drinking wine, cutting off each other’s
stories, the whole evening, hours and
hours, because we both had so much
to say? I say, with Jake, those first years
we were together, we would go to
parties, talk only to each other, never
running out of things to say…
Now we’ve shared most of our stories—
at least the shareable ones—our biggest
ideas, hopes, dreams—are comfortable
in silence, and that’s okay too.
I say, listening is more than just
waiting for your turn to talk, thinking
about what you’ll say. People say
I’m perceptive—I say, I listen.
I watch. I observe. I say,
you should try it.
- Callie Bentley Ewing
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