Other People's Perceptions Of Us Can Be a Surprising Mirror
Information from others might tell you about yourself.
Posted February 5, 2019
Do you ever feel invisible?
If you’re an introvert, I bet you do. The way we tiptoe into parties (the few we attend), not working the room so much as planting ourselves and letting the room come to us. We hope. The way we fade to gray in group activities and tend towards being the silent or mumbly side of conversations. The way we let business meetings run circles around us while we take notes for later. The way even when we fear missing out, we do it anyway and stay home.
Some introverts are fine with feeling invisible, some are hurt by it, some angered. For many of us, it varies, depending on the time and place and people involved. In any case, in many ways, we do it to ourselves. We allow ourselves to be invisible as a way of protecting our boundaries.
But I recently had an experience that jolted me right out of my magic cloak of invisibility—in a lovely and surprising way.
In the bio on my personal Facebook page (please don’t friend me there, I won’t accept—join my page instead) I say, “I’m a Facebook extrovert, a real-life introvert.” And indeed, I am a voluble Facebooker: You can’t shut me up on topics that interest me. I don’t, however, post much that’s personal. I view Facebook as a performance, not a place to exorcise my demons.
A couple of months ago, however, I received upsetting news about my health and, in the throes of my distress, posted about it on Facebook. (I’m still a little mortified that I exposed myself like that, but what’s done is done.)
The response was immediate and overwhelming: Literally hundreds of comments and messages of support, both from people I know well and near-strangers. People sent me their phone numbers in case I needed to vent. (Unaware that even my closest friends must practically beg for phone calls, and even then are required to schedule them with me.) They proffered help ranging from “anything I can do to” to concrete offers. People sent cards. One acquaintance stopped by my house with a bouquet. (She texted first, bless her.) I got lots of excellent advice.
Now, hitting “post” on a supportive FB comment is easy—a no-brainer. People are generally kind, and when they see someone in distress, they want to help. I get that.
But something about this outpouring felt important to me, personally.
First, I realized that, despite my best efforts, I was not actually invisible. People see me. Apparently a lot of people. That was surprising in itself.
But then, the way support was offered also changed me, because I felt like in some ways, they saw a person I didn’t recognize. They perceived me in a way I never imagined people do.
Yes, strength. That was not surprising. Many people mentioned that, and it’s an attribute I try to exhibit. I think of myself as strong and like other people to see me that way. But at the same time, I have long believed that I come across as cold, unapproachable, off-putting. Rude, even. Or shy, which I am not particularly. None of this is my intent, but I assumed my protective tactics make me appear that way.
But the messages I received projected—implicitly and sometimes explicitly—that people don’t see me that way. There was something almost intimate in a lot of the messages, as if people feel closer to me than I ever imagined. One acquaintance went so far as to call me “sweet,” which about knocked me down. I really have no idea who she’s talking about.
Except now I find myself feeling like maybe I am, at least to some extent, the person other people see. I actually like that person, it’s the kind of person I aspire to be. Not sweetie-sweet-sweet, but I don’t mind being seen a strong person with a soft, marshmallow interior. I want very much to be a kind person. A not-unpleasant person. I can live with being considered unpleasant, I imagine some people think I am and I don’t really care, but it’s not among my life goals.
And, after all, if we are not who we are to other people, then who are we?
One of the most delicious things about falling in love is seeing yourself through your newly beloved’s eyes, before you enter the all-important but less delightful warts-and-all phase of intimacy. Suddenly you are clever and funny and oh-so-sexy in ways you never knew you were. You see your own attributes more clearly.
But now I am thinking that there is information to be gleaned from even people who are not lovers, people who are friends and acquaintances and, to some extent, near strangers. Different levels of information, different nuances. But certainly worth tossing into the hopper of self-awareness.
The matter of who we are in other people’s eyes is a particularly salient for introverts, since we tend to keep so much of ourselves to ourselves. We pride ourselves on our introspection and on the way we don’t need a lot of other people to feel complete. But I wonder if, by holding our cards close to our chests, we are missing out on the insight other people’s perceptions of us can provide, as well as the emotional nourishment we can reap from letting our vulnerability show sometimes. (Just sometimes. I still suffer embarrassment when I feel like I've revealed too much. Like this post. Deep breath. Continue.)
But by letting other people in, we might learn that they might not think we’re stuck up or shy or hate people, as so many introverts suspect they do. Maybe that’s just our own overthinking whispering that in our ears. Maybe they think we’re mysterious, or quietly brilliant, or, I don’t know, sweet. Maybe they see qualities in ourselves that we don’t know or acknowledge are there. (Of course, this can be for better or for worse. A friend once gave me a copy of the book Codependent No More and I was so affronted that she thought I needed it. And then I read it and realized she had nailed me. Phooey.)
While research indicates that unless we suffer from depression, which darkens our view of ourselves, our metaperceptions (how we see ourselves) are usually pretty accurate. But one interesting study, published in 2012 in Social Psychological and Personality Science, also confirms my suspicion. In their discussion, the authors write, “Others, especially close others, often know more about aspects of our personality than we know, suggesting that one path to self-knowledge may be to learn more about how others perceive us.”
I don’t plan to live my life differently in response to this new self-perception. I yam who I yam and for the most part, I’m pretty OK with it. What surprises me is realizing that how others perceive me is actually a little different from how I perceive myself. And, in an interesting way, that frees me up to be more myself, more easy with just being who I am. No fretting about how people see me, because they seem to see me as a person I would want to be. No more wondering if and how I should try to change. This information has been validating.
Now, I will admit that responding to all this lovely, loving concern is getting a little taxing for my introvert nature, and now my job is figuring out how to take it in and honor it while also recalibrating my boundaries in this new normal. But honestly, that’s a wonderful problem to have. I feel so lucky—and in a way, like a different person. But also the same.
Do you really know how other people perceive you? Or do you just assume you know?
Carlson, E. N., & Michael Furr, R. (2013). Resolution of Meta-Accuracy: Should People Trust Their Beliefs About How Others See Them? Social Psychological and Personality Science, 4(4), 419–426. https://doi.org/10.1177/1948550612461653
Moritz, D. and Roberts, J. E. (2018), Self‐Other Agreement and Metaperception Accuracy Across the Big Five: Examining the Roles of Depression and Self‐Esteem. J Pers, 86: 296-307. doi:10.1111/jopy.12313