The receiving end of judgment and assumptions

Two posts yesterday twined together into a solid cord that ran through my thoughts for much of the day. Gale at Ten Dollar Thoughts wrote about the relationship between insecurity and judgment, and about her own (very human) propensity for both. The Kitchen Witch shared a guest post by Naptime Writing which, though ultimately focused on a different (and moving) message, started making a point about the perils of snap judgments, both by and of ourselves.

I’ve written often about the distinction between how people appear and how they truly are, and about the frustrating futility of ever truly understanding the heart of another. I’m awestruck by the mystery of other humans, even those I love most passionately. This inscrutability makes me both feel both wonder and agony, makes me gasp in amazement even as I scratch my fingernails against the person’s facade, trying to get in.

One passage from last fall’s post reminds me in particular of what Gale wrote yesterday:

It amazes me to hear this. I, who feels and is many, many things, but pretty much never either hard or self-assured. I, who mostly feels shy and awkward in social settings but is sometimes told she is a bitch. I, whose personality is defined in large part by a deep seam of insecurity that sometimes manifests as judgment. I was going to ask how it is that vulnerability can come across as such a formidable wall, but I realized that question is dumb: of course in 35 years we build up calluses over our sore spots, build barricades over the holes that have tripped us up over and over again.

I did not dwell yesterday on the ways that I jump to conclusions about others when I ought not, though I do do that much more than I should. Instead, what I mulled is why it is that I seem to have consistently, throughout my life, been someone that others form swift and not-always-lovely opinions of. I sometimes feel as though I’m nothing more than a blank screen that others project onto. Project their issues, their assumptions, their biases. This is, it occurs to me, the curious flipside of one of my true strengths (which is really a weakness, of course): being what others want me to be. I am hyper sensitive to what other people want from me, always keenly aware of what other people are feeling, thinking, reacting to. It’s as though this skill has permeated my personality such that I’ve blanked my actual self out in order to better give people what they want.

I’ve taken endless grief for being such a pleaser and for caring so much what others think. And, to be sure, much of this beating up has come at my own hand. But when I peel back that criticism, and think really deeply about why I am that way, I wonder if in fact it’s just that I prefer to present to others what it is I sense they want because I’m afraid that if I was just me they would not like what they see. This seems so stunningly obvious when I write it that I’m ashamed to say it’s taken me years to realize it.

Somehow the ability to sense what others want from/of me combines with my own deep insecurity about myself to make me an effective screen on which people can play out their instant judgments about who I am. There are so many ways I’ve been misunderstood and misconstrued it’s impossible to list them here. Sometimes this can be really powerful and toxic, to the point where I lose sight of what I know to be true about me. I wonder if this is why I take pictures of my shadow so much: am I trying to prove that I’m still there?  Or is it because my shadow, in its abstraction, is a symbol of being without detail, a mere form for others to color in the details as they see them

21 thoughts on “The receiving end of judgment and assumptions”

  1. I found it interesting that you are a pleaser that cares so much about what others think, but are also someone who people often quickly form “not-always-lovely” opinions of. I tend to be highly self-monitoring. I am concerned about how I am percieved by others and so I adjust my behavior to fit different situations. This seems paradoxical because I have strong opinions and will speak out when I feel it is necessary. I come accross (I think) as someone is friendly, easy to get along with, but perhaps unmemorable. Of course, I could be completely wrong. That is the snag, isn’t it? There is no way we can truly know how others see us because we are on the inside looking out. For all I know, I am memorable and not really well-liked!

  2. This is a really good point you make – I guess I should have clarified, I think the “not always lovely” snap judgments are made by people who don’t even know me at all – so that is to say people who I haven’t really had a chance to try to “please” yet, if that makes sense!

  3. Your post really echoes my feelings. I sometimes think I try to please because I believe it will make life easier. But in reality because I may not be doing what I truly feel, I find conflict within myself. This is stressful and can lead to me feeling unhappy because I sense the person is not pleased.
    The way forward for me is to make sure I am happy and not feel frustrated when others around me are not trying to please me…. because that is definitely a source of unhappiness – when after all my efforts to please others they just continue on in their own way without a thought about me! Am I describing my husband here!!!

  4. Yes, that makes perfect sense. Question: How much do you feel that having moved around a lot growing up contributes to your desire to be what other people want? I moved 7 times from K-12 and feel that has a lot to do with my behavior. Conversely, it is also what inhibits me from trying to get close to people and sometimes comes off as a disinterest in getting to know someone. And it is sometimes the truth. I often wonder if I pass judgement too quickly to avoid having to consider someone a person I would like to get to know better. I have an entire blog in my head about this. If I ever start said blog…

  5. As I read this I kept thinking about something from another blog I read a month ago (Karal at Her mother is suffering from dimentia, rather severe, I believe. Her mom’s resolution for 2010 was: To find out who I am, and then to be that person.

    Sage words for anyone. That cut a mark into my consciousness.

  6. This is a difficult post to digest. And I mean that as a tremendous compliment. Complexity is heart, isn’t it? Who are we? Are we part what we feel we are and part what others think we are? Do we determine who we are or do others? Who is the identity judge?

    Love the bit about your shadow. How it is evidence of presence, but also in many ways a blank slate.

  7. I see myself in what you’ve written here, but never consciously thought about it — probably because I’m too afraid to pull the layers back. The realization that struck me most is that I can easily recognize this “pleaser” behavior in others — usually women friends — and the insincerity of it makes me feel betrayed. But I do it too. Thanks for giving me something to think about.. A spot-on explanation for why.

  8. I hope you feel that in writing you can be who you truly are and you can put those words out to all of us and be confident in that our responses are based on your own honesty. I don’t know. Does that make sense?

    How about this: You don’t have to be a people pleaser here? Do you? Sure, at times I feel like I’m not doing something right by blogging standards, and then life takes the helm again and pushes Brain out and I’ve really lost all control. So when I am here, I’m who I most am. I’m quick to write, to speak, to express. I have to trust in those thoughts and words that come to me first.

    Shoot. Not at all what I wanted to say. Again. What is wrong with me tonight? I really need a drink. Must run. xoxo

  9. Lindsey, this is just fascinating and I don’t have anything to offer than to tell you that I’m here reading and that you sweep me up in your thoughts.

    I’ve read on several blogs lately people who struggle with their people-pleasing problem. And if I’m totally honest, it makes me wonder about myself. I don’t have this tendency (although I definitely want approval, which I think is different than wanting to please…?) but not relating makes me wonder if I am more selfish than the people who have lived their lives trying to please others. I can’t decide if it’s a selfless/selfish issue or one of security/insecurity or both plus many many more factors.

    Regardless, you’ve got me thinking.

    p.s. very cool picture. I’ve been experimenting with motion and photography lately, and I love this shot!

  10. that kinda hit home for me.
    I have ALWAYS tried to be a people pleaser,…and if they didn’t like what I WAS I’d try and change to “suit” them.
    always adjusting ME to please others
    until I don’t even know who “ME?” is.
    how sad, at my age, just trying still to figure that out.
    I have learned to never judge someone especially after only a few meetings. I am usually ALWAYS wrong.

  11. Objective knowing and true understanding are separated by a chasm of years, in my experience. I, too, am continually astounding by how many concepts I’m only now comprehending in my gut. Hopefully the transformation to a more complete self takes less time. Sounds like you’re on the fast track. Beautiful post.

  12. Wow. Impressive.

    I believe you’ve articulated what many women feel – some for part of their lives, others, perhaps all their lives. To varying degrees.

    Another thought? Your natural empathy and chameleon-like qualities really are assets, if they don’t own you. With time – a lot of time for some of us – they let go their grip, and a more certain “self” takes the reins. Not necessarily a cohesive self (and that’s not a bad thing), but a sort of changing of the guard.

  13. I agree with BigLittleWof about this being true of what many women feel (having gotten to know many women in the relatively unmasked space of psychotherapy), however, I find this is also true for many men… I know it has been true for myself.

    One of the reasons I’ve been so drawn to write about parenting is that it teaches us how to love beyond ourselves. While we can fall into the pleaser pattern to be sure, parenting can teach us that our power rests in giving love, and not in trying to get it (by whatever strategies we employ, and which so often seem to backfire anyway).

    Feeling loved hinges on feeling truly understood, and with so much projection and insecurity all around us it seems rare that we feel fully understood.

    Perhaps because we are able to regulate or modulate our intimacy in the blogosphere, this forum for sharing ourselves and ideas seems to lend itself to a more authentic level of discourse—something that seems to feed a desire we humans share, and which goes largely unrequited in the “real” world… along with our wishes to participate and contribute without being misconstrued or mistrusted.

    Thanks for being honest here. I know that I, for one, really appreciate it as do many of your readers.


  14. Lindsey: As many of this post’s comments have noted, this is, sadly, a consistent plight of women. We’re enculturated this way, trained this way, groomed this way. And it’s so very hard to change. But even harder to see, acknowledge, and name. You’ve done that – boldly, courageously, tenderly.

  15. People-pleasers are, as you said, very good at shape-shifting. Experts, really.

    And yes, I think if you shape-shift enough, you get confused about who you really are. Do you really believe what you believe, or are you influenced by the desire to make someone happy? Do you really want to go to the theatre this weekend, or would you honestly rather do something else? Is it really okay with you that you went to the kids’ favorite place to eat again this week? Are you really a Christian? And on and on…

    Beautiful line about the shadows. I understand very well.

  16. Truly too exhausted to make coherent comments. I have typed several sentences and deleted them as they did not make sense. Know I am reading, Lindsey.

  17. There is a quote, I forget who said it, that goes something like this:

    The more you get to know a person, the stranger they become.

    I think that is true. The more we peel away the onion layers to the core self, the more potential for raw truths to present themselves, for good or otherwise.

    My husband and I like to discuss the funny space between who we know we are and who others perceive us as. As we often say, “People are cool,” but also, “People can be clueless.”

  18. You’ve given me much to think about. I’ve found that after getting to know some women who I thought were snobswere actually shy and insecure in larger settings just like myself. Makes me wonder how many people think I’m a snob. I’ve gotten much better since I’ve gotten older, but I think I’m still a little judgemental, and still hold a tiny bit of insecurity when thrust out of my element.

  19. Lindsey – I was traveling on the day you posted this, and have just now noticed your link back to my post on judgement. I’m so glad that my post spoke to you, and yours, in turn, has spoken to me. “What do people think of me?” is certainly the fragile step-sister of the snarky “This is what I think of them.” It’s a strange and confounding cycle. Would that we could stop it, but “live and let live” is just to simplistic to be useful. I wish you luck on this journey, many aspects of which I also share.

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