05 October 2008

My Theory of Self-Perception

Wait! Stop! If I have asked you to help me out with my theory by writing a description of me as you see me, please write the description before you read this! (Otherwise, your response might be influenced by what you read!!) If you have already completed your description, then here is the explanation I promised you. I realized that it might be difficult to email this long and convoluted theory to everyone, so I figured this way you can read it at your leisure while being seranaded by my wonderful playlist of my life's theme songs....

Oh! And if you have no idea what I'm talking about here, that means I probably don't have an email address or anything for you, because I've been requesting help from virtually everyone who has ever met me! If you would like to participate, I would love your help - I'm asking everyone to describe me as if you were explaining who "Veronica" is to someone who has never met me. This includes physical characteristics, personality traits, annoying habits, irritating qualities, even your impression of our relationship... The good, the bad and the ugly! Please don't sugarcoat anything or try to be nice - just hard, honest opinions. You can email me or post a comment here with your response (or, you can send me a message on Facebook - I check that regularly too). Thanks so much for your help, everyone!!!

And now, without further ado...

My Theory of Self-Perception!

I suspect that we never see ourselves the way other people see us. (Okay, I admit, that’s kind of a “duh!” statement, isn’t it?) We always grossly undervalue ourselves as we compare our weakest traits with the strongest traits of those around us. Thus, our self-image is never entirely accurate. Further, our perceptions of other people reflect the way we see ourselves, and we assign motivation to others’ actions based on the way that we see ourselves. In other words, what we think that other people think of us and the way we react to other people is based on the way we see ourselves and has nothing really to do with the way people actually see us. Okay, this is harder to explain than I thought. It all makes sense in my mind – let’s see if I can figure out how to express it…. (I wish I’d had a recorder going the other night when I was explaining my theory to my friend on the phone – it all came out clearly then…..)

Hmmm…. I guess the only way to really describe what I’m thinking is by making it really personal. I know how I think about myself. I could sit down and give you a detailed description of who I am – from physical appearance to talents and abilities to personality traits and even a full analysis of how much other people like to be around me. This mental picture of myself determines the way that I act in various social settings. This, in turn, influences the way that other people are able to interact with me. I shape my relationships with other people based on what I believe a relationship with “someone like me” should be.

However, my mental picture rarely matches up with (and is often the exact opposite of) what other people actually see, and I suspect that my friends and acquaintances see the relationships based on differing perceptions. In other words, I don’t see the same kind of relationship between myself and a friend as that particular friend sees between us. We have, in essence, 2 very different relationships within the same friendship, based on point of view. (My relationship with you is not the same as your relationship with me.) My theory is that the conflicts we have in life rise from the fact that we are living our lives in “one-sided” relationships that only sometimes intersect, and because we have the tendency to assume that our relationships have 2 sides to them, we are surprised/irritated/saddened when the other party suddenly doesn’t act as if he/she is in the same relationship that we are in. (The truth is, they’re not.)

For instance, I have always been very self-conscious of my body. I started developing early in the 4th grade, and I was wearing a bra before any of my friends. By 8th grade, I was wearing a D cup, and I felt like I really “stuck out” in a crowd (pardon the pun)!! It didn’t help when I would hear people talk about how “unrealistic” and “degrading” a Barbie doll was because of her massive chest and tiny waist. I used to hear people talk about what Barbie’s measurements would be if she were life-sized and how much of a freak she would be – and then I would go home and cry my eyes out because, if the proportions quoted were accurate, my waist and hips matched Barbie’s. The only difference? My chest was bigger!!! (I determined then and there that my daughters would someday have lots of Barbie dolls to play with!!!) Anyway, I have always been so conscious of my body that it’s hard to imagine anyone else noticing my other qualities. I didn’t date much in high school because I could never find anyone who cared at all about my personality or my intellect. I’m beginning to wonder if my own perception of myself as “too voluptuous” didn’t just translate into the way I assumed everyone else saw me too. Were there guys who would have dated me in high school? Maybe there were. Maybe they even would have been interested in a real relationship where we could have an intelligent conversation. Maybe I just didn’t see it. Maybe I didn’t have to spend so many lonely nights…

On the other hand, I have always been “the smart one” while Carin was “the pretty one” and Angie was “the popular one” and Sheryl was “the artistic one.” (Carin, Angie and Sheryl are my 3 sisters.) I was reading before I started Kindergarten (Carin was a really good teacher), and as far back as I can remember, I knew that I was “super smart.” At first, it was really cool, but then I started to suspect that it was the only thing I would ever be remembered for. I knew that smart = nerdy and geeky, so I wasn’t surprised when I never had any really close friends. Who wants to hang out with the class geek on a Friday night? Whenever I was in a group of people and they started making plans for the weekend, I would quietly slip away and find a quiet place to cry (I still do that, actually), because I knew I wouldn’t be invited along. Every once in a while, I would “get desperate” and “invite myself along” – and I always had tons of fun! We would end up laughing the entire time! Then, I would come home and (more often than not), I would cry myself to sleep wondering what jokes were being made at my expense once I was safely out of earshot. (I still do that too, come to think of it.) Now, I wonder whether my perception of myself as a geek is all that accurate. Were (are) they really just laughing at me, or were they actually laughing with me and enjoying my company? Was I really forcing myself into the group when I “invited myself along” or were those merely the times that I didn’t turn away from the implied invitation that everyone else thought I already understood???

It might seem odd that I have simultaneous fears that I would be noticed only for my brain or only for my mind. Okay, it is odd. I guess I don’t have an explanation for that one. The only thing that I can say is that I have always had kind of a clear division in my mind about who I am in which situation. When I was with guys that I was attracted to, I was certain that the only thing that I had to offer was my body. (And since I wasn’t willing to actually offer that, I figured that I was out of luck.) With family members, girls or any guys that are “just friends” I always feel like that geeky nerd that everyone loves to make fun of. I have always felt that I might never have any real friends because none of the “cool kids” ever wants to hang out with the “geek!”

At the same time, I’ve always been “the good little girl.” I have an intense desire to be “perfect” in everything that I do. I decided years ago that I had to always do the right thing and I couldn’t slip up. I want to be the best I can possibly be in every aspect of everything I try. Of course, it only makes sense to me that everyone else would have the same desire, so I try to always help my friends and family members see their wonderful qualities and to reach their full potential. I like to try to point out the good in everyone and help them to recognize their strengths. I often wonder why people sometimes act like they think I won’t forgive them for little (sometimes big) mistakes. Why would I hold a grudge against someone just because they aren’t perfect? Well, is it possible that in my quest to obtain perfection for myself, I give off a vibe that says nothing less than “perfect” is acceptable to me? That would be awfully intimidating, wouldn’t it? It could explain why my children get so upset when I try to offer correction…

Honestly, for years, it never occurred to me that other people might see me in a different light than the one in which I see myself. But a few years ago, I had an experience that really got me wondering. I had my 10-year class reunion coming up, and I decided that I absolutely had to be there. To tell the truth, I didn’t expect anyone to remember me. I anticipated a weekend of standing “all by myself” in a corner, watching all of the “cool kids” reminisce about the days of yore. However, I absolutely had to be there, because I remembered a friend from high school, Sean Andersen, telling me one day that it didn’t matter if I couldn’t find anyone to date me because at our 10-year class reunion, I would show up with my perfect husband and 4 kids, and I would still look absolutely amazing, and all of the pretty, popular girls would be jealous while all of the guys who wouldn’t give me the time of day would be kicking themselves over what they let slip away. Well, as the time approached for the reunion, I realized that I had a pretty amazing husband who treats me like a queen and 4 very beautiful children. What’s more, I was wearing the same size jeans that I wore in high school. So of course, I had to go “get my revenge!” I figured that, even though I would spend the entire time “by myself” I could be smug about the fact that I got everything I was supposed to have!! I warned Phil, my husband, that we probably wouldn’t have anyone but each other to talk to, then I bought the tickets and we made the trip.

Imagine my surprise when we walked in the door and the first person I saw not only recognized me but wanted to actually talk to me!! Repeatedly, throughout the weekend, friends approached me to reminisce about the high school years and to catch up on the 10 years or so since we had last seen each other. At first, I just chalked it up to the fact that you’re supposed to be nostalgic at class reunions. But then, something very strange happened. People started telling Phil, “Your wife was the most popular girl in our entire class. Everyone wanted to be her friend, and we always wanted to be the lucky ones that got to go out and do things with her or to hang out at her house.” (I always thought that people were coming over to see my sisters….) I left the reunion in a state of shock. Could it be that I’m not the social leper I always thought I was? Could it be that when I thought I was being excluded from the fun, my friends thought that I must have other plans with someone else? Could it be that I wasted so many tears and sleepless nights?? Ultimately, I decided that I must have just imagined the reunion experience. I just wanted to be popular so badly that I created a delusion for the weekend. After all, who would ever think that some geeky girl whose only redeeming quality was a good body could ever possibly be one of the most popular girls in school?

That might be the end of the story, if it weren’t for my children.

My son, Benjamin, is 10 this year, and he is the most popular kid I have ever known. This kid makes friends so easily that I am amazed. We can be walking through Wal-Mart and he will see someone his age and strike up a conversation. Before we make it down the aisle, invariably his “new friend” is begging mommy or daddy to get our phone number so that they can get together sometime! Ben makes this whole friend thing seem absolutely effortless! In fact, in 1st grade, I had to sit him down and have a discussion with him about treating people with kindness when I heard from the other moms in the class that their kids were coming home and asking to look at the calendar so that they could find out how many days it was until the day that Ben agreed to play with them at recess. (I explained to him that sometimes he could play with more than one friend at a time at recess, and that mostly solved the problem. He was only scheduled a week in advance, and I guess the other kids were okay with that.) I look at him and think, “This kid will never be lonely. He will always have more friends than he can make time for!”

My daughter, Emily (who turned 8 this year), isn’t quite as outgoing as Ben is, but she consistently has a small group of friends that she hangs out with. Being in the military, she often has to say goodbye when one of her small group of friends moves away, but at the same time, she is usually first to make friends with the new kids, and so her circle of friends stays pretty consistent in number. I think it is absolutely amazing that, even though she is incredibly shy and reserved, she can reach out to people like that and make lasting friendships.

Rebekah and Katherine (6 and 4, respectively) constantly have other kids seeking them out. They walk into a room, and it’s like everyone has just been waiting for them to arrive. “Becky Bartles! Becky Bartles! Sit by me!” “Hey! It’s Katherine!! I want to sit by Katherine!!” As I watch these two little ones, I’m sure I’ll never have to worry about them being lonely, even if we have to move regularly with the military. (Actually, we’re moving for the first time in 7 years this January, but we could end up moving more frequently… You never know with the Air Force!)

Anyway, my point is that I watch my children and wonder how I will ever relate to any of their issues as they grow up. How could the girl who never had any friends, the girl who couldn’t get a single guy to date her all through high school, the girl who cried herself to sleep more often than not ever possibly understand the difficulties that arise from having too many friends? What advice will I give my daughters, for instance, when they have to choose which of the 4 or 5 guys that have asked them to Prom to say yes to? (I still wish I’d had the opportunity to go to my Prom!!!) I feel like an ugly little caterpillar compared to these social butterflies!!!
So imagine my absolute SHOCK when I found Benjamin in his room, crying because he didn’t have any friends!!!! He honestly believed that no one really wanted to play with him at recess, and they must be laughing at him because he is shorter than the rest of them! After I picked myself up off the floor, I comforted him the best way I could. We talked about all of the friends he does have, and he made quite a list. Still, as I walked away, I wasn’t really sure that I was able to convince him of what I see. I don’t think he realizes how popular he is, and how much all of the other kids enjoy spending time with him. He has convinced himself that he isn’t athletic and that he’s too small, so he is sure that the other kids don’t want him to join in their games. Yet, everywhere we go, we see someone that is beyond excited to see him – obviously, the kid has friends!!!

It’s really made me think. All along, I have been telling myself that who I am really depends upon how other people see me. But maybe the opposite is really true. Maybe the way that I see myself determines the way that I perceive others’ impression of me. If that’s true, then I have no need to ever be lonely again. All of my lonely moments may just be my own fault (gasp)! Maybe I don't need to be sad about my lonely adolescent years. Instead, I need to re-evaluate what really happened during those years and realize that maybe I wasn't as alone as I thought I was. Maybe we all define ourselves according to some ridiculous and impossible standard and then imagine that everyone else sees only those qualities we see in the fun-house mirror we insist upon standing in front of!!! Maybe we need to step back and take a look through the window instead.

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