In the last few years, it has come to my attention that people see things differently.
Not exactly rocket science, I know. But hear me out.
This realization came to me when I discovered how differently people saw me. As it turns out, everyone who knows me has a slightly different perception of me, based on the when and how we met or the experiences we had together. People who know me from work know a different me than the people who have met me through kids or through school or out with friends.
People also have different perceptions of me based on who they are or where they were at in their life when they met me. On any given day, if I make a joke, one person might think I’m funny and the other person might think I’m being insensitive. If I offer my opinion, one person may think I’m generous and the other person might find me intrusive. Another person’s opinion of me depends on how they choose to interpret my actions, which essentially has nothing to do with me.
Still, it’s a shocking moment when you realize someone has a completely different perspective of you than you have of yourself. Especially if their perspective is less than flattering.
The impulse, for me, then is to change how I am to try to control their perspective. In other words, I try to be different so that their perception of me will be positive rather than negative.
But this is a dangerous trap. Because I could change everything about myself, and some people will still have a negative opinion of me. And then all I will have succeeded in doing is losing myself.
Now don’t get me wrong, there is a lot to be learned from the feedback others offer in their perception of you. It can be a great tool for self-reflection and growth. As long as you remember that their opinion of you has as much or more to do with who they are as it does with who you are.
So where is the balance? How do we know which opinions we should take to heart and which we should let go because they aren’t about us?
I think we get to choose. Actually, let me rephrase that. I think we need to choose. Many different types of organizations refer to a trusted “advisory council” in order to determine what they should focus on. Because trying to listen to every opinion often means losing yourself, and refusing to listen to any opinions often means losing your connection with others. So rather than being too closed or too open to feedback, I make a conscious choice about who and what gets a seat on my advisory council.
One of my favorite words right now is “neuroplasticity.” Essentially, it refers to the physiological changes in the brain that happen as a result of interactions with our environment. Or, as I explain it to my five year old, “What you put into your brain changes your brain.” If you put TV into your brain every day, it changes your brain. If you put outdoor play or books into your brain, it changes your brain in a different way.
I think the same is true of our hearts. What we take into our heart changes us. So why shouldn’t we be thoughtful about what we let in?
I recently had an experience where I was worried that someone had walked away from an interaction with a negative perception of me. When I was telling a friend about it, she suggested that I could reach out to the person if it was something was bothering me. I thought about it for a minute and then decided against it.
I knew in my heart that I had been authentic in the situation, that I hadn’t been trying to be offensive or hurtful, and that this person’s opinion of me had as much to do with how they were feeling at the time as it did with how I was. I took the opportunity to reflect on the way I wanted to be in the future, and then I chose to not take the negativity or disappointment into my heart. Rather than try to change their perception or change who I was, I simply let it go.
I still take into consideration how others perceive me. But I’ve given myself permission to be selective about what I let change me. I stopped letting everyone onto my advisory council.
Because in the end, I get to choose which opinions I want to believe. I get to choose what I let into my heart, just like I choose the food I put into my body or the entertainment I put into my brain. And just as I choose things that nourish my body and my brain, I will choose the things that nourish my heart.
And let the rest go.