As some of my friends may or may not know, I’m a big fan of reading about psychology. I’m smart enough to know that I know absolutely nothing about it, but dumb enough to try and understand it anyway.
One of the things I’m fascinated by is the concept that others may know you better than you know yourself. A few studies (update: one of my favorite articles on the subject) have shown that people who perceive you are better at knowing what your traits are than you are capable of knowing yourself. So if your friends tell you you’re smart, you probably are. If they tell you you’re a dick, you probably are that, too.
But I also believe that the “self” is not some intransient thing that exists unto itself. We are not the same persons from one instant to the next. We change, even if we can’t notice it ourselves. I know I’ve sensed my own lack of control over who I am many times — I’m in the company of someone, and their opinion of who I am is something other than what I would like to be or think I am, and while it makes me very uncomfortable, I find it to be inescapable. Until I do something that changes their opinion of me, the reaction to me will continue to be the same, and therefore, who I am when I’m around them will be the same, too.
Having moved to an entirely new town where nobody knows me, it’s been interesting to see how different I am here than I’ve been other places. Just in the past few weeks, most people have enjoyed meeting me, and when they see me, they’re happy I’m there. Sure, there’s been the initial wariness of a stranger in the midst of close-knit folks, but it has been easy to start fitting in (at least somewhat; people are people wherever you go) and people smile and wave now where they didn’t before. There are even people calling my managers in other places and spreading word of how well-liked I am. And I noticed the other night that I’m very happy right now. I feel like a good, solid person who is liked. I can’t help but attribute this to the fact that I am treated by others like a good, solid person who is well-liked.
A friend of mine in high school once said that he wished he could only know people for two weeks, because once you know someone longer than that, you start to dislike each other. I’ve seen that happen in my life, too. I find that even I like my own company when I’m around people who hardly know me. I’m funny, and kind, and interesting. After two weeks, the glow from the newness wears off, and whatever other traits I have — many of which are not positive — have come out, and reactions to me often change.
Certainly, most feelings of self-doubt are self-imposed, and I’m as wrought with the questions of my own character as any other introspective person can be. To some extent, I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop; the day will come when I do something people here don’t like, whether it’s in my job or my personal life, because it’s inevitable. And then how will I feel about myself? I try to keep a steady eye on it, and balance changing my behavior to get a positive reaction with doing what I need to do and believe is right.
But it’s also interesting to watch this phenomenon in other people. Because this is such a small town, everyone knows everyone else. I get “warned” about people all the time — and usually the first person who warns me about someone is the next person I’m warned about. Still, there are some people I get warned about more than others, and it’s rather obvious what the majority opinion is; you can see it plainly on peoples’ faces when they interact with each other.
What is fascinating to me is the blindness of some people to see how their behavior is coming across. I’ve seen people react extremely negatively to certain behaviors in another person, and the actor will continue to behave in exactly the same way, time after time, in spite of the fact that they need the other person to do something for them. Isn’t it wise to take into account how people are reacting to you and, if you don’t like the reaction, change your actions until you get a more favorable reaction? There are habits, surely, that we all fall into, and those are somewhat excusable. But in a small town, isn’t it better to make peace with the neighbors, and learn to do what you need using their methods, than to be condescending and rigid in your ways?
Most people know that if you want to get things done, you have to get people on your side. Most people are extremely good at this, and it comes naturally as social creatures. Even my friends who consider themselves hermits are very capable of interacting without making others angry. Think of the people you know who are likeable or that you can get along with. They probably outnumber the people you can’t. It’s so baffling to me when people can’t change their behaviors even in slight ways to make things happen. And yet I’m watching it happen; there are people who are new to the town who will not ever be able to get a single thing done because their initial impression was so disastrously bad, and they can’t seem to do anything to make up for it.
In any case, I’m trying very hard to keep the honeymoon of newness lasting. I’m enjoying the time without my usual demons; I’m sure the people I’m working with are happy those demons haven’t shown their faces yet, too.
Ask me in a month how I’m feeling about myself, and we’ll see if the other shoe has dropped.