Perception and reality almost never match. We feel it when we’re misinterpreted, criticized, unfairly judged. We are less likely to feel it, or even know about it, when we misinterpret, criticize, or unfairly judge others. We’re so sure that their motives are different than ours would have been in the same situation. We were constrained by the situation, while they did it on purpose. (It’s called the fundamental attribution error). It’s even worse when all we have to go on is appearance. How can we figure out how to react to strangers, based only on their clothes, facial expressions, and body language? The good news in all of this is that we can choose different ways of presenting ourselves, and when we meet new people, they won’t know otherwise.
I’m trying to get over my fear of public speaking this year. At first, all I wanted to talk about was how nervous I felt. I was so overcome by this uncontrolled physiological reaction. I felt like I needed to explain why my legs were shaking, my hands were shaking, my face was turning red, and my voice was constricting. Two things happened. First, I kept getting feedback that if I hadn’t said anything, nobody would have been able to tell that I was nervous. At all! Really?? How was that even possible??
Second, I met more people in the club who told me that they felt the exact same way when they started. Some still did. They all seemed cool and confident up there. This matched stories I have heard about celebrities who throw up before every performance out of sheer dread. Feeling the physically nervous sensation isn’t fatal; it’s just something to plan around. It’s already getting easier. I don’t clutch the podium anymore. I’ve decided to stop talking about how nervous I feel and just shut the door on that. It doesn’t interest anyone except me. Nobody can tell.
Another thing I have learned through being in a public speaking club is that ordinary people have absolutely astonishing stories. One survived fourth-stage cancer and multiple brain surgeries. Two were given university educations by parents who were uneducated farmers. One runs an arts organization in an agricultural community. Every single person has the kind of life story that could be turned into the movie of the week. When they drive around town or stand in line, none of that is visible. We never realize how amazing people are when we cut them off, interrupt them, or take the things they say personally. None of us go around wearing signs that list off our good deeds, our sacrifices, our struggles. As a result, all of us feel bereft of consideration and compassion. We want it, yet it’s so hard to give it out in the same proportion we wish to receive.
When I was ill, I felt that I had to carefully, painstakingly tutor everyone I met in how my illness worked. These days, we talk about how many spoons we have. I needed people to know that I had a limited capacity. What I also had was a limited capacity to listen. Generally, I was not the worst-off person in the room. I watched what this looked like several years later, when two acquaintances met for the first time. The one wanted to talk about her chronic fatigue. The other countered that she had an appointment with her oncologist the following week. This is what we do. We start this lose-lose competition, one-upping each other over who has the hardest time in life. I’ve heard the same thing in conversations over who had the most deprived childhood. When my husband and I met, we had a bit of that about which of us had the worst divorce. We all carry our own burden of pain and confusion. What happened? Why did it happen to me? How do we make sense of suffering? How can we manage under all the excessive expectations of the world? We want to make sure everyone knows how things are for us. We never know all the times the people around us have refrained from telling their own stories, from upstaging us with their scars and disasters.
Nobody can tell. Nobody can tell how much patience and kindness we have to exude, unless they catch us in the act. Nobody can tell how many times we’ve reached out to be there for someone who needs us, unless we do it for them. Nobody can tell how much love we have in our hearts unless we demonstrate it. Nobody can tell during the ordinary moments when we look stressed out and distracted. Nobody can see through our bad moods. Generally, nobody is going to give us the benefit of the doubt, even if we’ve worked hard to give that benefit to others. We become suspicious and stingy when we could be open and generous.
Underneath my exterior, I feel like a scruffy ragamuffin. When people casually glance at me, I feel like I’m 12 years old and they’re getting ready to rip my Halloween costume, throw rocks at me, or take turns spitting in my drink. I walk into a room with my chin up and my shoulders back. I fake the confidence I rarely feel. Nobody can tell. I wear a size zero, and nobody can tell I used to be obese unless my stretch marks are showing. All I have to show is my outer appearance and my smile, or lack thereof. Nothing about me shows my personal history. Sometimes, my appearance even disguises my attitude, as I’m prone to a serious expression that doesn’t match how I feel. The only time anyone can tell anything about the person I am is when I’m doing my best to listen. Hopefully I look as open and alert as I feel. Probably I don’t. Unless I communicate it well, nobody can tell.
What if we could only activate the best in others through pronounced courtesy? What if everyone had a level we never saw, that could be brought out only by a level of profound consideration that we never show? What if we really did get back only what we gave out? What if every interaction we had was first shaped by our attitudes and expressions? I wonder this when I see pictures of my thinking face, my reading face, or my listening face. Why can’t I successfully look the way I feel on the inside? What if nobody ever does? Whatever is going on behind most people’s faces, inside most people’s hearts, is a mystery. Nobody can tell.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.