I was at an electronics store recently looking at various tablets and wondering when I would take the plunge to make a purchase. While I was experimenting with one I turned on the front-facing camera and was a bit stunned at the image that came up on the screen. My head was tilted forward and looking down at the screen, so there were a few more wrinkles and folds in the neck and lower part of my face than I think of myself having. I quickly decided the other camera facing away had a more palatable view.
Likewise, I’ve caught myself glancing in the reflection of store windows as I walk down the street, quite unimpressed with said reflection. Why? I just don’t feel as old as I look.
I’m 54. I expect and hope to be around a few more decades. In fact, I want one of the best 100th birthday parties ever 46 years from now. Then I’ll be ready to move on to bigger and better things. Meanwhile, however, I am becoming more and more aware of the disconnect between what the body says and what the heart, soul and mind feel, think and believe.
In terms of spirit, attitude, sense of humor, purpose, love for life and meaningful relationships, I feel like I’m decades younger than the body indicates. That’s a good place to be inwardly, but not a state that is readily visible to others.
A few times in recent weeks as I’ve walked my dog I’ve had cars of young teens drive by where one or more of them lean out a window as they pass me and yell something to mock or try to startle me. It doesn’t startle me, but it does sadden me because I know that they are making a fleeting, incorrect judgment about who I am based on the aging exterior they see as they pass. When that happens, I think “if only they knew the real me, they might not be so mean and disrespectful.” As one who has never had to endure much discrimination, I am aware of the beginnings of age discrimination. It’s not pleasant.
I’ll deal with the realities of an aging body. It is what it is and I won’t try anything cosmetic or artificial to change that. I’m usually comfortable in my own skin.
But the gap between how I think of myself and what others see makes me wonder about other arenas where this phenomenon also applies:
- How many businesses think of themselves as kind, friendly, focused on customer service or quality products, only to actually be viewed by the public quite differently?
- How many corporate executives believe they are providing a positive, healthy atmosphere for employees when in fact a majority of employees would paint a different picture?
- How many leaders perceive themselves to be providing meaningful, exemplary leadership when they actually provide more of an example of how not to lead?
- How many neighbors’ polite smiles fail to communicate the neighborliness they intend?
- How many social organizations think they are welcoming and friendly when in fact they are closed communities very hard to break into?
- How many educators say they are focused on the needs of the learner, but fail to actually interact with those learners enough to really understand them or their needs?
You get the picture. You can add your own examples to the list.
I’m not expecting behaviors like prejudice and discrimination to go away. Humans would have to shed a nature predisposed to such things in order to put those behind (although education and a personal commitment to change is certainly possible at the individual level).
But there must be ways to close that gap between how we perceive ourselves and how others see us. What can we do to that end?
- First, we need to take the time to communicate at more than a superficial level. I realize none of us has time to do that with everyone we work with, live near, pass by or have some tangential relationship with day by day. However, we have plenty of ways to communicate privately and publicly that reveal more of who we are on the inside. We should take advantage of those opportunities. We should especially seek out deeper experiences with those about whom we tend to make the harshest assumptions after only limited direct experience. Knowing more of their story may change our understanding significantly.
- Second, we need to call out those times when others perceive us incorrectly. We often hear the phrase “perception is reality,” but perceptions can change with additional experience and information.
- Third, we need to be open to the possibility that there are times when others are correct about us and that we are the ones with the incorrect understanding of ourselves. That’s a tougher one to swallow, but we need it brought to our attention when our words, actions, body language, etc. speak a different message than what our minds think we are saying. Someone who points this out to you is a bold ally. Listen to him.
In a transient, fast-paced life, the risk of making inaccurate first impressions is great. The potential for harm done because of those misconceptions is even greater. We can make our personal and professional lives a little better by taking time to go beyond the surface and seeking to know the real person on the inside.
So who is that old guy in my mirror? He’s a wiser version of the 20-something guy from a few decades back. You should get to know him. He welcomes the opportunity.