There’s a world of difference in how we see ourselves and how others see us.
I’ve often been described as intense. I’m the kind of person who tends to come on too strong and speak (or write) too forcefully. Sometimes it’s considered a good thing, and I’m perceived as confident. Other times and with other people, I might pass for conceited. And there are a few who think I’m just a con man and it’s all an act. It’s a thin line and it all depends who’s on the receiving end.
But it’s (mostly) neither confidence or conceit.
I remember the first time, many years ago, when I realised a work colleague saw me as a threat. This was someone I took as a friend and held in esteem and imagined felt mutually about me. But gradually I realised she would undermine me in front of others. Sometimes I would try to defend myself, but often I was too surprised to respond. We continued to relate but things were rather more civil, but occasionally we would have some real talk.
It was during one of those real talk time (about something else I do not now recall), that it came out. Somehow the conversation got around to earlier in our time working together and she admitted she had found herself feeling like she had to prove herself because of the confidence with which I tended to speak. It was in that moment the past few months became clear to me. Without my knowing it, being around me had make her feel inadequate—and she had pushed back by trying to show me (and others) that she was more adequate than I was.
I’d been the unwitting villain in someone else’s story.
It was quite the shock.
It’s a critical point in human development when we come to understand that other people can and do see things—including us—very much different from how we do. But every now and then we come up against the reality of what it is people see and we’re taken aback. Imagine what it was like for the first person who looked in a pool of water and saw the face everyone else always saw. And consider, closer to home, how people often respond to a recording of their own voice with surprise and protest that it sounds nothing like them.
I recently encountered this while helping put together a video for work. We asked participants if they would like to see some of the footage. I hadn’t expected the nos to be so firm but I understood why. When you speak, you hear your voice not only through your eardrum (which is how others hear it) but also through the vibrations in your skull from your vocal chords. Your own personal subwoofers, so to speak—pun intended! But when you listen to a recording of your voice, you hear—like everyone else—your voice without the “subwoofers”. And that feels unnerving because it sounds higher pitched than you expect.
The technical term in psychology for this ability to see reality as another person would is “theory of mind”. It’s what helps uss bridge the gap between how we see things and how others do, and is something people with conditions like autism struggle with.
An example of a test for it, which 3-year-olds tend to fail but 4-year-olds pass is one in which children are shown a picture of a child leaving candy on a table and walking out of a room. Another child then comes in and puts the candy in a box and the child doing the test is asked to guess where the first child will look for the chocolate when she gets back. A child lacking well-developed theory of mind will struggle to understand that the first child will expect the candy to still be on the table. Because they already know the candy is in a box, they would simply assume the child who went out knows that too.
But while any normally developing person will have theory of mind by age 4 we will all still spend our lives coming to terms with how differently others see things, and especially, see us. And all the more so in our globalised world in which “others” is any one of 7 billion people. Which means even now, we are surprised to look in a mirror and see the face and body others do. Or we are nonplussed to hear the sound of our own voices as everyone else hears them. And we become perplexed to be considered intimidating.
I know I was.
The fact was I’d been terribly shy growing up. I still remember the first time I worked up courage just to talk to a girl I’d never met because if I couldn’t do it on the last day of a weeklong summer camp, then when would I ever? In my final year of university I’d pushed myself to answer questions in class because if I couldn’t speak up among the people I’d spent all of medical school with, when would I ever find the nerve? And what looks like confidence is really because after decades of continually second-guessing myself, I’ve learned to just act or speak and work it out from there, or I’ll never get going.
And yet I’ve had to relearn it all over again since moving to the UK and being described as intimidating while trying to clarify something on a phone conversation and realising what I understood as normal for the metropolis that is Lagos, Nigeria comes across forceful here.
I have no wish to be the villain in anyone else’s story because I’m too busy trying not to be the villain in my own.
I’m also realistic enough to accept that it can’t be helped. Simply existing makes each one of us potentially someone’s villain. And although realising that is far more unnerving than hearing your voice sounding weird on a recording, we can learn from that too. You don’t have to stop recording because your voice sounds different. Nor does accepting that’s just how your voice sounds mean you don’t have to improve anything.
There is a world of difference in how we see ourselves and how others see us, but we don’t have to pick one or the other. We can learn to see both, and like the best singers, to know what the song of our lives sounds like to us and to others and to sing with ever clearer intentions and deeper meaning.