Feeling misunderstood is one of life’s most difficult experiences. It’s human nature to want to know and be known by another person. After all, there is no true love without a true knowing. So when somebody thinks they have us “all figured out,” and we feel their assessment is wrong, it’s painful.
Attempting to escape from the box someone has put us in is even more painful.
What most of us don’t realize is that it’s also futile.
Once, when I was in a relationship with a guy I really liked, I was going through a tough time at work. When he asked me how I was doing, I answered honestly, opening up about my struggles. He was a great listener, and always heard me out without judgment.
Or so I thought.
One day, months into our relationship, he announced that he thought I was “too negative” and that he wasn’t sure about the future of our relationship because I was always dragging him down. This was news to me! I had to take a while just to absorb the fact that all that time, he’d been secretly resenting listening to me.
I objected strenuously to his assessment. I told him he had it wrong, that I wasn’t an inherently negative person, and that I was just going through a tough time and needed his support. But it didn’t work. He argued back: no, I really was a fundamentally negative person and he didn’t think I’d ever change.
I felt so helpless and sad. The guy I cared for so much didn’t understand me at all. As the relationship progressed, I felt myself bending and twisting to try to disprove his judgment. Our phone conversations started to go something like this:
Him: “How was your day?”
Me: [Thinks frantically about how to sugarcoat the fact that a coworker yelled at me, and my cat threw up on my roommate’s favorite blanket while she was out of town…darn! I’m pretty good at messaging things out in writing, but when I’m put on the spot, it’s hard.] “Um…” [Must not seem too negative! Unicorns and rainbows! Happy times!]
Him: “Are you there?”
Me: “What? Oh, yeah.” [Forces an upbeat tone so fake it doesn’t even fool me] “Uh, it was great! Just great! Corner Bakery was giving away free cookies at lunch!”
It was useless. Shortly thereafter, he ended our relationship, citing the same reason: I was “too negative.”
Something similar happened to me at one of my first jobs after college. I was hired to get a project set up and running. There were no policies or procedures, and the computer systems for data housing had just been upgraded. Most of my time was devoted to figuring out how everything worked, and setting up protocols for the whole company to use. It was very tough work. There were some people I could ask for help and insight, but when it came to that particular project, I was the most knowledgeable person in the office.
Practically from day one, I got the sense that one of my coworkers had some sort of problem with me. Whenever I passed by her office, I’d hear her whispering with others, and the whispering would stop if they noticed me. When it was my turn to speak in department meetings, she stared off into space. I wasn’t sure if I was imagining things, so I racked my brain trying to think of what I might have done to upset her. Had I let it slip at lunch that I thought reality TV shows were dumb? Or that I didn’t think Justin Timberlake was “all that?” (Wait…was she even the one who liked him?)
I couldn’t think of anything, and I continued to treat her with as much respect as I could.
Finally, one day, she marched into my office and accused me of treating her “like a subordinate.” She said I never shared information with her about how we did things. I remember being floored, and stammering, “How could you possibly think that I’m keeping things from you? I’m trying so hard to figure out how everything works. When I figure things out, I pass the information on. If you don’t know something, it’s because I don’t know it yet!”
She wasn’t buying it. She cited several examples of situations where she felt certain that I had to be keeping things from her, because she knew that I had certain information and wasn’t sharing it. Again I tried to defend myself, without success. The accusations just kept flowing. I apologized several times for anything I might have done to cause this impression, and tried to reassure her. Finally she left my office, considerably calmer than when she’d entered.
It didn’t last long, though. More passive-aggressive comments and accusations followed in the weeks afterward. I felt trapped in a vortex of drama, where she was writing the script of my life, and I was cast in a leading role that I’d never wanted: a cunning, uppity manipulator who was out to sabotage my coworkers’ chances for success. And while at times the situation seemed to improve, she always seemed to backslide into the same behavior eventually. The drama didn’t end until the day I walked out the door and left that job for good.
From those two experiences, and many others like them, I learned that trying to “set the record straight” with such a person almost never works. What I didn’t learn until much later was why.
I now understand that people who routinely jump to negative conclusions about others’ motives, personalities, and beliefs are lacking in the character department. Their behavior signals a much deeper problem. Character is a person’s fundamental stance toward life. Do they view others as more important than themselves, or vice versa? It really is that simple. Of course there is a wide spectrum, but if we could imagine a scale with “self-focused” on one side and “other-focused” on the other, most people would lean pretty clearly one way or the other.
People on the “self-focused” side tend to take many things personally. When they observe others’ behavior, they ask themselves, “Are they trying to help me or hurt me?” They don’t realize that most of the time, other people really aren’t thinking much about them at all – either positively or negatively. They’re just trying to live life as best they can.
Conversely, those on the “other-focused” side are usually so busy trying to create value and improve themselves that they don’t have time to hunt around for things to criticize or misinterpret about others. People of character are truth-seekers, and they don’t assume they have a monopoly on the truth. When it comes to assessing others’ motivations, they take a generous perspective unless there is a compelling reason not to. (I like to call this the Presumption of Goodwill.)
So what can you do when someone gets the wrong idea about you?
Well, if your goal is to change their mind, you can do very little. As I’ve said before, trying to transform a person of weak character into a person of strong character simply does not work. If you say anything at all to such a person, make it something like “I’m sorry – that wasn’t my intention,” and let that be it. Be sincere, but don’t try to convince them they’re wrong.
What you can do is work at changing your own perspective. You can recognize that their tendency to mistrust and assume the worst is not personal to you. It’s part of their fundamental belief system. It’s how they view the world.
Now that I’m a writer who regularly makes her ideas and experiences public, I seem to encounter these kinds of people more than ever. Below are a few mantras that I’ve used to help retrain my thoughts. You can use them too. Read them, repeat them, and post them somewhere you’ll look often.
- “While I feel that this person’s perception of me is inaccurate, it’s real and true to them. I accept that, and I won’t argue with it.”
- “I will constantly work at being the best, most loving person I can be. That’s what I can control. I can’t control what others think of me.”
- “People of solid character won’t jump to conclusions about me, and they’ll give me the benefit of the doubt. If somebody isn’t capable of that, it’s probably a sign that I shouldn’t get too close to them anyway.”
And if you’re a person of faith, as I am, you can also ask God to help you see others the way He does. I’ve found that this simple prayer can produce a remarkable mindset shift over time.
Is there somebody in your life who currently has the wrong idea about you? Can you use these strategies to start letting go of that?
About the Author
Eleanore Strong is a writer who is passionate about helping people to choose good relationships and avoid bad ones. Learn more about her, and download her free cheat sheet “10 Classy Ways to Say No,” at www.eleanorestrong.com.