It can still disconcert me, the degree to which other people’s perceptions of me can be so very much at odds with my understanding of myself. I phrase it like that because I feel that many years of therapy and acquired introspection have gotten my self-perception a lot more accurate – for certain values of accurate.
There was the moment in college, for instance, when I was reading something that listed common characteristics of certain kinds of people, and (as one does) even though I wasn’t sure I thought I was one of those kinds of people, I still ran over it checking myself off against the list. At the bottom of the page was the trait, “Perfectionism,” and I remember just being very amused as I turned the page, thinking – good-humoredly – “It’s a good thing I’m NOT a perfectionist. I never get anything right!” And then about five seconds later this replayed itself in my head, and I had to put the book down and laugh and laugh.
Moments like that one, coming at odd intervals in daily life, in strange sudden rushes in therapy, and through steady useful work in a good relationship with my partner have, I think, gotten me to the point where my self-perception is reasonably accurate. It is, as my partner says like a mantra sometimes, a process.
Some things are easy. I know that I appear to be an extrovert, so much so even when I tell people that I’m not, they often have difficulty believing it. I understand that. They see me in a classroom, stretched out comfortably in my chair, talking about the material frequently, expressively, enthusiastically, and apparently with expansive ease. They see me starting conversations with strangers and near-strangers, engaged and interested. They see me projecting confidence in my opinions and my ability to express them.
It’s not that those things aren’t true. They are true. It’s also true that after almost every such interaction, I need to spend a little while locked into a bathroom cubicle or hiding somewhere out of sight while the fever in my face ebbs, the silence seeps back, my breathing steadies, and my pulse slows. They don’t see how after a day at work – during which I appear energetic and capable from beginning to end – I come home and have trouble even eating before I go straight to sleep because spending 8-9 hours constantly in the presence of other people exhausts me.
But there are other things I get tiny glimpses of out of other people’s eyes that just bewilder me. It confuses me that sometimes when I’m at my most anxious, fumbling, rushing words and then stopping abruptly, and then rushing again, hyper-aware of tone of voice and other nonverbals and yet unable to adjust myself in response to them at the moment, jittery and spiking with adrenaline, other people can see over-confidence and self-absorption. I hope I’m not self-absorbed. I spend enough time pondering and mentally deconstructing other people’s behavior that I don’t think I am. I know I’m not over-confident.
On the flip side, there are people who see me as “cool”. I’ve never been cool in my life. I’m abysmal when it comes to pop culture, I’m an acknowledged geek, I was a social pariah for most of my youth, sometimes for good reason, sometimes because children (and not just children) can be mean.
It baffles me that the one thing everyone seems to agree on – and this has been true since I was a small child – is my intelligence. I suppose I am intelligent. To be honest, I take it for granted that I, my family, my friends, and most of the people I know are very bright, and I neither know nor care who is smarter than whom. I’m more interested in the different ways intelligence works – the way, for instance, my friend and I can both be smart and good in school, but she’s good in school because she’s a true scholar, does all the reading, and pursues her studies with a methodical and focused mind, while I’m good in school because my thoughts dart out in all directions, drawing improbable connections and tracing out their implications to resolve into an insight into the original topic; while I rarely manage to complete the reading, I grasp ideas and synthesize information quickly, and I’m articulate in classroom discussions where I’m able to participate by helping to integrate what other people are saying about the material, even if I haven’t read it myself. She writes good research papers. I write good essays. She’s not comfortable with a paper that doesn’t have a rock-solid foundation. I’m not comfortable with a paper that doesn’t include original thinking on my part. Which of us is smarter? Who knows? Who cares? I admire her, though I’m not trying to imitate her.
And yet, the (I’m not bragging, I’m baffled) near-universal focus on my intelligence is also bizarre to me. Multiple learning disabilities interfere with my ability to “show what I know” effectively a lot of the time. Moreover, I’m dissociative. I have what I sometimes call “DID-lite” – I do meet the diagnostic criteria for Dissociative Identity Disorder, but not severely. I don’t lose time in the traditional sense, and at least at the time, all of me tends to be aware of what any of me are doing or saying. But I can vouch that there are some of me – some parts, some voices, some modes I shift through – that aren’t especially intelligent at all. Some of them are non-verbal. Some of them are very young. Some of them are damaged.
In fact, the dissociation is profoundly useful in my line of work. It means I can partition well. I can deal with someone telling me a terrible – and for me, terribly triggering – history of childhood abuse, and simply take in the information with attention and respond appropriately. Later on, I may freak the hell out, but only when I can afford to. I can deal with being assaulted three times in a day, and not fall apart until after I’ve gotten home. (Though I like to hope that, when I’m a licensed counselor, the number of expected assaults will go down.) There was a time when I feared that I had too many issues of my own ever to be able to help others. Now, while I know I need to be in therapy, myself, and there are certain kinds of supports I need to build into my life, I can also find the strengths in some of my ‘issues’.
But the dissociation heightens the mismatch between outside perceptions and my internal understanding of myself, because very few of those different modes I have get public airtime. So people see what is only really a narrow slice of my personality, a few sides of me when there are so many more that can sometimes be entirely at odds with the public self, and they extrapolate reasonably from what they see.
And here’s another thing. I talk about myself. In things like this blog, I talk about myself because I find introspection useful, and getting it down in print doubly so. But in a blog and out, I often talk about myself because that’s all I feel I have a right to talk about. Someone says to me that they’re having trouble with X, and I have a few options. If they just need to express their experience and be heard, I can listen supportively, use reflective statements, show that I am attentive. That’s fine. But if we get into problem-solving mode, or if for some reason something more than taking an interest and witnessing is called-for, then I’m likely to say something like, “Well, I know that when I was a teenager and I did something like that, what was going on for me was–” or, “I’ve tried such-and-such” because saying, “I bet your teenager is feeling X or trying to do Y,” or “You should try such-and-such” seems rude to me. It’s for my conversational partner, not me, to decide how much of my experience applies to them and theirs.
One of my favorite quotes from Ursula K. Le Guin, from her 1986 Commencement Address at Bryn Mawr College (in Dancing at the Edge of the World) is about the way she and several of her colleagues were getting into a vigorous highly intellectual, highly theoretical debate, each trying to prove her point more conclusively, until the composer Pauline Oliveros derailed them completely by telling them, “Offer your experience as your truth.” I love that, and have internalized it deeply. I feel like only talking about my own experience and not trying to generalize is a courtesy I offer. And then, sometimes (but not always, which is what’s so confusing) I run into people who feel that talking about oneself and saying “I” all the time demonstrates egotism and narcissism and uncaring. And then we all get our feelings profoundly hurt, and we all go away feeling bitter and, which may be worse, unheard.
Oddly, this isn’t a problem when I’m in a counseling relationship with someone. The dynamics of the relationship and the professional boundaries are starkly different. I virtually never talk about myself at all with a client, or even with coworkers. (Which leads to another mismatch of perception, because I know how much I’m not talking about, but they often don’t. So they don’t have any way of guessing that I’m actually a rather private person – which I am, even when I’m talking about myself. I pick and choose far more than it may seem – for instance, I didn’t mention that my scholarly friend whom I admire is my post-acrimonious-breakup ex – which may or may not change the impact of the example.) The kind of counseling I’m being trained to do is ‘client-centered’ and ‘humanistic’, and to an extent, though not exclusively, Rogerian, all of which means I’m going to say, “So you’re really feeling frustrated about that,” not, “I know that when something like that happened to me, I felt frustrated.” And to an extent I can do that in casual conversation with peers, too, but there’s a limit to how much ‘It sounds like–‘ I can do in conversation before people accuse me, not unreasonably, of acting like I’m their therapist rather than their friend.
Some of the mismatch hurts my feelings. Some of it frustrates me (please believe that I know what I’m talking about, when I tell you I’m an introvert with social anxieties), and some of it startles and bemuses me. Some of it comes from the fact that they’ve never seen me when I’m feeling five and drawing a picture with about a five-year-old’s level of skill and only able to express myself with about a five-year-old’s vocabulary. Some of it’s because I am a bit private, and choose what I want to share with some deliberation. The thing is, it all adds up. My sixty-something instructor in the jewelry-making class I’m taking thought I was in my twenties. (I’m 44, and have quite a lot of white hairs sprinkled through the brown, by now.) I can’t even begin to understand what cues she was relying on, any more than I could understand, many years ago, what it was about me that caused small children to be uncertain about my gender, when to adult eyes, it was wholly unambiguous.* And…it’s not a problem, usually. But it does sometimes make me feel odd.
* I did, eventually, get at least a possible answer, which interested me greatly, but that – as it says in the Never-Ending Story – is another story, and will be told at another time.