I’m not who you think I am. And – quite possibly – you’re not who I think you are. It’s a delusion to think anybody genuinely knows us, and when faced with evidence telling a tale different to the one we believe, the ramifications can be genuinely distressing.
In my recent overseas adventures we stayed in a large assortment of accommodations through airbnb and hotel sites. As is common practice, at the end of each stay, we left mutual reviews. In one such stay we were dreadfully misunderstood. False allegations were made, extra monies charged, and our characters denigrated in the process. It’s an ugly feeling. And it’s shocking. What do you do in that circumstance? The more you argue back, the worse you look. Once an allegation is made arguing the point seems to solidify the assumption. It’s impossible to defend yourself because your opinion is intrinsically biased and the accuser has made up their mind, not to be altered. In the end we made a collective decision to ignore the public rant vilifying our character – to take the high moral ground and let the ugly words speak for themselves and not engage in a tit-for-tat, she-said they-said scenario. It’s disappointing and hurtful to have your character maligned, but by ignoring the rant, the episode is history and we move on – hopefully forgetting all about it as time goes by.
A single moment of misunderstanding is so poisonous, that it makes us forget the hundred lovable moments spent together within a minute.
Being misunderstood and vilified by a complete stranger is one thing, but when it happens in a close relationship the distress is significantly worse. It’s rarely a case of right or wrong. Both sides of a debate can be deemed right – or wrong – at any given moment. Our world is not easily divided into two categories – it’s full of opinion. We’re all full of opinion. Ice cream is tastier than chocolate. Summer is better than winter. Cats are cuddlier than dogs. Opinions. All subjective, personal statements. But if we move to the big taboo topics of politics, religion and social issues, subjective personal statements become fodder for character maligning. We want our friends to share our major belief systems – it’s easier when we all agree on everything. But it also robs us of the opportunity to learn how alternate viewpoints are formed and maintained.
There are certain personal moral standards that are no-go areas in my friendships. I can’t in good conscience condone rape, murder, violence or pedophilia, and I expect my friendship groups to hold to those same standards. They’re not open to interpretation. I can look with empathy at forces that shape a rapist, but the crime will never be tolerable in my eyes. Most other topics however, I’m keen to know more about all aspects of the debate as it makes my own understanding of an issue more rounded. Robust debate is healthy and interesting if it remains devoid of personal jibes and mud slinging.
I have in the past, lost a good friend because I made one loose (inappropriate) comment, which she then used to make a string of false assumptions about me. After several years of friendship, she quite simply never spoke to me again, refusing to let me apologise or explain. I was devastated and so angry with myself. I was consumed with shame at my comment and the consequences it reaped, and I told no-one. I felt like a failure as a friend and a human. It consolidated my belief that socially I’m inept and not worthy of being a part of society. As time passed, I became more hurt than ashamed. Did our friendship mean so little that one mistake and I was out? Had I read our relationship so badly? Were we ever friends at all? As it was over a decade ago and she’s never spoken to me since, I don’t know the answers, but I eventually let it go.
Being misunderstood by people whose opinion you value is absolutely the most painful.
As someone who wanders around with varying levels of anxiety at any given moment, feeling misunderstood, character maligned, or rejected is a really big deal. I am by nature an internaliser – meaning my response to any kind of conflict is to blame myself for everything that ensues. I take emotional pain inside and stash it away. I know it’s unhealthy, but I instinctively behave that way regardless. I learn time and again that to defend myself or viewpoint only ever leads to more hurt. It feels safer to stand frozen to the spot with accusations raining down around my ears, than to speak up and offer a tentative explanation.
I’m not all meek and mild mannered. I enter into discourse and offer my views – be they in agreeance or polar opposite. But the moment the air starts heating up, I look for an escape route. I lack the courage and fortitude to stay the distance. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in 50 years, it’s arguing with someone never – ever – changes their viewpoint. So why bother? Discussing differing views so both parties develop an understanding of the other is a wonderful experience. But entering into a discussion for the sole purpose of changing someone’s opinion is pointless, distressing, and damaging. Shoving my opinion down someone’s throat – with a few personal insults thrown in for good measure – is not robust debate. But the fine line can be difficult to tread and at the end of the day, one has to consider if opinion is worth more than friendship.
I’m not who you think I am. You’re not who I think you are. We are both so much more than perception and we are all misunderstood – sooner or later.