The ordeal of being known

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to attend a book signing at BYU’s Women’s Conference. While there, I ran into an old high school friend, someone I haven’t seen for a decade or more. I remember her as being cute, fun, spontaneous, and energetic: the kind of person you want to be around because she always makes you feel better about yourself. But as we talked, it became clear to me that the image I had of her did not match the image she had of herself. Despite being a capable mother and a beautiful person, she thought less of herself (and believed others thought less of her) because of circumstances that prevented her from finishing a college degree.

I told her: finishing a degree doesn’t guarantee intelligence (in fact, it’s often more a factor of some luck and persistence). I know highly articulate people with no degree, and I know PhD’s who aren’t particularly smart or articulate. I reminded her that she has other gifts, including a gift for empathy that I wish I had.

I tried to tell her: don’t worry about what other people think of you. The people who love you, the ones who know you best, don’t care about your self-perceived flaws.

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But the truth is, even this is a little disingenuous. Studies suggest that how we think others see us reinforces our own self-perception. And most of us care—at least a little—what others think of us. I know I do.

But here’s something else I know: When we make the decision to be in the world, to make friends, to fall in love, we throw ourselves on the generosity of others—to believe in their capacity to see our faults and love us anyway. Tim Kreider wrote recently for The New York Times that

 

We don’t give other people credit for the same interior complexity we take for granted in ourselves, the same capacity for holding contradictory feelings in balance, for complexly alloyed affections, for bottomless generosity of heart and petty, capricious malice. We can’t believe that anyone could be unkind to us and still be genuinely fond of us, although we do it all the time. . . .  [But] if we want the rewards of being loved we have to submit to the mortifying ordeal of being known.

Submitting ourselves to others for public scrutiny is an agonizing process, but we can’t live in the world without doing so. We can’t engage in intimate relationships without opening ourselves up to being known in both our strengths and imperfections. For most of us, this process also means trying to anticipate what others think of us. Carlin Flora writes, “The ability to intuit how people see us is what enables us to authentically connect to others and to reap the deep satisfaction that comes with those ties.”

I wish my friend cared less about what people think of her; for that matter, I wish I cared less about what people thought of me. And I wish I’d handled things differently with my friend. I wish that, instead of offering reasons and rationales, I’d simply put my arms around her and told her I loved her. Because isn’t that what most of us want? To be loved? And the reason we care what people think of us is because we’re afraid that our flaws make us unlovable.

What other people think of us does matter. Luckily, it’s not the whole equation. The arithmetic that makes us so uncomfortable when dealing with other, imperfect people (that the more we open up, the more we expose our weaknesses, and the more we risk in rejection) becomes something profound in God’s hands. Because God sees us fully, the more we open up to Him, the more capable he is of transforming our weaknesses.

And he loves us anyway.

 

 

About Rosalyn

(Prose Board) currently lives in Southern Utah with her husband and three small children, where she teaches writing part-time at the local university. She has a BA in English from BYU, and an MA and PhD (also in English) from Penn State. She served a mission in the Hungary Budapest mission. In her spare time (what's that?) she likes to read, write, try new recipes (as long as she doesn't have to clean up), watch movies with her husband (British period drama is her favorite), go for walks, and generally avoid anything that resembles housework.

10 thoughts on “The ordeal of being known

  1. I needed this, thanks.

    I recently attended a Saturday night stake conference meeting with my friend in Centerville, Utah. I didn’t know any of the speakers, but I loved all the talks. It dawned on me that it’s easier to feel the spirit if you don’t know the history of the people speaking. I tend to disqualify some people in my ward, thinking “oh there he goes again” or “yeah, right, she is a hypocrite” or “she has a strong testimony, but she won’t do her visiting teaching? Give me a break.”

    It was a kind of “aha” moment for me. It’s hard to do when you’ve lived among people for 35 years, that suspending one’s, oh, belief?, when listening to others, but it’s necessary, I think.

    Just an observation: I’ve been telling my kids and grandkids for years that graduating from high school isn’t a sign of how smart you are; it’s a sign of how committed and responsible you are. To a large degree, so is college graduation.

  2. Lovely as always, Rosalyn. I enjoyed the Tim Kreider article as well. The line that keeps sticking with me is: “What other people think of you is none of your business.” It’s helped me let some anxieties go.

  3. Great post. C.S. Lewis got at the same thing in his book the Four Loves, when he stated that one of the halmarks of charity was being willing to open yourself up and suffer for the love you have.

  4. This spoke to me on many levels. And right away, it made me think of something I have heard many times during my recovery work in a 12-step program: “What others think of me is none of my business.”

    I really believe when I can internalize that principle and turn instead to God for a confirmation that I am right with Him, then I can start to comprehend the idea that I am enough just as I am. With the knowledge that I am loved unconditionally right now, warts and all, I will then be empowered to engage in the life-long process of becoming my best self.

  5. “And I wish I’d handled things differently with my friend. I wish that, instead of offering reasons and rationales, I’d simply put my arms around her and told her I loved her.”

    Yes.

  6. My mom had friends like these. It inspired me to not spend my life regretting my past. I do things that are most important to me and let go of the rest. I don’t have many regrets in life.
    It is a great way to live. I am silently thankful to the unhappy, regretful women who didn’t complete my degree and my mother’s same lament about them that you have here. They were smart, talented women who had a warped self-image or inferiority complex over this.

  7. Beautifully written! Choosing to think of others is the one way I have found to get past the fear of what others think. And I draw great comfort from what you said: “God loves us anyway.” Thanks for sharing.

  8. ” I wish that, instead of offering reasons and rationales, I’d simply put my arms around her and told her I loved her.”

    Although you did nothing wrong in trying to build your friend up, the above statement is great.

    I know a very beautiful lady who thought she was on the bottom of the totem pole as far as being “good” goes. She finally met and married a man who loved her and believed in her, and tried to help her see herself for the beautiful daughter of God that she is. That helped, some, but what helped her the most was this husband just loving her and showing his love for her continually over the course of their marriage, which is going on twenty-two years now.

    Glenn

  9. This gets at such deep seated ideas that keep people from becoming their best selves.

    As I read it I saw pieces of my life fitting together. I could see the way I felt unloved by my father, but believed in by my mother gave me both my need to find love and acceptance elsewhere and the confidence to love myself and look to God for help.

    My family trait of stubborn pride has both made me not care a lot of what others thought of me while simultaneously preventing me from making close friends. It is my husband who somehow loved me despite my prideful behavior that helpd me eventually see that that sense of my self wasn’t truth. I could become a loving and loved individual.

    Not sure what I wrote makes sense, but I appreciate that your post made me think.

    God sees us as we are and when we can get a glimpse of that, we can humbly accept that we are loveable even if other people in our lives couldn’t see that.

  10. Oh my goodness! It is so mortifying to allow yourself to be known isn’t it? Easier to hide behind a carefully crafted facebook page or a skillfully worded blog post. This has really resonated with me. I think we too often deal in the superficial and don’t ever realize, like you did, that a hug and some unconditioned love is the right response.

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