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.
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.