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Stranger Than Fiction: When Truths Clash

By Karen Austin

4470486685_448425a880_mTrying to see myself as others perceive me is tricky business. We each create narratives to make sense of the millions of details that make up our lives.

Strange enough, we are works of fiction.

When we live, work and worship with other people, we have the opportunity to create a shared reality.

We do this by bringing our own narratives to the table where we create a third narrative—the shared story of the relationship.   Participating in a relationship—in a family, at work, with a church member, with a confidant–takes time, energy and cooperation. It’s an act of negotiation. An act of compromise. A co-creation.

But we don’t always find a way to comfortably share a reality.

Even though I’ve been married for 19 years, my husband and I often have very different narratives.   But more often than not, we have a shared reality that allows us to work together.

When I meet someone new, I don’t have very much of a shared reality. When I interact with someone with very different values, very different communication styles, and very different goals—we don’t have very much of a shared reality.

Let me be more specific.

I had the horrifying experience a couple of months ago of learning that several people at church “find me annoying.”  They don’t want me in their homes or near them at church activities.  They want me to remake myself. Now.

I’m not asking for pity by writing about this, and I do NOT want input about other people. I can only change me–presumably, hopefully. Focusing on the source of the criticism is a total waste of energy. I already moved through a lot of emotions, and I don’t want to go back to raw emotion.  I’m trying to analyze and create a program for self-improvement. 

I will concede the point: OK. I am annoying.  But how can I fix this?

I see the problem as potentially existing in three places:

  • I sin. I am human, and I sometimes do bad things.  All of my sins tend to all fall into the “I should not have said that” category.  If I insult, criticize, or judge people, I need to repent.  This is annoying. I need to tell people that I am sorry, and I need to cease from doing these things ever again.  I am seeking the transformative powers of the atonement.
  • I mismanage my mood disorder. I have GAD (generalized anxiety disorder).  I realize that I throw off a lot of nervous energy.  People around me can sense my anxiety, and it increases their level of anxiety. This is annoying.  I will try harder to manage my anxiety so that other people can’t sense it.  (I could write an entire post on having GAD is like a part-time job that needs about 4 hours of self-care a day, but I won’t take the space to do that today.)
  • I do not rein in my extreme personality traits. I have been extremely extroverted for most of my adult life. (Interestingly enough I was introverted as a child.)  I can also be very controlling. On the Myers-Briggs Personality Test, I usually test as an ENFJ, “The Teacher.”  But I can come off as an ENTJ, which is called “The Commander.”  Commanding a social situation is effective in some settings, but I don’t think many people want General Patton as a friend.  This is annoying. I can do better to stifle myself by being less extroverted and by being more flexible.  Lately, I have been trying to adopt more behaviors of the INFP, “The Poet” in order to be less annoying to others. This was my grade school personality, so I’m going back to those days of spending a lot of time alone reading, writing, meditating, and interacting with people primarily one on one.

So strange is the truth others forge around us. So strange is our truth when offered to others.  And when competing narratives clash, it can be chaotic, awkward, painful, or contentious.

How can I make changes to these three categories (sin, mood disorder, personality) to revise or edit my character for a better shared story?  To be honest, sometimes these categories blur–which makes it more difficult to decide how to address the problem. Also, Is there a fourth or fifth category I am not seeing?

Right now, I’m in a writer’s workshop of sorts: “Under Construction.” I’m opting out of a lot of social situations.  Until I can remake myself (or work to have God remake me), being absent is the fail-safe way to be less annoying.

[Photo Credit:  Katheryn via Creative Commons.]

How do you respond when the narratives you are running clash with the narratives of others around you?  

About Karen Austin

After living in UT, HI, CA, VA, DC, WI, WV & KS, Karen now lives in Newburgh, IN with her husband and two children. She's been a BYU writing tutor, an English teacher, technical writer, director of academic support services, and aging studies adjunct. She's reinventing herself--again. New role still pending, but mature athlete, thrift store fashionista, and court jester are strong candidates. She maintains the blog The Generation Above Me.

25 thoughts on “Stranger Than Fiction: When Truths Clash”

  1. Thanks for your honesty, Karen. Good luck on your personal improvement project. Also, you might want to edit "reign in" to "rein in" (like a horse rather than a queen).

  2. While I admire your efforts at self improvement, and while I acknowledge that other people's feedback can be important, I am not so sure that trying to change yourself so that other people will find you less annoying is a good idea. I have spent far too many decades trying to remold myself into something more palatable for others; we all want people to like us. But at great cost, I'm quickly learning that the only approach that will really work to change our nature is to give ourselves (including all our self-improvement projects) completely to God. To spend all our energy on staying in grace, in being as sure as we can be that God approves of our choices, that we are loved and supported as we are, sin and mood disorders notwithstanding, that God never finds us annoying — that's the only thing that will work long-term. Because then it's God's Spirit that directs our efforts and projects and it doesn't matter who gets it and who doesn't. There were plenty of people who knew the Lord personally, but there were plenty among that plenty who found him extremely annoying. No matter. He lived to please His Father, and though he died for it, He won. That's our example.

  3. It is painful when you find that someone does not like you. I will tell you about an experience I once had because I hope that you might relate to it a bit. Once when I moved into a new ward and was immediately called as an RS counselor, the Bishop called me in to tell me that the other RS counselor did not like me because I looked like someone she had, in the past, disliked very much. Neither the Bishop, nor I, really knew what to do about this problem and I remember wishing at the time that I had not been told about it because who can change what they look like? It was awkward for me to work in that RS presidency, but as it sometimes happens, the other counselor moved before long. I think she got to know me and did not dislike me quite so intensely, but I am not sure about that. I just want to say that although I admire your desire to improve yourself (something we all should be doing in one way or another), you will not be able to, nor should you try to change the core you. Those who are judging you should change and see your fine qualities. It is they, not you, who really are being unkind. Likely, though, they will never realize it. I hope you do!

  4. I totally agree. The challenge is knowing the mind of God about all things at all times. It's hard to always stay in constant contact with divine revelation. And sometimes I think I'm doing God's will, and it's really my own ego that I'm labeling as God's will. That's scary. But I pick myself up, brush myself off, and keep trying. I may not be perfect, but I'm nothing if not persistent. You are very kind to spend the time reading and commenting. All my best to you, dear Lisa.

  5. Jacqueline: Well, that's very interesting that someone decided to dislike you for a superficial reason like that. Wow. She must have been totally traumatized by the prior relationship for it to carry over in that way. I am glad that you were able to move through this. Initially, I was very defensive, but I decided that it works better to see this as an opportunity for growth. I have affection for the people, so much so that I'm going to honor their feedback. It wouldn't hurt for me to dial myself down a bit on sin, mood, and personality. And things end up shifting (as it did in your situation), so I may not even be in the same milieu for very long. So I need to see this as an educational experience during the time that I'm in this particular "classroom." Thank you very much for taking the time to make a nuanced and articulate comment.

  6. This sounds hard. I admire your courage. I don't know you but based on your posts here, you are someone I wish I knew. I always look forward to reading your writing. Some of your posts have changed my life for the better.

  7. Kristine: Thank you for sharing that! When I get really overwhelmed about my weaknesses, I pull myself out of a funk by hoping that my crap might serve as fertilizer for someone else's growth. I process my stuff socially–through writing or discussion. This makes me vulnerable to criticism and sometimes makes people really nervous to watch me "overshare." Nevertheless, I hope that in the end, I do more good than harm. Hooray for the flowers blooming in your garden! I'm doing the Snoopy happy dance over here. : )

  8. Karen, I too have had to go thru the whole reinvent myself to make family and friends and church members "like me". Most of the time on the inside my attitude was screw them. That they have a problem with me is there perception at a moment and then they look at me that way ever after. Too bad for them
    Don't make their problem yours. We all evolve because of our different experiences and who will are now we probably won't be next week. If our core is good and based on solid principles (see gospel of Christ) then that is all that matters. You are a good heart. That matters.

  9. Roberta: Thank you for showing me so much kindness–especially since you have witnessed me being extremely difficult in ward council numerous times. I'm so bossy! (If people want some idea of how I can be in WC, see Holly Hunter in Broadcast News. ) Gah! Thanks for seeing beyond the ridiculata and into my intent to do good works.

  10. I have a teenaged son who is having the some of the same struggles you describe here. He has recently lost a good friend because that friend told him that while he enjoyed hanging out with my son one on one, he didn't like him in groups because he gets loud and pretty obnoxious. Admittedly I feel the same way about him sometimes. I'm struggling with how to talk to him about it. I want him to be himself but I also want him to be aware of the people around him and how he is making them feel. To add insult to injury he has a twin brother that has a great ability to make a ton of friends. Any suggestions for how I can talk to him about it?

  11. Wow. That's tough, because teens are still trying to formulate an identity, and they get so much input from authority figures (teachers, church leaders, parents) how to do things in order to launch successfully as an adult. At the same time, they are trying on various social cliques for size and hoping that everyone would actually validate them in every clique. The thing that I do with my kids is to talk about personality choices and behaviors as effective and ineffective in various CONTEXTS. As a grade school kid, my son would get into trouble for tap dancing and making jokes and making sarcastic comments. I validated the fact that he was energetic, creative, happy, and intelligent. But I told him there is a time and a place. I never wanted to say it was BAD if he was sarcastic, but that it's not valued at all times by all people: pros and cons of that behavior and some contexts are more favorable to his zingers than others. I was also able to get some critical distance about my own behavior by analyzing the dynamics of an online network group of 300 women bloggers (aged 50 plus). While I have been studious my whole life, I could see in writing (which is how I process and communicate) that the women who had high social status in that network were NOT the women who communicated a lot of facts, data and critical insight. NOPE. They were the women who basically just mirrored other women's comments and offered praise and encouragement. So I dialed back on being a know-it-all and did more work to validate. Voila! I got more affection. But I don't know your son's communication style or how he processes his emotions. Also, he may be 40 years old before it's his time to learn certain life lesson. As Relief Society President, I made the decision to praise, validate and encourage. Praise, praise, praise the good and ignore the ineffective stuff. (Women do so much negative self-talk!!) I know my mother has been trying to get me to grow in various ways for decades. But my emotional growth has been more organic to my own time table despite her repeated pleas to fix things that she sees as objectively needing fixing. But my own kids will tell you that I push them more than they want to grow. They do better when I praise the good. I think business people call it "Strength based training" when managers focus on what employees can do and then try to get them into roles to maximize that strength and minimize the weakness. Can he do forensics? drama? I am sorry I don't know your child or the context well enough to be helpful (I fear). But you are a good mom! I am sending prayers and positive visualization to you! Hugs!

  12. Thanks! He has an ADHD diagnosis which will probably tell you a lot about his issues. I'm sure it will be a life long journey of learning for both of us. Thanks for your insights. I think we are all trying to figure out how to relate to the people around us.

  13. Hi Karen, I have also enjoyed your reading your comments and think you have a beautiful mind.
    My husband and I happened upon a wonderful conation test, conation is your instincts, your "core", not something we can change about ourselves. The purpose of this test is to help you understand you, how you interact with others and how they perceive you. No conation is right or better than another, it just is. I am all for self improvement, this test does not negate self improvement, and I commend you for going down that path as a response to other's criticism. But I urge you to check out this conation test:
    We have found it to be a very Christlike way of accepting and loving ourselves and others. Hope it helps!
    Love to you Karen.

  14. I find it helpful if I look at such situations as a call to learn a new language, instead of a call to make my behavior less objectionable.

    My problem has been rather the opposite, I am come across so solemn and straight-faced that people think I am unfriendly and judgmental. Gah! No! I'm just listening and thinking about things. I like the people I'm with just fine.

    So I've been learning how to communicate in a language that does not come naturally to me. And that seems more practical to me than changing my way of being.

    What I've had to do: take the time to figure out and learn other people's languages of communication: what actions and words THEY perceive as unsettling and what actions and words THEY find reassuring and friendly, and then discipline myself to relay the message I want them to get from me (I think you are fine, I'm glad to know you. I'm listening. Here's what I think) in the way that they understand, using the words and actions they understand. It's not quite as hard as learning a different language, but it has been a challenge and has required conscious effort.

    I'm still very soberly earnest and slow to laugh. I have been that way since I was born and I think I always will be. And I think that way of being, like most ways of being, including yours, has it's benefits. There is no ONE BEST WAY of being. But I am learning how (and trying to remember) to, when helpful, employ the language of smile/chuckle/cheer when I'm with those who speak and understand that language better than they understand my sober one. It seems to help them understand more accurately what I'm thinking and know that I'm aware of their feelings too.

    And that reduces the amount of time people find me disconcerting.

  15. Emily B: That sounds like a great resource. I'm driving from KS to OK for a youth temple trip today, so I'll have to investigate that source later. I am happy to hear that it's been a useful tool to promote understanding and mutual respect in your home.

    Old English Major: I'm a big humanities nerd, so framing things as "learning a new language" really appeals to me. Thanks for explaining your challenges with opposite concerns. I think having that foil helps me see the underlying issue with less baggage. All my best to you on your journey.

  16. I too have enjoyed your posts and have benefited from them. I really appreciate your honesty as I'm going through a similar process myself. Being an oldest child I've always been a little (ok, a lot) bossy and until recently it didn't bother me. Thankfully I realized the need to change and it hasn't been easy. I question myself more now (which is really annoying to me) and often can't decide if I'm just being weak/lazy/losing my edge or am being considerate/kind/open minded. It's hard, especially when it feels like I'm letting go of something that makes me who I am. But when things get confusing, it always helps me to consider what the Savior would do as He is the one I'm ultimately striving to be like. That allows Him to slowly turn my weakness into a strength. In my case, it's coming along very very slowly 🙂

  17. At first I felt a little ragey that people would not like you for you, but then I realized that's reality. It's harsh and unpleasant but there are people I don't like because of small things they do and there are absolutely plenty of people who don't like me as I am.

    So, with that said you've really given me a perspective shift. I admire your maturity to deal with your own weaknesses rather than blame the weaknesses of others and to address them. The emphasis for me was especially on sin and I think I clearly need to look at where I sin the most in my relationships and try to slowly work on my biggest failings.

    Thanks for being honest and wise!

  18. Being judged or insulted is annoying. But I think we all do that to each other all the time. I'm sure there are a few people at church who don't like me and maybe avoid me, and there are a few people that I wish I could just say "just don't come to church anymore, ever." But that would be wrong. But how painful to find out that people don't want you around. That is not what Jesus would do.

  19. Pualele: I'm the oldest of three (to a single mom) and was asked to do a lot of directing of my sisters. Yes, old habits die hard! All my best to you for finding when to flex those leadership muscles and when to let them lie dormant. It's a constant judgement call for me.

    Becki: Ricky Nelson's Garden Party is a great mantra (can't please everyone), but if taken too far, you're all by yourself. Interacting with others requires compromise and accommodation. *sigh* But you're right. The sin thing is nonnegotiable (but we can be patient with each other while we work on that stuff aka Uchtdorf's talk about "don't judge me because I sin differently than you). Hugs to you and all of us while we work out our salvation before the throne of God with fear and trembling (see St. Paul).

    M2theH. Yup. Painful. These weren't acquaintances. They were people I thought were in the friend category and people I'd interacted with a lot over 7 years, so I couldn't say, "Oh, they don't really know me." They did. Familiarity bred contempt. Ouch. But let me not go down that path. I will get in a horrible shame spiral that throws off a ton of negative energy inward and outward, and I will be no good to anyone. All I can do is do better in the present moment.

    Lori: Oh, my. I am sorry about that misstep. (Oh, that whole "being human" thing gets us every time!) Time can heal. If you are reaching out to make amends, all affected parties really need to forgive you. When I put my foot in my mouth, I do service to try to smooth things over–clean, bake, give people rides, etc. But "acts of service" and "gifts" aren't always the right response. It depends on people's "Love Language" (which might be words of affirmation, quality time, or kind touch). Hugs and hugs and hugs and hugs to you. It will all work out.

  20. Thank you, thank you, thank you for this post. And I'm so glad I didn't get to it until after lots of gals were able to respond. I've learned so much.

    I'm a born and bred people pleaser and for many years, I got along with EVERYONE because I would simply reflect their thoughts and feelings. But hitting my 60s and getting a little tired I am finding less energy to be a chameleon. …so doing some great personal evaluation and growing.

    Please do write a post about GAD some day. I have had people tease me for years about my inability to sit still. I'm always crocheting or knitting or taking notes. It was only with counseling in the last few years that I've come to understand how much anxiety I live with. Keeping my hands busy was a self-medication for the anxiety. Now, if someone ribs me, I fess up that "it's how I deal with my anxiety thank you." That does stop the conversation and ribbing short.

    I have appreciated everyone's comments and my inclination is that we are all struggling to find the balance of self-improvement and making sure we are changing for the right reasons. Your sharing was VALUABLE to me!

  21. Having a close family member who is beyond annoying, I can only wish that she had the vaguest wish to make herself more likable to those around her. She does not and we have had many, many conversations about why this is. People can't stand being around her (me included) and no matter how many times we try to point out how rude and insensitive her behavior is, she just blames us for being "mean to her". How I wish that some people really would try to change themselves so that others would like them!

  22. Karen, I'm not saying that you're in the same boat and that nobody can stand you! But sometimes wanting to change so that others feel more comfortable around you is a good thing! If you think this is a good endeavor, then go you! There's nothing wrong with refining our personalities to be more likable.

  23. Karen, I think we might be sisters! I have struggled my whole life feeling that people don't like me and also have recently learned to dial back on the know-it-all attitudes. And sometimes I just wonder why people don't just give me the benefits I give them of overlooking faults. I too have sought to learn a new language of communicating with people, trying to reflect more what they are doing, saying and behaving. I realized I speak the language of love with an accent of pride.

  24. Hilde: It's all good. I do think it's sad when I see people who refuse to accommodate others one iota and then are upset when they are not getting the response that they want from others. But people are often conflicted, full of contradictions and irrational (myself included). All my best to your sister in her journey to negotiate through relationships.

    Kim: Look how sweet you have been to adapt to others. I am glad to hear that you are setting boundaries a bit and finding your voice. Rock on with your fabulous knitting self. Maybe I'll write about GAD. It's so "big," I would have to find someway to focus on just one aspect or it would be a novel-length post, I fear! Hugs to all who have to manage that challenge (or any mood disorder, really). Hugs.

    Sage: I am loving your line "language of love with an accent of pride." I spent way too many years doing the oldest child / classroom teacher thing. Old habits die hard! I see myself as flickering between an old state of being and a new state of being (kind of like being stuck between two radio stations on a dial). I'm hoping that over time, the percentage of my "being" is in the kind state rather than the bossy, know-it-all state. I got so many gold stars for being achievement oriented, that it's a challenge to just be a love muffin. But I'm trying to move in that direction. All my best to you, dear Sage!


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