Does It Really Matter How Others Perceive You?
You can spend a lot of time, energy, and angst focusing on how others perceive you. Worrying about their perceptions can cause you to hold back and miss out. It can foster self-doubt that inhibits growth and masks your full potential.
As we explore what it takes to unleash your potential, we’d be remiss if we didn’t tackle this uncomfortable topic about how others perceive you and what (if anything!) you should do about it.
Defining the Differences between Perception vs. Reality
It’s been said that perception is reality. That’s a bit over-reaching, even though it can seem that way. Perception is more akin to “my truth,” while reality is better defined as “the truth.”
Reality is factual, objective… it’s a reflection of what’s real. It is what it is, and it is not instantly changeable. Reality is fact-based and, therefore, would be the same if viewed fully and objectively by many different people.
Perception is a matter of interpretation, cognition, and coming to one’s own understanding. It is subjective. External factors influence perceptions. An individual’s attitudes, beliefs, knowledge, experience, or unconscious biases can affect their own perception.
It is written in the Talmud that “We see the world, not as it is, but as we are.” In other words, perception shapes our own reality. We may have trouble separating what’s real (factually and objectively) from the way we see it.
To illustrate, consider how two different children from the same family share similar experiences but develop different values and mindsets. In a military family that frequently relocates. One perceives these moves in a positive light with fresh beginnings, opportunities to meet new people and have exciting experiences. As an adult, this individual is grateful for the upbringing that took her to 8 different cities and schools in 10 years. She has strong friendships and deep bonds with people all over the country. By contrast, the other sibling perceives these moves in a negative light with lost friendships, upheaval, and an inability to feel secure. As an adult, he feels shortchanged and blames this upbringing for his difficulty in forming lasting relationships.
The reality is that the family frequently moved. The perceptions about those moves skewed the reality differently for each child. Their perceptions, though, are what they responded to and allowed to shape their lives.
We’re splitting hairs here to define the differences between reality and perception. But knowing the differences doesn’t change the fact that most people operate within their own perceptions. They believe their own perceptions and won’t be convinced that something more objective is more real.
You Know What’s Real… Isn’t that Enough?
If you’ve ever been told “perception is reality,” it may have seemed unfair.
Asked to make changes in her management style, one new sales manager refused. Her team had complained to HR that she was a micro-manager and that she was uncaring about their personal issues. She flatly denied these perceptions, justifying her actions with the improved sales results her team had produced. She also disputed the perception of being uncaring, saying that no one could see what was in her heart.
When her boss told her “perception is reality,” she refused to accept that construct. She documented her behaviors, built the business case for continuing to manage in her own way, and “proved” the reality of what she was doing and why. She demanded proof from others that she was uncaring. They couldn’t provide solid examples, only their interpretations.
What that sales manager failed to understand is that just because a perception is not provable reality doesn’t mean that it’s automatically wrong.
People can’t see your emotions, intentions, values, or beliefs. They can only see your actions. Their interpretations of your actions become what seems real to them.
In the example above, the problem was that people did not feel their manager cared about them. Right or wrong, that perception is what needed to be addressed. Disproving a perception is impossible unless there are accompanying behavior changes to shape a new perception.
Of course, technically, perception is NOT reality. But your refusal to acknowledge and operate with others’ perceptions will never close the gap.
To become more nimble in accepting others’ perceptions, recognizing your own and how they influence what you consider to be reality, and to build bridges between varying perceptions and reality, consider these tips from Jim Taylor, PhD, in Psychology Today:
- Don’t assume that your perceptions are reality (it’s just your reality)
- Be respectful of others’ perceptions (they may be right!)
- Don’t hold your perceptions too tightly; they may be wrong (admitting it takes courage)
- Recognize the distortions within you that may warp your perceptions (seeing them will better ground your perceptions in reality rather than the other way around)
- Challenge your perceptions (do they hold up under the microscope of reality?)
- Seek out validation from experts and credible others (don’t just ask your friends because they likely have the same perceptions as you)
- Be open to modifying your perceptions if the preponderance of evidence demands it (rigidity of mind is far worse than being wrong)
Ultimately, it doesn’t much matter who’s right or who’s wrong. If you want to be effective, you’ll need to understand how you are perceived and if those perceptions matter or not.
Considering How Others Perceive You Is a Balancing Act
When you understand how you’re perceived by others, you’ll be back in the driver’s seat. You can determine if those perceptions are acceptable or not. Then you can do the work required to change them, if desired.
Imagine a continuum. On one side, the extreme is caring about everyone’s opinion about every single thing you say or do. You spend a great deal of time anticipating reactions, catastrophizing, and over-preparing. On the opposite extreme is absolute disregard for others’ reactions to what you say and do. You give yourself license to speak and act in ways that are hurtful or insensitive. You justify this by saying you don’t care what others think and that you’re just being yourself.
Neither extreme is productive for collaborating, communicating, building trust, or achieving your full potential.
To strike a healthy balance, consider how much stock you put into other people’s perceptions of you. It’s futile and debilitating to try and control how every person perceives you in every situation. After all, people form perceptions even in first impressions based on physical appearance, facial expressions, gestures, word choice, voice quality, and a whole host of other superficial factors. Additionally, some perceptions are based on irrational and subconscious factors. We’ve all had an initial reaction to someone, positive or negative, and later realized that reaction was just because that person reminded us of someone else.
Not everyone’s perceptions matter. Who cares what Karen at the grocery store thinks of you?
Which perceptions do matter? The ones that influence your ability to achieve whatever you’re hoping to achieve. Co-workers’ perceptions, for example, may be important to understand and address.
If you try to manage everyone’s perception of you, you’ll soon find yourself being inauthentic. You’ll probably be saying and doing things that cater to others rather than representing your own opinions, interests, and style preferences.
On the other hand, if you ignore other’s perceptions entirely, you’ll seem arrogant and out of touch. You’ll probably be saying and doing things that are tone deaf, insensitive, and self-centered.
And, let’s face it. You do care what others think of you. Your blustering denials are a poor disguise for the deeper lack of confidence you’re trying to mask.
Striking a balance requires strong emotional intelligence and self-awareness. It requires the vulnerability to ask and hear what others are thinking about your actions, demeanor, intentions, character, and contributions. A 360-degree assessment may be helpful in gathering these insights.
With self-awareness and insights about others’ interpretations, you’ll have the tools you need to balance out what matters and what doesn’t, what to change and what not to change.
If you determine that there are changes you’d like to make in how you’re perceived, there will be work to do. In some cases, it’s damage control. In other cases, a minor reset may be in order. Either way, this work will lay a strong foundation for unleashing your full potential. Without doing this work first, your potential may not be recognized by others. It will be more difficult than it needs to be to get their support and to get opportunities you deserve.
Ready to start working on changing those perceptions? See the next post in the Why Wait to Be Great? series for more information on how you can do that.