5 October 2015
Most of us have heard the saying, “You have to walk a mile in someone’s shoes to truly know them.” Personally, I think it’s not necessary to go even that far. I think you just have to ask a few questions. Because there’s something to be said for attempting to get a sense of someone beyond the face they wear for social consumption – and it’s been my experience that getting to know someone better often ends up teaching me a lot about myself.
I think this is particularly true of people you dislike. Many of the people that I am closest to are those that I have sometimes struggled with the most. This includes members of my own family and some of my dearest friends. My daughter’s Godmother is one such person. Although we hardly knew one another at school, we were cast as “enemies” by virtue of being on opposite sides of a manufactured rivalry (and really, what kind of word is that to use in regard to a college sophomore – “enemy”? Did I think she was going to attempt to take over the known world)? After circumstances forced us into meaningful conversation with one another, we found that we had a great deal in common – far more than either of us did with the people around us who had convinced us we were natural enemies. My 16 year-old daughter, who has more sense than we did at 21, finds the whole story hysterical. And she’s right. Why did we ever dislike one another?
I think the key is something that Sigmund Freud was already on to in the nineteenth century: Projection. Most people in this country have, I think, heard the expression. (It passes what I call “The Oprah Test,” meaning if she’s done a show on it, it’s no longer considered a technical term). Basically, projection is a defense mechanism in which you attribute your own ideas to other people – and often those ideas are negative ones. It’s one of the basic ways in which we can avoid dealing with feelings and insecurities we’d rather not think about. (For a good summary of defense mechanisms, see Dr. Susan Krauss Whitbourne’s “The Essential Guide to Defense Mechanisms” at https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/fulfillment-any-age/201110/the-essential-guide-defense-mechanisms). Rather than spend time sorting through whether we really are too loud or too meek or too tall or wear too much make-up, we simply decide that our sister/boyfriend/mother/friend is too loud, too meek, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. And the more significant an issue is for us, the more it makes us angry when we perceive someone else to be exhibiting it. So, for example, I tend to have a little trouble with stubborn people. I’m just saying.
What’s the solution to this little dance of denial? Sadly, it’s not easy – but it seems to work. You have to look at yourself. Every time someone around you does something that drives you insane, try to figure out why. A lot of the time your anger or anxiety may be understandable. If someone is making sexist, racist, or hurtful comments about things you care deeply about, it makes sense that you’re upset. But if, for example, you witness someone acting in a mildly and harmless attention-seeking manner and feel inclined to express your opinion that such behavior is completely inappropriate, you might want to look in the mirror (just saying)!
But don’t stop there. Because recognizing that something you find irritating about someone else is something you find worrisome in yourself is not going to feel good. What will feel good is figuring out whether you need to change it (and doing something about it if you do) – or whether you just need to accept that part of you. The truth is that chances are other people already do. Potentially, after a little introspection, you might even look at that other person’s behavior and say, “It’s good that s/he puts herself out there (or speaks her mind or has a sense of fun or…). I like that about her!” And then look back into that mirror. The worst thing that can happen is that you gain a little more understanding about yourself. The best thing is that you might find a friend – or maybe two – if you count the one in the mirror.