“One of the most beautiful qualities of true friendship is to understand and to be understood” Lucius Annaaeus Seneca
Every one of us desires to be understood, appreciated or “seen” for who we are despite our flaws and insecurities. The people we find ourselves the closest to in our lives are generally the ones who know us well, warts and all. These are the people who have witnessed our strengths and accomplishments but have also watched us go through the sometimes unlikeable phases, put up with our moods and stood with us through the hard times. They see us and we see them.
Being perceived accurately in this way allows us to feel safe, loved and connected in our relationships because we are able to trust others more freely. As a result, this acceptance encourages us to share our feelings more openly and explore our identity without fear of being judged or rejected. In my safe relationships, I have noticed that I feel more comfortable to be myself, to make mistakes and to verbally process my thoughts and emotions. It creates a sense of relief and joy for me that I don’t have to constantly monitor how I am coming across or worry if I’m being seen negatively. When we feel truly “seen” by others, it not only increases our psychological well being, but we also experience a sense of belongingness, the third level of human needs according to Abraham Maslow. This topic is ultimately about living a more authentic life both within ourselves, by being true to who we are, and how we interact with the world, which research demonstrates is essential for life satisfaction. Authenticity allows us to build fulfilling relationships based on true representations of who we really are rather than surface level where mental walls may be in operation.
What prevents us from being seen?
Of course, we cannot divulge our life stories with everyone we meet and there are bound to be parts of ourselves that we reserve for the people we feel safe with, so being perceived incorrectly at times is to be expected. Especially because our public self-image can become dominant around people we don’t know so well, so the impression we can give others is not necessarily a good representation of who we really are. It often involves facades that were created in order to protect our vulnerabilities and from being evaluated in a negative way. This is described by the third quadrant of the Johari Window as the hidden area which includes the things we know about ourselves but haven’t yet allowed others to know about yet. For example, a shy person who pretends to appear confident in a social situation but avoids conversation, could come across as snobby and arrogant in their attempt to mask their social anxiety.
It can be disheartening when people have preconceived ideas and judge us, based on the little information they have about our lives. In my personal and professional experience, I have learned that people judge what they don’t understand. There have been many times where people have judged me and drawn conclusions about my life without getting to know me. Prior to developing a healthy sense of my worth, my default reaction was to either withdraw and avoid those people or if given the opportunity, to justify myself and seek their approval. Ultimately, it reinforced feelings of judgement, rejection and mistrust as well as strengthened my protective walls. Even now despite feeling more stable in how I view myself, I find myself acting guarded and cautious around people who I perceive are judging me. It’s easy to see that we can fall into a perpetual cycle of hurt and avoidance and consequently, maintain the walls or defence mechanisms that prevent us from being truly seen for who we are, thus preventing us from participating in authentic relationships. In hindsight, the judgemental perceptions of others have certainly put limitations on relationships during my life.
In addition to the fears associated with what others may think and the avoidance of feeling vulnerable, poor self-awareness can also indirectly prevent us from being understood. In order for us to feel seen, and similarly see others for who they really are, we must first be somewhat aware of ourselves! Self-awareness not only involves being aware of different aspects of the self, but also the ability to examine our shortcomings for the purpose of growth. This skill allows us to be mindful of how we perceive ourselves (called private self-consciousness) and how we are perceived by others (called public self-consciousness). If we care more of what others think of us than what we think of ourselves and visa versa, it becomes unbalanced and leaves us feeling discouraged. The impact of self-evaluation is vital for us to intentionally create a life that is congruent with our values as it improves our self-worth, resilience, relationships etc. When we don’t know ourselves well, it affects our ability to understand others and reduces our overall satisfaction in life.
The implications of perception have perhaps the biggest impact on how we are seen and see others. We often mistaken an individuals’ perception as factual. The truth is, perception is completely prejudiced! The way we see ourselves and others is viewed through our own unique filter, driven by our internal world, causing everyone to look at the world differently. Two people can have the same experience but completely different interpretations of what happened. What we perceive is actually determined by our belief system which is made up of thoughts, beliefs and attitudes that have been programmed into our minds based on our interpretation of early experiences. Core beliefs form the foundation of this belief system and are the building blocks to our identity and understanding of the world, causing us all to see life through a unique lens.
We all have insecurities and some version of the “I’m not good enough” belief whether it be “I’m not smart enough, attractive enough, friendly enough, skinny enough” etc. Unhealthy or negative core beliefs like these can influence us to interpret situations falsely and cause us to judge others. Just imagine you recognized a friend at the supermarket and she did not respond when you called out to greet her. If you already struggled with low self-esteem and have beliefs that get triggered now and then around being unlikeable or unworthy etc, you might jump to conclusions that she ignored you on purpose, assume she’s annoyed at you and no longer likes you without really questioning an alternative explanation. This could leave you feeling hurt and offended which will impact how you feel and behave, and compromise your next interaction with her. Needless to say, our filters for understanding the world can often be extremely distorted. How we perceive ourselves, others and the world reflects what’s going on in our mind, and this in turn determines our thoughts, feelings and behaviours.
To see and be seen...
Unfortunately we don’t have much control over the perceptions of others but we can change the things that prevent us from being seen accurately and also how we in turn perceive others. Firstly, before we can allow ourselves to be truly seen, we must become more self-aware as this will motivate us to modify any unbalanced beliefs that affect how we see ourselves and others. Instead of being driven by our fears, expectations and insecurities, we can learn to behave more authentically as we are guided by our true self and values. It’s easier said than done. Exposing our deepest struggles and letting the walls come down can be terrifying! Brené Brown tells us that “vulnerability is the birthplace of everything we are hungry for,” including love, joy, belonging, courage, empathy, and authenticity. Feeling truly seen then is dependent on how willing we are to practise courage to confront our vulnerabilities, so we can be more genuine in our relationships, which research strongly links with optimal well-being.
Our transparency also empowers others to be honest about their vulnerabilities. I’m sure you have had experiences where you shared something personal and that encouraged the other person to disclose their struggles too. There is a sense of deep connection or understanding that develops, making our relationships more meaningful and fulfilling. It’s in these contexts that we can inspire growth in one another, the best types of friendships!
Secondly, we must not be quick to judge, instead see beyond the public persona’s that people portray, remembering that their behaviour is influenced by their background and programming which is likely to have limitations. During my psychology training, the concept of approaching people with unconditional positive regard (Carl Rogers) really resonated with me and I try to adopt it in the way I view everyone. What if we all strived to perceive others through a lens of compassion, love, appreciation and kindness instead of a threat to our self-esteem? Every one of us encounters trials and pain in life and we are all just doing the best with what we know. It’s as simple as putting ourselves in the shoes of others, to try to see what they see. We all want to be treated with respect so why not literally practice that old saying, treat others how you want to be treated. It could make a huge difference! Practically it looks like us making a daily choice to intentionally view others through our values rather than running on the dysfunctional autopilot our minds revert to. Being open minded, positioning ourselves for empathy rather than judgement, listening before assuming and asking more questions to gain better understanding, are all ways we can achieve this.
There is a scripture that reads, “the same measure that you use to judge others, will be used to judge you.” I wonder if it works the other way, if you approach others wholeheartedly with empathy and non judgement, giving space for them to be seen correctly, will that be applied to you in return? It’s worth a try!
The Zulu people of South Africa use the greeting “Sawubona” which literally means “I see you.” The translation acknowledges another person’s existence as a whole by communicating a respect for each other’s unique personality and humanity. The response is “Ngikhons” which means “I am here.” I found this to be a perfect portrayal of how we can approach others, so why not challenge ourselves to be our “true selves” more often and to see through the exterior layers of others to the fellow journeying human underneath.
Clinical Psychologist and Writer for Be That