I was talking with a friend recently about the process we go through in letting people into our lives, allowing them glimpses of what we’re really like on the inside – he prefers to be cautious with new people, testing them with small things first, seeing how they react, deciding whether they’re worthy of his trust before revealing more of his true self; I, for pretty much the same reasons – having been hurt by people and become less inclined to trust them – choose generally to show my real self to people early on so that, if they don’t like it, they’ll push off before I’ve invested much in relating to them, before I’ve started to think of them as friends, before I’ve reached the stage of having something to lose and worrying about how they’ll react when they find out this/that/the other about me. I’d rather shock them early on and watch them go when they’re not yet a significant part of my life, when the rejection won’t hurt so much because they’re just strangers that I haven’t begun to care much about yet.
But here’s the thing: people don’t always register what you’re telling them about yourself.
I recently wrote a letter to a whole load of friends, to tell them about something that has changed in my life in recent years. I had reached a decision which I knew a lot of people would be uncomfortable with, but I felt that I should tell them about it because I want to be real with my friends. I was writing not in an attempt to persuade people that I’m right, nor out of a desire to feel understood. I was writing in order to be honest with my friends, because I believe honesty is an important part of friendship. I wanted them to know where I’m at. I didn’t want to hide this thing from them.
The only reactions I’ve had to that letter have been positive. But…
It’s quite frustrating to write a whole letter explaining you’ve decided to stop doing X because of Reason A, and then get replies from people saying things like: I want you to know I understand, you have my sympathy, even I agree with you, but then they go on to say what they think they understand or agree with and I can see they haven’t really understood, they think my decision is because of Reason B.
Well, at least they know I’m not doing X any more. But it annoys me that they think they know something about me, but they’ve got it all muddled.
And this is just one example of me trying to express something in writing and people’s reactions showing me they haven’t understood what I was trying to say. Which says a lot about people’s reading comprehension – because I know I am good at writing, so if they don’t get what I’m saying, it’s usually not my fault. (I say “usually” because obviously I’m not perfect and I don’t always phrase things well enough. It happens. But on the whole, writing is something I do well.)
Seriously, I don’t think it’s about reading comprehension, I think it’s about the ability to really listen to what someone else is saying, to take on board what they are really saying instead of imagining what they must mean. The urge to jump to conclusions is so strong, and we tend to assume that other people are the same as we are. I’ve seen a lot of that in how extroverts interpret my behaviour – thinking I must be lonely/unhappy/antisocial when I’m just doing what, as an introvert, I need to do in order to stay sane. It’s just that for them, the same behaviour would be a sign that something’s wrong, so they read that into my own situation.
So what am I saying here? I try to be honest with people about myself, it’s important to me not to hide stuff from friends, but no matter how hard I try, people will still understand only part of what I share with them. I guess I just have to live with that. I used to yell, try and make myself understood, say “no, I didn’t mean X, I meant Y” – I do that a lot less these days, because I realise that a lot of the time it’s pointless. People will only understand the bits they are capable of understanding.
Once in a while it happens though – you share a bit of yourself with someone else and they really get it! It’s wonderful, and so precious because it’s so rare.