We humans spend a lot of time in our own heads planning, second-guessing, and overanalyzing our own behaviors, all to project certain image of ourselves to the outside world. We even curate different versions of ourselves for different situations; for example, we may hide our sillier sides around colleagues in exchange for a no-nonsense communication style at work, or we may need to be social and outgoing in certain aspects of our jobs but prefer quiet nights in with close family and friends at home.
But how well does the way we see ourselves, or at least the way we think other people see us, match up with how others actually see us?
This was a plot point last season on my favorite show, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (Episode 3.11), a show that specializes in brutal honesty and painfully insightful character moments. In the law firm where many of the characters work, one of the main characters, Paula, spent many years as the firm’s most competent paralegal and reliable team-player before realizing her passion for law and going back to school to get her JD. As she takes on more of a leadership role in the firm, Paula finds herself managing several colleagues who were previously her peers, and takes on a no-nonsense management persona to make sure they take her seriously.
To prove her legal bona fides, Paula expects complete perfectly from her team members and delivers harsh critiques of everyone’s work, sometimes justified but often simply because the work wasn’t done exactly the way she would have done it. As a result, Paula’s colleagues (including former friends) see her as needlessly mean and overly critical, only pointing out the negatives aspects of the work while offering no suggestions for future improvements, and visibly expressing constant dismay at their work’s failure to live up to her (perhaps unreal) expectations.
Paula is shocked and horrified when she learns that she is now seen as the office (rhymes with witch): she doesn’t see herself as mean and unfair. How did this happen?
In her quest to be taken seriously as a great legal mind and manager, Paula overlooked the importance of maintaining relationships with her colleagues. By only focusing on showcasing her own talents through the top-notch quality of her project work, she neglected to recognize any contributions from others. She also missed many opportunities to provide constructive feedback to her team members and help improve their performance.
I’m sure we’ve all experienced a realization like Paula’s at some point, a moment when we don’t recognize or like the image of ourselves reflected back from those around us. The important thing is to force ourselves to be self-aware, and to pay equal attention not to how we ourselves behave, but how other perceive and respond to our behaviors.
Paula chose not to see the hurt her colleagues expressed in response to her criticisms; we should all try to be more perceptive and empathetic.