In a piece titled “I Know What You Think of Me,” Tim Kreider eloquently considers our bias in overestimating our abilities and positive qualities versus what others really think of us. It’s a must-read.
Hearing other people’s uncensored opinions of you is an unpleasant reminder that you’re just another person in the world, and everyone else does not always view you in the forgiving light that you hope they do, making all allowances, always on your side. There’s something existentially alarming about finding out how little room we occupy, and how little allegiance we command, in other people’s heads.
Just as teasing someone to his face is a way of letting him know that you know him better than he thinks, making fun of him behind his back is a way of bonding with your mutual friends, reassuring one another that you both know and love and are driven crazy by this same person.
Although sometimes, let’s just admit, we’re simply being mean. A friend of mine described the time in high school when someone walked up behind her while she was saying something clever at that person’s expense as the worst feeling she had ever had — and not just because of the hurt she’d inflicted on someone else but because of what it forced her to see about herself. That she made fun of people all the time, people who didn’t deserve it, who were beneath her in the social hierarchy, just to ingratiate herself or make herself seem funny or cool.
Another friend once shared with me one of the aphorisms of 12-step recovery programs: “What other people think of you is none of your business.” Like a lot of wisdom, this sounds at first suspiciously similar to idiotic nonsense; obviously what other people think of you is your business, it’s your main job in life to try to control it, to do tireless P.R. and spin control for yourself. Every woman who ever went out with you must pine for you forever. Those who rejected you must regret it. You must be loved, respected — above all, taken seriously! They who mocked you will rue the day! The problem is that this is insane — the psychology of dictators who regard all dissent as treason, and periodically order purges to ensure unquestioning loyalty. It’s no way to run a country.
THE operative fallacy here is that we believe that unconditional love means not seeing anything negative about someone, when it really means pretty much the opposite: loving someone despite their infuriating flaws and essential absurdity. “Do I want to be loved in spite of?” Donald Barthelme writes in his story “Rebecca” about a woman with green skin. “Do you? Does anyone? But aren’t we all, to some degree?”
This is a key paragraph:
We don’t give other people credit for the same interior complexity we take for granted in ourselves, the same capacity for holding contradictory feelings in balance, for complexly alloyed affections, for bottomless generosity of heart and petty, capricious malice. We can’t believe that anyone could be unkind to us and still be genuinely fond of us, although we do it all the time.
I’m reminded of this line from The Fountain, which I read earlier this year. In a private encounter with Howard Roark, the hero of the novel, Ellsworth Toohey asks Howard:
Mr. Roark, we’re alone here. Why don’t you tell me what you think of me? In any words you wish. No one will hear us.
But I don’t think of you.
On a book note, I can’t recommend Richard Feynman’s What Do You Care What Other People Think? highly enough.