Belfast Telegraph

If only to see ourselves as others see us in our stab at a shared future

By Paul Hopkins

I remember once, one day, when my father seemed to have everything going against him, against the grain as he put it, when my mother was quibbling with him over some sort of misdemeanour, imagined or otherwise, and he cried out to no one in particular: “Why is it that outside my home I am that hail fellow, well met, but here I am the world's worst.”

 

He wasn't of course, the world's worst that is — he just saw it that way. And he wasn't in the true sense of the adage, that hail fellow, well met person either, in the sense that such is defined as someone who is sociable and constantly making an effort to win friends. He was neither of those. Very much the loner. He never cared to hang out in those lowly places where men congregate — the golf club, the football game or the pub.

It never really bothered him that he wasn't ‘one of them', like his colleagues at work who frequently derided him because he didn't sup beer or use profanities but, as it were, played below par. He was happiest in his own company, walking or swimming alone out beyond the Bull Wall or whiling away the early hours on the tenor banjo that he never really managed to master.

And it never cost him a thought when at his small retirement ‘do' after 50-odd years boy and man in the civil service, barely a handful of his colleagues turned up to bid him farewell: that the game was up, that he wasn't the epitome of popularity during all those years of going out the door and coming back home again

Don't get me wrong: he was a great man and I'll never be the half of him, though increasingly, as you do, I find myself more and more like him as each day passes. I don't play golf, though I do sup beer, lots of it, and I do curse, if only for emotional emphasis.

Among those who don't know me that well, the ‘real me' as it were, those in the work-place and those I exchange words with in social circles, to them my persona — or so I like to think — seems pleasant enough, popular you might even say. Yet, it is not always so, nor has it been: behind closed doors in the close confines of my immediate family who, being the critics they are, see me somewhat as a different kettle of fish altogether.

All of which begs that age-old retort, ‘Oh to see ourselves as others do’.

Over the course of our lives, the experts in such matters say, our sense of self-image develops through a complicated interplay between, for starters, cultural ideals, life experiences and, yes, accumulated comments by others. The result is, inevitably, a distortion of reality of sorts.

You can look at a photograph, no matter how old or grainy, and you will always be able to pick yourself out because we all have internal representations of what we look like.

All of our experiences, all the teasing we went through as a child, all the self-consciousness we had as a teenager, and all the worrying about whether we would be accepted as good enough or attractive enough are called forth in how people think of themselves. It's not a perceptual thing: it's a combination of emotion, meaning and experience that builds up over our lifetime and gets packaged into a kind of self-schema — that is a belief or idea about oneself that leads to a bias. In short, it's not me that's queer but the other fellow.

It reminds me of the Robbie Burn's poem To A Louse — the last verse:

O would some Power the gift to give us

To see ourselves as others see us!

It would from many a blunder free us,

And foolish notion: What airs in dress

and gait would leave us, And even

devotion!

One could argue that we need not really care how we are perceived by others — and this may well be true. However, sometimes we could learn something and grow if we were to take a good few steps back and see things objectively about ourselves.

We may even find, as the Chinese philosopher and father of Taoism Lao Tzu said, that all that is left to do is to have a good laugh and walk on …

People see themselves differently from how they see others, says the behavioural scientist Emily Pronin. We are immersed in our own sensations, emotions, and beliefs at the same time that our experience of others is dominated by only what we see. This has broad consequences: it leads us to judge ourselves and our own behaviour differently from how we judge others and those others' behaviour. “Often, those differences produce disagreement and conflict,'' Pronin says.

Understanding the psychological basis of those differences, she says, may help mitigate some of their negative effects.

Something to bear in mind in these times of conflict resolution and hopes for a shared future.

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