An old favorite of mine, from Paradise Lost:
“The mind is a universe and can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.”
― John Milton
Perception of the self, perception of your life and your circumstances, these are the things that create your story. Your perception is your own reality. As Milton wrote, your mind is capable of creating the universe it resides in. Similarly, the perception of others creates their reality. I had a coworker who would say that to me when I found myself aggravated by the some of the ridiculous things that people would complain about. If a customer, client, guest is unhappy, that is justified in their world. It makes sense to them for whatever reason. It is a good thing to remember even out of the workplace, we all walked different paths. We all have different triggers and different beliefs. We perceive based on individual experience.
I was curled up on the couch with my journal the other day, trying to get inspired but finding myself with a serious case of writers block. So I googled some writing prompts and ended up reading an article that really made me think… 20 Questions to Know Yourself Better. One of the questions asked was “How Do People Perceive You?”
I was thrown by this question because I was surprised by my immediate emotional reaction to it. It wasn’t a good one; the closest I could describe the feeling would be one of animosity. The perception of others, in my experience and through the feedback I have received, has in many instances in my life felt misguided at best, unfair at worst.
There have been many times in my life that I have felt prejudged for one reason or another. Somewhere along the line I went from a boisterous, mischievous child to a painfully shy adolescent. I felt completely invisible during that time in my life, and mostly I was. And invisible was fine by me. Switching schools multiple times in three years and feeling constantly out of place and different made me more comfortable in just blending into the background. I pulled this off marvelously until high school at which point I discovered, with the help of my fashionable cousin and a good friend, the magical transforming powers of makeup, contacts, and not wearing baggy t-shirts and tennis shoes everyday.
My oh my… how things can change overnight. I went from wallpaper to a strobe light in the worst possible scenario in which that can occur – as a shy teenage girl in a highschool setting. Any attention I attracted from boys was in direct correlation to the negative attention I received from girls. Perception of me, at this point in my life, was that I was a pretty girl who did not involve herself in after school life, gossip, or dating and therefore must be stuck up/full of herself. Truth was that I was just still that shy girl and had no idea how to handle attention or hang out with the cool girls. I didn’t have things in common with them. I found most of them catty and frivolous and disloyal. They, in turn, found me weird if they ever tried to speak to me at all. This was my first real run-in with unfair perception.
The same pre-judgement has followed me into my adult life, for somewhat similar reasons. While I did outgrow much of that painful awkwardness, that shyness that had caused me issues in my youth; being a mid-to-late 20’s attractive girl working as a bartender through college had its own interesting set of outside perceptions. Namely, people think you are stupid, or at least uneducated. They think you can’t do any better. I cannot tell you how many times I was asked at my last job if I had ever traveled outside of my home state, just how many kids I had, if I ever considered getting a real job. People make assumptions based solely on your vocation and how you look, before you ever open your mouth. I liked to let them talk for awhile before I hit them with the fact that I was in the process of finishing/had my Master’s degree. The look of surprise was always highly satisfying.
I now have a problem with the perception that I am not a person that should be taken seriously. I am still a young female and that comes with a collection of assumptions that men of my same age just do not have to deal with. You got the job because you are pretty, not qualified. You got the promotion because you are sleeping with your boss, not due to hard work. You don’t really know what you are doing. You should be second guessed. It is because of these things that I hate looking incompetent more than anything. I feel that I need to know more, prepare more, and never mess up. I had a boss once that would refer to me as “little girl/ little lady” even though I was 30 years old and had been working in the field for years. Another told me that I dressed too sexy even though I wore turtlenecks and blazers to work everyday in a deliberate attempt to not look sexy. Yes, these were older men. But their perceptions held me back.
The way that people perceive you really can impact your life, for better or for worse. It can mess with your self-esteem (just ask my 15 year old self) and it can begin to influence the universe you create/the world that you live in. As much as I’d like to say you should never care what people think of you, and in many instances that rings exceptionally true, sometimes in a career setting you really should care. Impressions are important. Perception of you is everything. The only thing you can do is recognize the reality of the situation and be attuned to those outside perceptions… As misguided and unfair as they might still be.