Saturday, November 21, 2009

Looking True

There are at least three ways we can present ourselves to the rest of the world. We can “look good” by hiding or disguising anything that doesn’t match our perception of what’s positive about ourselves (where “positive” is defined by our values). Doing the exact opposite, we can “look bad” by displaying only the parts of ourselves that we don’t like. Third, we can “look true”: enable others to perceive us exactly as we are. In reality, each of us tends to be somewhere in the spectrum between these options, depending on a number of factors, including: our perception of ourselves; how we want others to respond to us; and our ability to effectively communicate, which determines how we are actually perceived, regardless of our intentions.

If we believe we are something we are not, then we will almost inevitably be frustrated in presenting ourselves. Inaccurate self-perception is often based on assumptions we make about the world beginning in childhood, many of them taught by the people closest to us, beginning with our parents. Self awareness, built on identifying and testing our most fundamental beliefs, is therefore one of the most important things any of us can do.

Controlling how people see us can be, and often is, purposeful. Beginning with when we are babies, we expect people to treat us in certain ways, and their perception of us has a lot to do with how they do so. Our reasons can vary from avoiding conflict to acquiring something. We may even want to help everyone live their lives fully.

There are aspects of perception that are built into our biology that we cannot easily control, even if we are consciously aware of them. Our physical senses have clear limitations, having been fine tuned by evolution to enable us to survive in the natural environment. Our bodies (including our minds) are hardwired to be sensitive to some things more than others, enabling both our survival and the survival of our species (through our ability to procreate and protect our young until they can do the same). We have instinctive behaviors, such as “body language” that communicates information about our physical and emotional state; and actions that either reward people for giving us what we want, or punish them if they don’t.

Attempting to look mostly good or mostly bad is, in essence, dishonest and disrespectful. Its effect, if well executed and based on accurate self-knowledge, is to cause others to behave differently than if they knew the truth. Whatever the gain, it is bound to be short-lived if they have access to other sources of information and if, for at least part of the time, they are honest with themselves. If instead we are honest about ourselves, and everyone else is too, then we have the best chance of making decisions that benefit us all over the long term.

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