Wisdom//

Perception Is Weird

Is there a gap between how you see yourself, and how others see you? Does it matter?


I was awkward in high school. I had friends in all of the different cliques but never felt like I belonged anywhere. Totally self-conscious, low self-esteem, the only place I felt real was in my choir classes. That’s why I’m often surprised when I hear how my peers perceived me back then — because it’s completely different from how I perceived myself.

In my second year of college, a friend’s neighbor was a guy who went to the same high school I attended. One evening my friend asked her neighbor what I was like in high school.

She was one of those girls that could have been popular but just didn’t care.

When my friend repeated this back to me, I was stunned. And really disappointed. Of course I wanted to be popular! That’s not at all how I knew myself just a few years earlier. I couldn’t imagine how he came to that conclusion.

Since then I’ve been observing the gap between how we are perceived, even by those we believe are closest to us, versus how we perceive ourselves. At this point in my life, I’m very intentional in how I put myself out to the world, so I think that gap is smaller, but there is still a wide gap.

When I hear it said that people don’t change, I cringe. I’m so different from who I was in my teens, early twenties, and even 5 years ago! The obstacles, challenges, joys and successes we experience can change us dramatically. A few years ago I was honored to be a guest blogger on Whitney Johnsons’s blog; I wrote about how I found my voice when I was 40. People definitely change.

My mother and I were standing in my kitchen a few years ago, making beef jerky. She said:

If you had told me 15 years ago that I’d be standing here in your kitchen, in Montana, helping you make beef jerky, I never would have believed it.

I responded: “If I told myself 10 years ago that I’d be singing in a rock band in gogo boots and vintage mini dresses, I would never have believed it!”

I’d believe that.

That was her answer. That’s a big gap in perception.

In a recently published post I described myself in college as being barefoot most of the time. People who knew me then weren’t surprised at all, but those who have only known me in the past 20 years were very surprised to read that article. Here’s one comment:

Thank you for the belly laugh as I visualized you traipsing around Colorado sans shoes.

And another:

I used the HaHa icon because I never pictured you barefoot . . . not that I’ve known you long enough for that anyway. Barefoot? Wow.

And one more:

Great article, Sarah. A barefoot past? You have always been a strong, unique individual.

This set of comments had me considering perception again, and why that gap exists. When we think we know someone, we are often surprised when they step out of the context in which we think we know them. Why do we sometimes underestimate people we know, while we put those we don’t have a personal connection with on a pedestal?

It has been about 8 years that I’ve been singing professionally in this small town; there are still people who have known me for nearly the 17 years we’ve lived here who have not seen me perform.

One of those people heard me sing at a big event with more than 700 guests. She came over to me afterward, gushing. It was wonderful! A few days later, I ran into her at a shop downtown and as she introduced me to the woman next to her, she said:

This is my friend Sarah, she sings with a band and she’s actually really good!

Actually? Why did she say “actually?” I knew she didn’t mean to be insulting, so I smiled and thanked her. But the word stuck with me. Why “actually?” Is it because she never knew me to be a singer and her expectations of my singing were low? She knew I sang but had never heard me, so maybe that was it? But why would her expectations be low? What did she know of me that would color her perception that way? What was I putting out there that might give her a different impression?

Yes, all of these are sort of silly questions to consider, but they help me think more deeply about the whole idea of perception and the impact it has on us. Do I see myself differently from how my friend sees me? Definitely. Living in a small town, this gap in perception can impact a career; because so many people here know me in the context of my job history, my music, and my children, it can be tricky — and impossible — to earn support when I want to do something significantly different.

When I finished reading an incredible novel, The 13th Clock, I was blown away. I leaned back in my reading chair and thought: “Wow! My BROTHER wrote that book!” It’s not that it was surprising that my brother would write a fantastic book, but it definitely caught me in unfamiliar territory in seeing him in a different context.

Why is it that when we know (or think we know) someone well, we are often surprised when they are successful, or when they do something extraordinary? Do you find that people who think they know you underestimate you in some contexts? When I spoke with a friend about my feelings that I’m being underestimated locally, she said:

You can’t be a prophet in your own town.

I’m intensely curious about this gap, and though I’m sure we can’t come to any conclusions, I’d love to hear your thoughts on the topic.


Sarah Elkins is a professional coach and consultant, helping people and businesses improve their communication through the art of storytelling. She’s also the President of Elkins Consulting, the company making a splash with small, face-to-face, affordable interactive conferences called No Longer Virtual.

Originally published at medium.com

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