Careful now…slowly step away from the mirror. It’s deceptive – whatever or whoever is staring back at you, I swear it’s an inaccurate reflection. Consider this part of the karmic joke, but I promise you that none of us see ourselves in the same way as we are seen by others. From the most intuitive among us to the most clueless, objects in the mirror are way more skewed than they appear.
I’ve been told on more than one occasion that I’m short. I still can’t fathom what the hell people are talking about. Ok, if I stretch with serious effort, I can make it to 5′. Vertically challenged you say? Perhaps. What do I think? I don’t get it. Being endowed with reasonable intellect and a gentle grasp on reality, I’m aware that literally, I’m not exactly tall. I know that with every step most people take, I usually take three. I also am acutely aware that when I travel on a crowded train I’m usually nose-to-armpit with any other person standing (which is why I hate to take the subway). When in conversation with an upright adult, my neck invariably begins to ache after a while. And my kids eclipsed me before they hit puberty. All of these are fairly strong indicators that I don’t measure up to the national average. Got it.
But I don’t see myself as short. Never have. Just like I never thought my voice was deep, until I answered the phone at my parents’ house and the caller said, “Hi Jack” (my dad’s name). Don’t worry, I’m not completely delusional, though it is comforting to know that all is well in my own little world.
Extrapolate this thought farther though – to more meaningful venues and relationships – and the concept takes on new gravity. How many performance reviews have I given in my professional history? How many mentoring conversations, sensitive dialogues? Easily thousands. How many wrenching moments with friends and loved ones? Too many to enumerate. Rarely have I met the individual who grasps the variance between his/her self-perception and that which others see. Before you insist that you are one of the exceptions to this observation, bear with me a little longer.
It’s easy to encourage someone to expand their technical skills, explore better time management practices, increase their production by x%. Ask your spouse to empty the dishwasher, walk the dog – it’s easy. These are tangible, non-threatening observations and/or requests. We can do those. They don’t upend all that we see in ourselves. They don’t disrupt the reflection in our mirror. Suggest to a manager that more emphasis could be placed on fostering collective accountability, pointedly provide someone with example after example of how their behavior alienates their team, craft a conversation wherein you advise someone who is self-sabotaging – and you will be met with defensiveness, denial or disbelief. I remember tearfully telling my husband that I felt like he didn’t ‘see’ me. “How can you say that?!”, he said. “I see you everyday! Tell me what you want me to be looking at!!” As we say in the South, ‘bless his heart’.
We really want to believe that we are there for each other, committed to doing the right thing (whatever that may be), approachable and at core, highly effective at that which makes the world go round – establishing, maintaining, and growing connections. How many of us can really say that such talent is reflected in our work teams? In our personal relationships? When was the last time you asked someone to give you honest feedback about how you appear? It’s a hard question to pose, for you need to ask someone whom you trust to tell you the truth and not provide you with assurances rather than insight. You need to ask someone who’s holding the Windex, so to speak.
At this point you may be asking yourself why one would – or should – bother with such a quest for information. At the risk of redundancy – because as a supervisor your people deserve your best and without a reality check, you may be failing them royally. Because we are continually changing and adapting to our environment, and our partners need to clue us in to what our actions reflect when held up to our intentions. Because we stare in the mirror far more often than we notice what others see when they look at us. Self-absorption is carefully packaged in denial. With such securely wrapped protections, how are we ever going to feel intrinsically good about who we are and how successful we are with the relationships we have – and need? If we can trust each other enough to ask the scary questions, open enough to hear the uncomfortable answers and resilient enough to look at ourselves through someone else’s lens, ultimately our self-image will be much more reflective of the reality. That said, please don’t tell me that I can’t reach the top shelf in the kitchen – I know, I know.