Learning from Our Reputations
Of the many people you know—family, friends, co-workers or classmates, neighbors, the locals at your favorite restaurant or bar or café, the people who work at your most frequented stores, and everyone else who has crossed your path at one time or another—each has their own perspective about who and how you are. You have, whether you like it or not, a reputation.
Some people in your life know you well, while others much less so, yet all have an opinion, small or large, that has been gained through their interactions with you. In counseling, I’ve recently been thinking a lot about this notion of reputation, enough so that I have decided to share my thoughts about this important topic. In short, I feel that it is tremendously valuable to recognize this important truth: that we earn our reputations.
I recently met with a client who complained, “My brother once described me as someone who would argue with a stop sign. Can you believe that? The nerve of him!” I laughed. I laughed because, here she was, arguing against this perspective of her brother’s. Indeed, I had been working with this client for many months and knew her well. I knew how aggressively she tended to treat the people in her life and how often she blamed them for turning their backs on her or pushing her away. She felt isolated, abandoned, unwanted and fumed over the fact that others saw her as “nuts”, “crazy”, or “emotionally erratic”.
I helped this client see the truth in this reputation she had earned, how she had contributed in small and large ways, over the course of many years, to the opinions that others now had of her. To her credit, she accepted this right away, saying, “You know, you’re right. I do pretty much argue with everyone.”
Of course, this wasn’t quite true either. I pointed out how she wasn’t arguing with me and that the truth—the objective truth—laid somewhere in between. So we talked about the reputation that she wanted to have, a reputation closer to the reality of who she is, a reputation as someone who is extremely loving and generous and cares deeply for her relationships, especially with her family, a friendly and kind person who desired intimacy with those around her. We talked about, just how she had earned her current reputation, she could earn a new one by choosing alternative ways of interacting, ways that better represent her authentic self.
That night, she attended her nephew’s birthday party at her brother’s house and had a fantastic time. When she got home, she wrote me an email to say how enjoyable it was to not follow her familiar pattern of stewing in unhappiness and upset. She said, “Thanks for helping me understand that I am just me and I got here in 45 years with this reputation and I can’t undo what I have done myself overnight. I can only work on why I do what I do and learn how I can do it better for me, not for anyone else. If it takes time for them to recognize the changes in me, that’s okay.”
I am confident that this client will significantly change her reputation by making conscious and self-aware decisions to represent herself in a less instinctive (but more authentic) way. This will be possible because she will no longer fight against the opinions others have of her, but will rather take ownership of the fact that she herself has earned this reputation. Embracing this, she can earn a new reputation, one of her choosing, a reputation closer to the honest truth of who she is.
Although everyone we encounter in life will view us through a lens of subjectivity that will influence how they see and understand us, (virtually) no one develops their opinion out of thin air. And it can only help us to consider the part we ourselves have played in creating our own reputation. Maybe our contribution to their perspective is minimal—someone having a “bad day” may interpret us in a wildly inaccurate way—or maybe our contributions are great—the result of many interactions with us. Either way, it benefits us to take responsibility for our reputation, being always willing to consider what truth might lie in the perspective others have of us (our reputation).
This is especially true when we hear things we don’t like, since these are the things we are most likely to combat, resist, or reject. And yet, if we attempt to invalidate someone’s perspective, we close ourselves off from self-discovery, as well as from the opportunity to grow in a way that may be immensely valuable to us. Instead, we might meet an unpleasant opinion that is expressed to us with a more inquisitive stance, “Hmm, perhaps that’s true. Why do you think of me this way?” If so, we’re bound to see that this viewpoint has some degree of merit and that, indeed, we earned this reputation.
Many, many years ago, the mother of a friend of mine called me “fluffy”. I was incensed and decided that I didn’t like that person and wanted nothing to do with her from that point forward. Looking back, over twenty years later, I can proudly admit that there was truth in her assessment. While she was a successful banker who prided herself on career ambition and stability, I was a carefree, adventurous, young man in my twenties with a playful spirit and carpe diem attitude. I can see clearly how this would have seemed profoundly “fluffy” to her. Had I known then what I know now, I would have simply given her permission to think of me this way and that would have been the end of it. I earned that reputation myself, so it made little sense to resent her for something I had done.
When we realize we earn our reputations, we become powerful again. We recognize that our reputation has value to us as a teacher. If we understand the ways in which we want others to have a different opinion of us, we can choose our interactions accordingly. This isn’t about getting wrapped up in how others view us. Our self-worth, ideally, is not derived from other people’s opinions at all. It is how we view ourselves that is most important. But, when others see us in a way we don’t want to be seen, that’s good information. If we can admit our role in this, we can embrace our ability to change ourselves, such that others can more easily and accurately see us for who we truly are. We can realize our goals for greater connection and joyfulness. We can earn the reputation we desire—not by fighting for it—but by living our desired reputation fully in each present moment, as if saying, “That was me then; and this is me now.”
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