How could someone know me for so many years and be so wrong about who I am?
That’s what I kept thinking Wednesday as a friend told me how he thinks others in our business perceive me. He wasn’t being critical in the least. We were just talking about the differences between different people we knew in real estate.
He told me that I come across as “extremely forceful” and “aggressive.” He said that a few words from me can be intense enough to be “intimidating” to others.
Then he said that I am extremely rational and unemotional in how I approach everything. He said he is very rational and isn’t as emotional as other people — but that I am even more calculating and logical than he is.
Forceful? Aggressive? Intimidating? It was hard for me to believe the words he was using, even though he was using them in an admiring way. I thought the face I present at work is toned down about 90 percent from what I’m actually thinking and feeling inside.
I had no idea that much of the intensity showed.
If I had a nickel for every time I have been told that I intimidate others, I would be a millionaire by now. I’ve always laughed at that. I’ve always felt it was preposterous that anyone could see me that way.
Inside, I feel like a good-hearted guy who’s just trying to be friendly and helpful and get the job done. But I have very specific notions of how work ought to be done — and I can have a tendency to walk over people who get in the way of me doing that.
Because people had told me so often early in life that I was intimidating, I’ve tried hard to soften my image and my approach. I smile and laugh often, even in a business context. I’m self-deprecating when it seems appropriate. I’m quick to take responsibility for mistakes, even if I’m not sure they’re my fault.
I’ve made lots of changes over the years in the way I treat others at work, especially when I have any power over them. I don’t want people to feel intimidated. I don’t want people to feel that I’m aggressive and forceful except on rare occasions.
But after years of trying to mold an image for others to see — as loving and friendly and kind and generous — it seems as though others still see me as something else. My years of carefully trying to manage my image in the eyes of others seems to have been pretty useless.
The image others have of me feels very different from how I feel inside.
After I started thinking about this, my mind returned to a photo that a friend sent to me earlier in the week. She had been in my car when I had stopped somewhere to check my MacBook concerning a contract that a client had just signed. The friend had snapped this photo of me while I was concentrating on solving a problem. I hadn’t even known she took the picture until she emailed it to me.
This photo isn’t how I perceive myself. Don’t we all have a “picture persona” which has us look and act in certain ways in which we want to be seen?
I’ve never liked being in photos, but I decided long ago that if I had to be in a photo, I needed to present an image of a smiling and friendly man. So that’s what my photos show. And I wonder whether this picture — taken when I wasn’t managing my image — might be more accurate, even if it’s not very flattering.
I know what it’s like to be inside my head and inside my heart. Very few people have ever known that. I could count the people who have known me well enough to be allowed inside on one hand — and have fingers left over.
The truth is that I rarely trust people. I didn’t consciously realize that for a long time, but I don’t. I expect them to disappoint me and to hurt me. I desperately need people — need to be liked, loved, admired, respected, whatever — but I’m scared to allow most people to see beyond the mask I project.
So almost nobody really knows who I am. Even most of the people who have known me for many years are seeing projections on a mask that isn’t the real me.
There is nothing more terrifying than to trust someone else with the core truth of who we are. Many people are so scared of this, in fact, that they make every excuse possible to run away from anyone who wants to really get close.
Even though those people know they need love and intimacy, they are so accustomed to faking an image — feeling like silent frauds inside — that they run when real love and intimacy are offered.
There is nobody in my life right now who really knows me. Everyone around me knows me for one of the projected images which I present, depending on the context. There is some safety in that, but there is also unwanted solitude.
The ability to hide inside can be the best of sanctuaries at times, but it can also become a self-imposed prison.
I don’t want to let everybody inside. The more I think about it, I’m not sure it even matters whether other people see me as very aggressive or even intimidating. Those images have their uses in the business world.
But I do need to let somebody in, because it’s lonely in here.
You’ve probably been hiding, too, even if you never meant to. You project an image that you want everybody to see. You’re proud of your image. It has no cracks or flaws. Everybody loves you. Everything is perfect.
Except that it’s all a lie. It’s not who you really are. You want to be loved so much that you believe nobody would love you if they saw the truth — if you quit being the perfect image they see. And, eventually, you’re forced to lock everybody out, because if somebody got inside, you would have to admit to them — and to yourself — that what you really need is to be loved for who you are.
And you honestly don’t believe you can be loved just for being you.
We all project an image to one degree or another. We don’t have a choice. But we need someone who can know the complete truth. We need someone who can know us well enough to tell us the truth, even when we’re lying to ourselves.
For most of the world, I’d rather just make whatever things I want to make — and let that be enough. I’d rather just let them believe whatever they want to believe — about me and about my work.
But I need one person to know the truth. I need one person for whom I can be who I really am. But it’s hard to know who is worthy of that sort of terribly vulnerable trust — and harder still to find a heart willing to take on that holy task.