Radical Revelation: I Am Not Responsible For How Others See Me

“Oh, so you’re a Yankees fan?” My casual question hung out there, extended in that blue bubble. I tipped back my glass of Pinot Noir. One second. Two. Three. When the ellipses did not pop up, I collapsed the iPhone display and dropped the device into my purse. I was at a dinner fundraiser with my friends, after all; I should be talking, not texting.

But I did not hear from him later that night. Or the next day. Or the next week. I racked my brain for what must have happened with this guy, who I’d met on a dating app and hit it off with instantly, just 10 days before he headed overseas for a month. We’d been talking at least every few days while he was gone, before he disappeared into thin air. When I double-texted my way into a reply from him, he had returned to the U.S. But after a week of silence, the conversation was off. Short, clipped, shallow. In my mind, it was over.

Looking back at what might have happened, theorizing, the downfall seemed to come with a tap of my finger, A couple weeks prior, I was sitting at an airport bar with a glass of wine when I broke my own rule. To avoid misinterpretations about who I am and what I do, I usually wait a while before adding the men I date on social media. But this guy seemed different. And with a month before I’d see him again, I figured, why not? I held my breath and hit “follow.”

He followed back. Just one account — just enough of my life to draw oversimplified conclusions. In the aftermath of this apparent ghosting, I wanted to understand. I wanted to ask him what happened, if he saw something that gave him pause in this rife-for-miscommunication social media-based world of ours.

But maybe that desire of mine is, in itself, the problem. According to writer and advice columnist Heather Havrilesky: our knee-jerk reaction to how others’ react to us is often to try to fix it, and that’s an instinct worth examining. “As women, we are not just responsible for people’s understanding of us, but seemingly for their misunderstandings of us, too,” she said, as if directly to me, at a recent literary event in Ann Arbor while recounting a different story of her own. The responsibility of deeply and accurately communicating ourselves — and correcting others’ misperceptions of us, as well — is a heavy burden to bear. That framing struck a chord. It made me think.

As a child, I struggled to find my voice. Now, I have this compulsive need to make sure others understand me very clearly — and often feel frustration, guilt, shame or embarrassment if I think they don’t. When a spark died seemingly the moment my former flame saw inside my life, there was that compulsive need to correct: Was I doing something wrong? Was he misunderstanding who I was? Did I not get the courtesy of a request for clarification before the subtle, nearly-imperceptible-at-first slow fade?

I’ve always had this sense that great things are lost in our gaps in understanding. Maybe that’s why I chose to become a writer, or why I take every opportunity to catch up with someone one-on-one. Understanding others, and being understood, feels like I’m preserving something — a sense of self, a relationship, a memory, an idea. But perhaps I try too hard. Or perhaps I overshoot my target in trying to land on a firm answer. Is it my job to take responsibility for someone who never asked to understand? In doing so, am I creating a larger gap in understanding?

When I recounted the ghosting story to my therapist a couple weeks ago, she pointed out how frequently I jump to conclusions without all the necessary facts to draw them — particularly in dating, as I wade into intimacy, reveal myself little by little and gauge reactions. In dating, when intentions are often veiled anyway, you rarely get full and accurate stories, and you almost never know a person well enough to grasp their patterns in response. It was then that it occurred to me that jumping to conclusions, as I do, can sometimes make misperceptions compound.

Havrilesky had a great, simple idea; she suggested viewing strange reactions toward us as neutral or unexplained instead of decidedly negative. When she felt someone’s open judgment about a decision she’d made, she wanted to explain herself; when I felt a guy had ghosted me after glimpsing my life on Instagram, I wanted to ask what he’d seen — or how he’d seen it. Our internal monologue is often, Omg, something is wrong with me; maybe I should fix this, instead of, Oh, wow, that person had an interesting reaction. No going further, no adopting more responsibility, no leaping to conclusions.

Just as I was starting to practice this law of neutrality, my ghoster returned with an apology and an explanation for what had caused him to disappear. On the surface, it was altogether reasonable. In the past, though, maybe I’d have already written him off in the distance between us, reading between the lines and writing my own story: he doesn’t get me, he’s flaky, he’s “not my person,” it’s time to move on. But my therapist challenged me not to make decisions until I have all the necessary facts — not to assume, not to put up a wall and save myself from potential hurt. To hear the story out.

I think back to that old saying, which can be a rule of sorts: Seek first to understand, and then to be understood. So, I said I’d meet him. I wanted to give myself a chance to view someone’s reaction toward me in a neutral light. To think, Wow, that was weird he disappeared, and then open my ears to the offered explanation.

At the end of the day, I’d rather understand and be understood than never have real answers. I’d rather not magnify the effects of miscommunications and misperceptions by erecting a wall in the form of my own, unproven conclusions. It all boils down to human connection; in responding to a reaction without the facts, I create more distance instead of closing it. I deprive myself of what I want most, including, when the opportunity arises, honest answers that might give me more peace.

What if it wasn’t me at all? What if? Perhaps now, I’ll find out.

Collage by Louisiana Mei Gelpi.

Jenna Birch

Journalist, dating coach and author of The Love Gap.

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