How others see us matters. It matters to us, because we like to be well thought of. It matters to them, because it affects how they behave around us.
I don’t know about you, but I spend a considerable amount of time feeling that I’m too young and inexperienced to be a proper grown up with clients, children, a mortgage, an ironing pile, and the rest. Imposter syndrome, I believe! But then I look in the mirror and see some woman in her late 30s looking back* and realise I need to get it together.
Self reflection can be tricky, can’t it? We might be over-critical or over-generous about ourselves. There’s also the difficulty of truly understanding how others see us. It’s like when you see a photo of yourself or hear a recording of your voice played back – never quite the same as when you glance in the mirror or hear yourself speak day to day, is it?
This week I’ve been thinking about how open we are with one another about our own vulnerabilities. We’re bound to all sit (comfortably or otherwise) somewhere between being ‘careful to consistently maintain a cool poise and calm exterior‘, and ‘wearing hearts on sleeves and oversharing at every opportunity‘.
If I’m honest, I’m likely to just answer, ‘fine, thanks‘ when I’m asked how I’m doing. Maybe I’m not sure the person really wants to know the truth at that moment. Maybe I’m embarrassed that I’m in chaos. Maybe I’m delighted about something but I don’t want to sound smug. Or maybe things really are fine! But how can they know unless I share some of how I’m feeling?
The people I want to turn to when I’m struggling or worried are the ones who have shared their joys and their tough times with me too. I value their views because I know they’re sharpened by their own experience. It’s not about finding a ‘yes’ friend who won’t challenge me when I’m taking a wrong turn, it’s about trusting someone with my stories because they’ve afforded me the same privilege.
It doesn’t necessarily mean we’ve shared our past traumas in the moment, or called one another immediately afterwards for a debrief! It might simply mean we’ve been honest about a struggle we faced or failed when we notice a similar situation arising, or when a topic of conversation reminds us to talk about it.
There was no other adult there on one average sunny morning in spring 2013 when I took both boys (both still under 2) out to the car to go to toddler group. One needed a nappy change just as I strapped the other in to the car, so back into the house we all went. And then it happened to the other boy. Cue me, for no rational reason, crying in frustration and fury on the bottom stair, being stared at by bemused babies wondering where the parent had gone… But I know I’ll have answered, ‘Yes, I’m fine‘ repeatedly when I arrived at the group late that morning.
However, I have told people about that, and similar occasions (there have been many!), since. Recounting such stories allows me to illustrate the feelings of helplessness, inadequacy and desperation that counterbalance the love, excitement, joy and wonder which featured in my transition from professional career to stay at home mum in that phase of my life.
One day this past week I found myself in a hormonal panic**. There are many plates to keep spinning at the moment and I dropped one***. At the time, I frantically messaged two great friends who I knew would hear me, reply calmly and help me on my way. I wouldn’t have done that if we hadn’t talked honestly about this exact type of panic just a few weeks ago.
Later, when asked about my day by a new friend, I was honest though I was mortified. But her gracious reply showed me the importance of acknowedging times of weakness. I may not be better for them, but I hope my friendships will be.
Your friends might well be looking at you wondering how you hold it all together, wishing they could measure up. If you’re thinking, ‘if only they knew the truth!’ then maybe now’s the time to share it.
I’m absolutely, definitely not at the ‘heart on my sleeve‘ end of the spectrum, but I think being open about being an imperfect person**** is a great way to share in friendship. Let your guard down, mention your experience of struggle and weakness. It’s refreshing in today’s society, and it might even be a bit of a relief for all concerned!
* and then I’m asked by a fresh-faced sixth former, ‘so did they have school formals in your day?’ and I realise that I am old enough to be his mother…
** perhaps too much information #sorrynotsorry. But honestly, there’s no other explanation, and they are a very special type of panic: characterised by inability to make a decision (disastrous if it strikes whilst food shopping) and irrational worry about all possible outcomes/people’s views of the situation.
*** not actually, so the wedding china is still intact.
**** to be very clear, I am not suggesting we justify dreadful character flaws as being necessary for making friendships stronger!