Is it hot in here, or is it just me?

I’m starting to sweat. The air feels hot and heavy and it’s hard to concentrate on anything else but the uncomfortable temperature. Nobody else seems to be getting warm. Or do they? I can’t tell for sure. So I ask, “Is it getting hot in here, or is it just me?”

What an interesting question this is. What we’re really asking is, “Is what I’m experiencing the result of something that is real and verifiable, or is it the result of some distortion within me? And we look to others for some help in deciding which it is. If the other person in the room says, “Yeah, I’m getting hot too,” we may feel validated and relieved. But if he or she says, “No, it’s nice and cool in here,” we may question ourselves and wonder what’s wrong with our internal temperature gauge.

So how do you know when to trust yourself and when to doubt yourself—when to hold tight to your own experience, feeling, perception, interpretation—and when to trust someone else’s? It helps to know if there already is a distortion somewhere in the system. If you’ve been having hot flashes for a while, or if your partner tends to feel cold, then you know whose assessment is safer to trust. Also, relying on the strength in numbers, if many people share our experience, we assume that experience is “real.” If everyone else seems to experience things differently, we start to wonder, “Maybe they’re right.”

The plot thickens

But what if two people are trying to assess not something external to both of them, such as the temperature, but trying to figure out what’s going on with each other. “Why do you have to be so controlling all the time?” “Because you’re so passive—if I don’t step up, nothing gets done!” “I wouldn’t be so passive if you didn’t always beat me to the punch!”

Does my partner (friend, relative, colleague) have a point? Do I have a tendency to be controlling, or passive? Should I trust this person’s assessment of me, or should I write it off as his or her issue? Have I heard this feedback before?

Steel and sponge

It’s hard to know when to take in someone else’s perception of us and when to reject it. For some, the sense of self is too rigid and protected, like steel, such that the observations of others do not make a dent. In this case, the feedback we get from others, painful as it may be, may be exactly the thing we need in order to make important changes and grow. This requires the ability to humbly look at ourselves with clarity and honesty. This requires the willingness to be softer, vulnerable, and to yield.

For others, the sense of self is too soft, porous and permeable, like a sponge, such that input from others gets through and creates internal doubt too easily. In this case, the personal growth and strength will come from exactly the opposite approach—from refusing to accept someone else’s negative perception of us and resolving to believe in ourselves, trust ourselves more, not less. This requires the willingness to be courageous, and to stand up.

People are not unidimensional. Some may be steely at work and sponge-like at home. Some may be more uptight and rigid when interacting with one gender, and more relaxed and receptive to feedback with the other. Understanding ourselves psychologically, seeing our interpersonal style clearly, helps us to know whether we need to allow the opinions of others to enter more often, or less.

Art Frenz, Ph.D.

Image courtesy of macok / morguefile.com

Articles

Psychological Fitness

“Psychological Fitness” is my monthly column featured in the Binghamton, NY Press & Sun Bulletin since 2004. This page highlights articles, or adaptations thereof, from that column.