“ I don’t know if you’ve ever noticed this, but first impressions are often entirely wrong.”
In almost every single sitcom series I've ever watched, there’s an episode where a character knows someone doesn’t like them or holds a false impression of them, and they simply can’t handle it. What ensues is a repetition of failed attempts at trying to change this person’s narrative that ultimately never end well.
Every time I watch one of these episodes, I find myself relating to it 100%.
There have been many (many) occasions meeting periphery acquaintances — colleagues, a friend of friends, distant connections to my partner — where I’ve walked away just knowing I didn’t create a good impression and this person will now hold a false narrative about me.
I’m not talking about friends and family, who will know you enough to understand, accept, and move past your little quirks and occasional misalignment with #TheBestYou. It’s the people who will only know you shallowly, having had a couple of interactions with you in fleeting moments. Moments where you failed to put your best foot forward.
Sometimes I find myself lingering on these moments and get that sinking feeling I wish I could change it. But then I remember the sitcom episodes and know I must make peace with it.
On Making Peace
It’s not easy, especially if you’re one of those people who have to have everyone like you.
Essentially we need to accept that there will be times when we won’t be able to secure closure on different relationships and interactions. It leaves the narrative open for interpretation. When the person doing the interpreting is not someone you regularly come into contact or engage with, it’s very difficult for you to clarify or slowly change their perception of you.
Moving from a ‘how do I make this better’ to an ‘I’ve made peace with this’ mindset does take time, but it can be done. Here are a few steps in the process that I’ve found particularly helpful:
- Accept that no one is ‘right’ and no one is ‘wrong’
It’s easy to sit and stew in these moments, point blame, and generally feel the other person is inadequate for not ‘getting you’. The truth is, you probably didn’t behave your best from their perspective, and they might not have either from yours.
I once met someone who didn’t listen, wasn’t curious about others in the conversation, and was only keen to talk about themselves. Instead of accepting I would likely not be engaging with this person often (or ever) I let my face tell the story of exactly what I was thinking about them. Unfortunately, I did meet them again. And they made it very awkward, commenting they had noticed I ‘didn’t connect well’ (seriously, who says that to someone they met once?). As you can imagine this put my back up, and the cycle of poor impressions was once again set in motion.
The truth is you can’t attack negativity with negativity. You have to at least try and give others the benefit of the doubt, and know they are acting from their place of ‘truth’. Accepting a false narrative of you involves accepting, ultimately, no one is wrong or right in these interactions.
Their opinion of you might not be entirely false, but it is only a snapshot.
- Take comfort in the ‘snapshot’ and not the whole picture
If the multitude of sitcom episodes have taught me anything, it’s that trying to change or ‘fix’ a false narrative someone else holds about you is a complete trap.
Not everyone has to like everyone, and when we do try to get along with everyone, we lose a piece of our ability to enjoy genuine and authentic social connections. This isn’t about being rude, but acknowledging some people aren’t your people.
When someone on the periphery of your social circles doesn’t like you, based on small, shallow interactions, you have to accept that they only have a tiny snapshot of you. Like a photo of your earlobe. They can’t possibly really know what you look like as a whole. There’s no way they can know you enough to know if they really like you or don’t. But if they want to make that judgement based on the information they have, then so be it. You can’t change that opinion.
Instead, focus energy back onto yourself, and work on having complete confidence in knowing who you are. That way, people who only have snapshots, won’t matter so much.
- Appreciate that not everyone’s opinion matters
There are a heap of people in your life who have opinions about you who really matter. Close friends, partners and spouses, mentors, coaches — these are the people who can be constructive influences in your life. Becoming a better version of you, and working on your growth is only possible through seeking feedback from those people.
We can’t take on feedback from everyone we engage with. Yes, you do have to be open and ready to acknowledge when you might have failed to show in the best light, but usually, that acknowledgement will come from listening to feedback from those who matter most. Anyone outside of that circle can only have as much input as you allow them.
When you get feedback from anyone else, make sure you reflect on this carefully. One negative opinion doesn’t make you a bad person, but if it sits in alignment with some other feedback you’ve had, then you’re onto a really exciting opportunity for personal growth. If something doesn’t sit right, or you know it to not be a true reflection of your whole, then you really don’t have to listen to it.
- Understand why it might bother you
On the surface, having someone think negatively about you is obviously going to be a bother. Ideally, we’d always prefer that everyone we meet has a relatively positive impression, even if it isn’t a strong impression.
But it’s also important to go below the surface. There will be countless people who won’t think you’re amazing for one reason or another, and if this thought drives you a little crazy, it’s worth investing some time exploring that.
A little exercise I’ve found helpful is the ‘Five Whys’. Basically, you ask yourself why, five times, in response to something that bothers or challenges you. This process can help uncover deeper reasons behind your reactions. For example,
‘That person’s negative impression of me bothers me.’
‘Because I want people to think positively about me.’
‘I don’t like people thinking I am a bad person.’
‘Because I’m working hard on trying to be a better person, and I want people to acknowledge that.’
‘I’m worried their opinion might be accurate.’
‘Because I’ve behaved poorly in the past and I want to correct that.’
Now you’re starting to get somewhere.
When things bother us, it’s usually connected to internal narratives and fears we hold about ourselves. Drilling down to why we have the reactions we do to certain scenarios can help us begin excavating what those fears are, accepting them, and how we might bring them into better alignment with who we want to be.
When we get stuck on an idea, thought or narrative — whether one we hold ourselves or one we think someone else holds about us — we give it so much power. Making peace with a negative perception someone may hold about you involves reflecting on your own internal narratives, and developing a strong understanding and acceptance for who you are (good and bad).
Focusing on promoting the parts of you that matter the most is the best way to find peace when other people sometimes fall out of alignment with that. Maybe it will change one day, maybe it won’t. As long as you and the ones who matter most to you are content with who you are, that’s the best peace to find.
“Because true belonging only happens when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world, our sense of belonging can never be greater than our level of self-acceptance.”
— Brené Brown