I get weird thoughts in my head, sometimes, as I’m lying in bed at night trying to fall asleep, or when I’m in the shower, with the warm water falling over me, and it feels like time has stopped just for a short time, giving me a chance to just absorb and contemplate. One of those thoughts that has been recurring lately is this: What if nobody really knows me?
To be honest, when I’m stuck on the thought, it’s not a “what if” in my mind. It’s a “nobody really knows anybody else.” It’s a “I don’t even know myself the same way other people know me, do I?”
I think about this when I learn something new about someone I’ve known for a long time. For example, my friend Fred. I met him my freshman year of college. He’s always seemed like this really cool, nice guy who always have everything together. His sister started college with us last year. Now she’s my friend, too.
She told me recently that she used to hate Fred when they were in middle school and high school together. He was mean to her. Well, “mean” is too weak of a word, but it weirds me out to use a stronger one, because I’m so used to thinking of Fred as the guy I knew before she told me that.
I started to wonder, you know, maybe this is why Fred can’t keep a girlfriend. Maybe, behind closed doors, he treats other women like he used to treat his sister. Maybe he calls them names, too. Maybe he hits them, too. Maybe friend isn’t at all nice like I thought he was, even though he’s nice to me.
There are always shadows to people, you know? Like, when you’re looking at someone, think of yourself as a light source. A really bright one. There would be certain things that stood out to you, from your angle, but then there would be things on the other side of the person, things that wouldn’t be illuminated at all, that you would never see.
Other people see those things, the things that, to you, are cast in shadow. They way the light of their perception strikes someone shows them what can be, sometimes, a totally different person.
This is made worse by the fact that, as humans, our brains try to fill in what’s cast in shadow. We have a natural desire to complete things we see that look unfinished. So we fill in those parts of people that we don’t see. Sometimes what we fill in is accurate, or at least, it aligns with the other people’s perceptions. Sometimes it’s not and it doesn’t.
We think we see ourselves, but we don’t. How much of yourself can you see, physically, without a mirror? You can’t see your face at all, or your back, or the top of your head. Similarly, you can’t see your own personality, and the only mirrors you have for that are other people.
Let me tell you, other people are never going to be honest to you about who they think you are. They will lie because they care about you, and not always in a positive way. Someone who likes who they think you are will tell you you’re a good person. They’ll play up what they perceive as positive about you. Someone who dislikes you will do the opposite. Someone who doesn’t know you who thinks they do will tell you things they think are the truth, but which might actually be wrong. Then you might internalize them and come to believe them, as well.
There are hundreds of versions of every person in the world, and they all exist at the same time in different minds. There’s no real you anymore than there’s a real me, because nobody knows who the real you or me are: not ourselves, not our parents, not our best friends or our spouses. We’re too blind for real versions of ourselves to exist. We lie too much, too.
So, honestly, nobody knows me. I don’t even know myself. Maybe, just maybe there’s a version of me out there that’s close to who I actually am, that some objective outside observer could cobble together from the glimpses of the real parts of me that the people in my life have been able to see. But maybe not, too.