Relationships & Understanding the Minds of Other People

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Now onto today’s reading, which was edited and adapted from Ourselves and Others by H. Clay Trumbull, published in 1889.

We do not fully understand ourselves. We do not fully understand others. We think that others do not understand themselves. We are sure that others do not understand us. It seems to us that if we understood others better, we should find it easier to get along with them. It seems to us that if others understood us better, it would be easier for them to get along with us.

Yet, as a matter of fact, most of our troubles with others grow out of our understanding others, and of our being understood by them. Indeed, it is through an understanding of one another that most of what we call our “misunderstandings” with one another come.

There are, it is true, many phases of our character which are a perplexity to ourselves, and which we are right in supposing that others can never comprehend. So there are many phases in the character of others, which must be a hopeless perplexity to them and to us.

Moreover, every character is many sided, and one of our worst sides is likely to show itself at a time when it would seem as if the exhibit of one of our better sides would have presented our entire personality in a very different aspect. Even so, it is what we do clearly understand, of those whom we know most intimately, that is the prevailing cause of our liking or of our disliking them; and it is what is clearly understood of ourselves by those who know us best, that mainly influences their feelings with reference to us.

That which is least understood in the character of ourselves would, as a rule, have least influence in the shaping of the estimation of us by those who know us well, if it were all made clear; and that which we do not understand of those with whom we are intimate would, as a rule, make little difference in our feelings toward them, if it were comprehended by us fully.

There are, of course, exceptional instances of concealment of character, resulting in a wholly false estimate of one whom we have good opportunities of observing; but in the ordinary intercourse of life, especially in those phases of it which give us most concern, the more frequent cause of misunderstandings is in understanding and in being understood.

We are often understood by others at points where we (in fact) misunderstand ourselves. We think ourselves generous; they know that we are selfish. We think ourselves free from vanity or egotism; they know our weakness in that very line. We think ourselves full of kindliness of heart; they know that a vein of unkindliness runs through all our estimates of others.

We think ourselves careful and exact in speech; they know that inaccuracy and exaggeration are the rule with us. We think ourselves uniform in our cheerfulness of spirit; they know that we are moody and impulsive to an exceptional degree. We think ourselves reasonably sensible; they know that we show ourselves weak and silly in the lesser and the larger affairs of life.

We think ourselves industrious and capable; they know that we waste more time and strength than we use. We think that we have the courage of our convictions, and that we are not afraid to be independent in thought and action; they know that timidity is a chief trait in our character, and that our whole course in life is governed by what others think, or may think, about us. And so all the way up and down the standard chain of comparative judgments.

When, in such a case, we see how others view us, our impulse is to say: “But, you don’t understand me.” Their well-considered response to us, however, would be: “Oh, yes, I do!”

The misunderstandings between others and ourselves, in every instance of this kind, grow out of a good understanding of us by others. Our leading characteristics may be just the opposite from what we suppose; and when we think we are showing a good side of our nature, we may really be showing a bad side.

But beyond all this, even when we have a good side to show and are showing it, we may be disagreeable to those whom we like, and we may annoy them by the exhibit of the very best qualities in our minds and characters. It is a great mistake, and it is a very common mistake, to suppose that if our best selves could be seen at their best, they would surely commend themselves to those we like, especially to those whose qualities are in the direction of our own highest ideals.

When we consider it, however, we realize that our own likes and dislikes are not limited by the high moral element involved; and as it is with our own likes and dislikes, so it is with the likes and dislikes of others.

There are persons whose ways are repellent to us chiefly because of prominent characteristics in them, which we might admit are good in themselves, but with which, as currently manifested, we are not in accord. It is not that we do not understand these persons (but that we do understand them) that causes us to be repelled by them, or to be annoyed by their every exhibit of their best peculiarities.

Even though such people may have a special regard for us, and may desire most earnestly to make a good impression upon us by the manifestation of that which is best in their natures, we do not like them. We cannot like them. And it is because we understand them that they and we are always at a misunderstanding.

So, again, we may be disagreeable to others because of our finest characteristics; and even while we are known as we are (at our best), we may not be liked, simply because we cannot be. The misunderstandings, in such cases, between ourselves and those whom we honor and admire, are hopeless, because of the understanding between us.

We understand them at their best, and therefore we like them. They understand us at our best, and therefore they cannot like us. It is what we are, that stands in the way of our being what we ought to be. It is what we are, that causes us to be seen in an unfavorable light by those who see us as we are.

We can deceive ourselves into the thought that we are what we ought to be instead of what we are; but we cannot always deceive others on that point. It is because we are understood by others, while we are misunderstood by ourselves, that there are so frequent misunderstandings between ourselves and others, to their regret and to our surprise.

There is a gain in realizing this important truth: that many a regretted misunderstanding with one whom we like or admire grows out of their understanding and of our being understood. We are understood by others better than we understand ourselves. The good side which we think we have, may exist only in our fancy. The good side which is ours, may be a barrier to our being liked by those whose favor we long for.

If someone who has an opportunity of knowing us — especially if it be a person whose intelligence and judgment on other matters we value — thinks that we have a fault, a weakness, or a folly, which we have been surest we were free from, let us not say that we are misunderstood, but let us realize that we have, more probably, misunderstood ourselves. And then let us try to profit by our new knowledge of our needs and shortcomings, in the hope of doing and being better as the years go by.

If, again, someone who uniformly draws out the best that is in our nature, and toward whom we entertain feelings of the highest regard, finds nothing attractive and congenial in our best qualities, and in our most wisely considered endeavors, let us not say that if we were better known we should be better liked, but let us realize that it is because we are understood so well that we seem always to be in a misunderstanding. And then let us be determined to do our best (and to be at our best), whether we are understood or misunderstood.

In short, if our misunderstandings with others have grown out of our being understood to have poor qualities which we do not suspect, there is a call to us to correct this misunderstanding of ourselves.

If, on the other hand, our misunderstandings with others are a result of the incompatible nature of our best qualities, there is a call to us to keep up and to keep on at our best, even though being understood at our best gives us no gain beyond the gain of being at (and of doing) our best.

Lastly, we ought to understand human nature well enough to know, that even the most admired men and women of any age, regardless of their accomplishments, still possessed more than enough traits to be disapproved of by all. There is always more work to do, as we continually strive to become better, kinder, wiser: the very best version of ourselves.

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