Yesterday a quote caught my eye – the words of writer and feminist Adrienne Rich: “Until we know the assumptions in which we are drenched, we cannot know ourselves”
As much as I love Adrienne’s writing, I’m not sure I agree with this quote. But it did get me thinking – are we simply the product of our own thoughts and behaviour, or do we have to combine that with others’ perceptions of us to really understand who we are?
The picture above is of me. If you know me, you’ll have your own ideas about my personality, job, family, husband, house, the way I live my life, whether I’m nice or mean, funny or boring etc. If you don’t know me – you’ll judge me on the way I look. So you might notice:
I’m wearing a fur coat, leather gloves and a fluffy hat
(And some hideous walking boots)
I’m in a forest
I’m not smiling
I’m standing with my legs apart
I’m not fully facing the camera, perhaps about to walk off
All of these observations will contribute to your overall impression of the kind of person that I am. You might deduce that my get-up and stance suggest I work in one industry over another. My facial expression might lead you to assume something about my personality. The fact that I’m in walking boots in a muddy forest will (correctly) inform you that I like walking. But how much? Where? With whom? You won’t have any of those answers.
And so from just looking at my photo – you won’t have a clear idea of what I’m like or who I am. It will be vague, tainted by stereotypes and vary depending on who you are and what you’re like as a person.
Then there are people who have met me. And they’ll have a more accurate idea of my life and personality. But there will still be varying opinions about who I am and what I’m like. Because, really, none of you know anything about my mind or thoughts – bar what I tell you. And that’s a heavily edited version of what passes through my brain every second of every day. I might even be lying sometimes.
So back to Adrienne’s quote. We can’t know ourselves fully until we are made aware of the assumptions others make of us, she says. And that means that the hairdresser who instantly thought I was dumb when I walked into her salon with bleached blonde hair (then later changed her mind) is contributing to my sense of self. As are you, reader, judging me on my writing, photo and whatever else you might already know about me – even though you’ll probably never divulge this information to me or anyone else.
If I am the sum of my own and others’ opinions of me – I’m mean and dumb and smart and funny and cold and bitchy and caring all at once. And perhaps I am all of these things, some or all of the time. But perhaps we’re all completely individual and not affected by others’ perceptions of us; particularly the ones we never learn. Maybe we’re an unknown entity to everyone but ourselves.
To finish, another existentialist quote – by feminist campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez, from a Guardian article on new year’s resolutions:
‘My first new year’s resolution is to know that it’s OK to say no, to realise that I can no longer control my “image”, but have to let it all go sometimes and not panic so much about the fact that people who don’t know me hate me.’
And if people who don’t know her hate her, surely that shouldn’t contribute to Criado-Perez’s understanding of herself? Instead of worrying about what other people think of you (and remember: they think about you a lot less than you think about yourself) carry on moving forward – living, learning, loving and being the best person you can be. Because that’s who you really are: whoever you decide to be.