We cannot escape the perceptions of us held by others, nor can we escape from our perceptions of others and the truth that the people we surround ourselves with are who we make them out to be.
If we accept this to be true, we are at any one time the version of ourselves that others hold to be true. That doesn't diminish us as an individual in our own right (unless the view of us held is inherently shitty) but it's explain why we can be such a different person around different people. Maybe not everyone is: I’m not saying what follows applies to everyone because there are always exceptions to the rules, and there are underlying consistencies in our personalities and beliefs which mark us our own person. But I know the people around me change who I am, to some extent.
At school I was pegged as the quiet, submissive nerd. To this day, around a lot of the folk from school who gave me a hard time, that is what I revert to. If anyone has seen The Rock and Kevin Heart's film Central Intelligence, there is a great scene demonstrative of that where The Rock’s powerful, loud but insecure rogue CIA agent is confronted by his high school bully and shuts down.
Around my friends, especially Uni friends, I'm a leader. They think of me as a bit of a dick, but definitely no arsehole and certainly not a cunt. I've been described and labelled as charismatic, funny and headstrong so those are the traits I inhabit. Already on my new MA, I’ve been pegged as ‘knowing a lot’ and being confident, so I’m comfortable piping up to ask questions and debate in lectures.
If someone had said I seemed a bit thick, that’d have changed my persona within that context. Abby, a girl who I lived with and who holds me to account like few others, has noted that girls get quickly infatuated with me – which sets both parties up for a fall. I've frequently felt unable to match those expectations.
Likewise though, I know I bring out sides to my close friends they otherwise wouldn't be considered as having: around me, my friend Dunks becomes far more assertive, focused and particularly lexically fixated. Around his musical friends he – surprise, surprise - is a character dominated by his musical talent. Around Alex I inspire feats of hitherto untold hedonism, but also quiet warmth and stillness he otherwise lacks.
Closeness is another factor.
People often say they are their true selves around their closest friends or partners, but I'd disagree. Intimacy allows further walls to be broken down and trust established, but it also makes the other persons view of you even are powerful. My personality is drawn to its extremes by the people who are close enough to me to have mined deep enough to find them: Emma, my oldest friend, cuts through my pride like no one else because she was the only person who knows me now who was close to me as the short fat bullied 12-year-old who cried on her shoulder. It’s not to say that is how she sees me, but it's how she knows me. I'm also the funniest I get around her, partly because that's what she expects of me. It gives me the freedom to crack a joke I otherwise wouldn't. But that's one of the consistencies in my personality: I cherish making people laugh because I know what it's like to be sad. Some people bring out the worst, some the best, some just magnify everything , because it matters so much and the chemistry runs deep. Electricity is bright, but it burns and occasionally short circuits.
Perhaps all of this is why it holds true that you always only find good relationships when you're not looking. Whoever comes along isn't clouded and shaped by your preconceived notion of 'what you want.' It’s quite difficult to live up to an idealised vision of a partner that has been created internally, separate from you, to fulfil their specific needs. No real person can do that. We also can't force open mindedness regarding new people, to do so is still to shape the people you meet before you've met them. If you need to be loved, you will find love and admiration in anyone who gives a modicum of attention. Likewise, if you find the whole notion of a relationship or new people in general wretched, meeting people will be a wretched experience.
That's important with regards to social anxiety. If you anticipate being on edge around people, or people finding you awkward, that's what will be. This isn't mindless theorising anyway. As a lecturer, I have to shape the perception of myself as being worthy of respect and being in control. It’s similar to theatre - actors plant the seeds of the character in the minds of the audience. How well they do this dictates how successful or high quality the performance is. An actor without an audience is just a person. It’s the audience who establish and accept that they're playing a character. Crowds, like individuals, reflect this basic point of human nature on a massive scale: if the crowd demands a villain they will get one. If the crowd bays for a demagogue, one shall be created. Look at the US election.
This leads me back to an earlier point: when we are alone our identity breaks down. A few days alone time is always healthy. But go too long, or too regularly, and the only mirror you have to see yourself is yourself, and that is an infinitely deep vista. Small wonder depression, anxiety and even early death is linked with loneliness; if you've ever been stuck ratting around your own head without release, you'll know it feels like you're killing yourself. Perhaps worse, if you plant the perception of being a loaner in others' heads or even worse expect others to have that perception of you when you do escape the confines of your mind you do what we do: become what people think you are.
Likewise, if you are desperate to impress you'll lose sight of who you are. I've fallen into that trap. The cruelty of it is that it often feels like utter bliss when we get the affirmation we so crave. There’s a fine line between being a part of something and giving yourself up for someone. But that's the role of self-esteem and self-worth: the more you have, the less reliant you are on other people's views of you for happiness. This isn't to say that those with unlimited self-esteem are more likely to be consistent across everyone they know, it just means that they value themselves and their positive reflection without the negative festering. Self-love doesn't so much direct us towards good people and second as much as it does steer us away from the bad ones.
So it's worth being mindful that we are only that which we are perceived to be - but the consistencies across those varying perceptions, and the universal experiences, knowledge and feelings we hold mark us as ourselves as individuals. Just don't spent too long on your own, or that individual will unravel.
Or long essay short, Eminem: