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Let People Be Wrong About You

Gray background with white words: Let people be wrong about you and small Thought Kitchen logo in the bottom right corner

Once upon a time, I had a performance review. You know the kind; your boss rates you on a scale from 1-5 on a variety of metrics and they usually end up saying something like, "I'm not allowed to rate you 5 on everything, so I have to mark you lower on something." Does this sound familiar, or is it just me?

Anyway, this particular review seemed entirely ordinary, and I was okay with the mix of 4 and 5 ratings I received. It wasn't even tied to a pay increase, so it should have been a non-event. Except it wasn't. You see, when the review made its way up through HR, someone there sent it back to my boss and told them they had to rate me a "3" in the category of integrity.

If you know me, you likely won't be surprised to learn that one of my core values is integrity, and I work to recover from a sizeable dose of perfectionism. (I'm a classic Enneagram 1, if you find such tools interesting or useful.) And I had essentially just been given a "C" in my favorite subject. Even though logic told me this review didn't really impact my career and didn't even reflect what my actual supervisor thought of me, it burned like a wound to my soul. No reminder that a "3" is an average score could deter me from my belief that I had been wronged, and I needed to correct the error.

Today I look back on my younger self with compassion. I want to tell her that it's okay to let people be wrong about her. That the energy she spent trying to change the thinking of those who were determined to misunderstand her, or who just weren't her people, wouldn't heal that wound, but instead would just keep infecting it. I want to tell her that she is enough, regardless of external feedback. And also that for every person who is determined to misunderstand her, there is someone else who is determined to love and accept her if she can only turn her energy to noticing them.

It's human nature to try to make sense of things we don't understand. We all do it. A useful inquiry I've learned from Dr. Brené Brown is, "What's the story I'm telling myself?" I've spent so much energy over the past year or so trying to correct stories people are telling themselves about me, and it's exhausting and pointless. I can't control their stories any more than they can control mine. You know why? Because the stories we tell ourselves always have more to do with us than with who or what they are about. When I spend my energy trying to change someone else's story, I'm not staying within my boundaries or my integrity.

I'd like to say that today I find it easy to let people be wrong about me, but that would be a lie, and we've established how I feel about integrity. What I can say is that I'm more aware of the cost of spending that energy on arguing my case, and I'm committed to the practice of focusing that energy elsewhere. I say it's a practice because I know some days it will come easier than others, and some days I'm going to totally blow it. On those days, I'm going to do my best to invite self-compassion to the table and redirect my energy.

Does this resonate with you? Do you find yourself grabbing other people's opinions of you and hanging on to them and/or engaging in the battle to try to reshape them? If that's starting to feel exhausting, I invite you to try on a couple of practices for size. If they don't fit, take what you need and leave the rest.

Notice what's happening. This may seem obvious, but part of this reaction is hard-wired. Your brain -- specifically the amygdala, which is constantly scanning for danger -- interprets criticism as a threat, and your body has a physiological response. How does it feel in your body when someone gets something wrong about you? I might start to feel hot, or like someone just punched me in the gut. My danger response is to fight, but if I'm paying attention to those sensations in my body, maybe I can interrupt that response cycle and press pause.

Pause. I might use the pause to take a few deep breaths, or maybe I do a little grounding practice by noticing the sensations in my feet, seat, and hands. Maybe I just say to myself, "Hey, amygdala, I see you and I know you're trying to protect me." Did anyone ever tell you to count to 10 before reacting? That's actually pretty good advice, because all of these things interrupt your stress response and give your logical brain a chance to catch up and take stock of the situation.

Get curious. What are some questions you can ask yourself? Why are you reacting so strongly? In my example, someone challenged a deeply held value. My reaction is data; it tells me that integrity is important to me. Maybe the next question is, "What's the story I'm telling myself, and is it true?" I created all kinds of stories about my performance review -- it was going to impact the overall boss's opinion of me, it was going to harm my career trajectory, etc. An assessment a therapist recently taught me to apply is whether the story I'm telling myself is possible or probable. Of course, it was possible that the ultimate boss would see the performance review, believe it to be accurate, change their already formed opinion of me, and take action that would harm me professionally. Was it probable? No. The true result of the review was that my feelings were hurt, and I multiplied that result exponentially by hanging on to the hurt and trying to correct the story.

So, dear reader, the next time someone gets something wrong about you, I invite you to notice, pause, and get curious. I hope you'll let me know how it works for you.

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