When People See the Worst in You: Perceptions Aren’t Always Accurate

“If you do not tell the truth about yourself you cannot tell it about other people.” ~Virginia Woolf

If you’ve ever listened to someone’s description or opinion of you and it sounded completely alien, you probably found yourself wondering where on earth they were coming from.

We are told that on a universal, spiritual level, the way you perceive someone is more than just an opinion; it’s actually a reflection of you being projected onto that person.

So if someone tells you that you’re beautiful, kind, or have a good heart, they can only do so because those qualities are present within them. Conversely, if you see someone as dishonest, unkind, or manipulative, that’s because you, yourself, are projecting those parts of you onto the other person.

When I was going through the depths of healing from adultery and my marriage breakup, I recalled a lot of things my ex-husband told me about myself—some of which I accepted, a lot of which I did not.

It was very important to me to use forgiveness, self-love, and a sense of perspective as my tools to move on. I worked hard on my own issues, and accepted responsibility for the things within me that had brought me that harsh experience.

But I have always struggled with this concept that “you can only see in others what you have within you.”

It’s not because I only want to believe the good things people say about me, or because I think I have no bad traits.

It’s because when dealing with unacceptable or in some cases abusive behavior in life, it is very difficult to hear and accept that the negative conduct you have received from someone else is simply your own darkness being brought into the open, and nothing to do with the other person.

This was how I had always interpreted such teachings, and doing so made me feel worse about myself instead of better.

I now understand that it is possible to witness or observe a behavior objectively, for what it is, without necessarily being that yourself.

This is true of both positive and negative interactions. For example, I can acknowledge and deeply admire those who can speak publicly with great confidence, but I don’t possess this ability.

This is not a defeatist attitude or low self-esteem talking; it’s simply an observation. Likewise, I can see someone’s behavior toward me as negative or destructive, but know I’m not like that. I no longer feel the guilt of believing that in order to have observed it, I must be like that too.

What I believe is that we all have is the potential for the behaviors we are being shown.

I know that I have the potential for great public speaking, and I know I have the potential for manipulative or intolerant behavior. But though can I recognize these traits in others, it’s not who I choose to be right now.

This is not intended as way to avoid responsibility for your own behavior, or an opportunity to judge others while saying “but I’m not like that.” But it is important to know, especially when we are feeling emotionally vulnerable, that sometimes it isn’t about us; it’s about them.

Here are three ways of working out whether what a person says about you is really a reflection of themselves. It’s also useful and healthy to use this exercise from the opposite perspective to see if you are ever projecting your own issues onto another:

1. Is their opinion about me something I’ve felt about myself?

We have a deep knowledge of our own psyche—our fears, our dreams, our abilities, and our strengths and faults.

Does what the other person is saying ring true on any level? If they are saying great things but the words sound hollow to you, it won’t really be about you. But if your heart lifts when someone calls you generous, it’s because you know you are, and they have struck a lovely chord.

2. Is their opinion about me something I’ve been shown by other people?

Although trusting your own inner knowing is vital, we are interactive creatures with varied experiences of each other.

Unless you have a real Jekyll and Hyde personality, other people’s perceptions of you will be largely similar. So, if one person is telling you that you are arrogant and stubborn, while everyone else sees you as kind, patient, and tolerant, then it’s most likely that this one person is bringing their own issues into what they are saying about you.

3. Do they have another agenda?

Does the person telling you about yourself want something from you emotionally or physically? Are they speaking to you, or about you, from a place of love, or fear?

If they have an agenda, then what you are being told about yourself, whether good or bad, is likely to be manipulation on their part and no reflection on you.

So why are we being told and shown things by others’ behavior if it’s not actually about us?

I believe that the actual message, whether it’s “you are selfish” or “you should be a professional dancer,” is not the end purpose of the exchange.

It’s what we learn about ourselves from our response that really matters. Is the comment something we need to pursue or let go of? Does it require a reply or acknowledgement? What does it say about us if we accept what they say, or don’t?

The things being presented to us through other people’s actions or words simply show us what we are capable of, not necessarily what we are.

For me, encounters and interactions with others are ripe learning opportunities for growth. We learn to use discernment, tolerance, compassion, and gratitude. We are shown the potential to be strong inspiring and happy; we are also shown the potential to be fearful, negative and unloving.

What we choose to be is up to us.

About Marissa Walter

Marissa Walter is a writer, mother, and the creator of Break Up And Shine, a website inspiring those suffering at the end of a relationship, to see it as an opportunity to create their best life. She is planning to publish her first book in 2013.  You can follow the blog at  or contact her on twitter @breakupandshine.

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  • Thought-provoking article Marissa. Is the stuff that people say to us, lovingly and in anger, reflective of us in some way? I like your 3 points – determine for yourself if it’s real, see what others say about a particular quality and determine their intentions on why they say it to us.

    Sometimes, it can be damaging to us to repeat or hear from someone something that is going on within us. We may have a particular quality we are aware of and may not be proud of and someone pointing it out to us may simply anger us even more. As you say, we have to try to learn from the interaction and not necessarily take is as truth. Taking it as an opportunity for growth requires quite a level of maturity and calmness sometimes which we might not all have in the moment:)

  • Deetwo

    I agree that frequently what folks say about you (or others) is a projection. However, to me it is that they are seeing something in you that is an issue for them. For example, when I lost weight, I got lots of responses that were not about me, but about how other people were feeling about themselves. I also had a coworker say something about me, and at first it felt so foriegn, how could she be correct? But with further reflection is was totally who I was and it was so helpful and made so many things pull together for me to have that understanding. Once I had and ex make complaint about me and I realized that was not about me at all, that was her issue. So, I think with sitting with and some reflection it is possible to determine whether or not it is about a part of your personality or not.

  • Steph H.

    Excellent article, something I really needed to hear right now as I’ve often wondered the same thing.

  • jwowwie

    I’ve interpreted this idea as you did–that if I see something in someone else, then that is something I’m actually seeing in myself. Thanks for exploring this idea further–great food for thought!

  • Ginny

    A good ol spin on the teachings of Maguel Ruiz.. LOVE..

  • Anne

    I can totally relate to this! This runs home with me that “accepted responsibility for the things within me that had brought me that harsh experience.” I have had hard time taking responsibility of the abusive living situation I have had to face since I was born up until the age of 20. But by not emotionally healing myself would be my choice to live through similar horror over and over again. Recently doing some of that I realized that in my recent life some harsh experiences had be brought out because of my conditioned, unconscious and automatic responses to situations that were so very different. But by relating them to my past experience my body went into the whole attach mode in order to protect myself which just brought more harm around me. I can’t take responsibility for what I learnt then through my abusive environment but I am fully responsible now to unlearn and relearn- most difficult thing I will ever do but even by observing and seeing my responses to my environment, I feel a lot healed!! Thank you

  • Anne

    As a rule of thumb though if something that is said makes you feel bad about yourself then thank the person and look inwardly. Thank the person to be so generous to open a door that you must pass through on to the other side and that it has now opened for you. But you have to pass through it so love yourself through the passage. Heal yourself! I have noticed that I only get hostile when I already feel bad about something inside of me but don’t allow it to come to my consciousness. When someone says it to me I allow myself to feel the pain, learn from it, work on myself because I know I wanted to do that anyways but been putting it off. I try to feel gratitude for the person for pointing it out and making me feel bad because first it eliminates unnecessary hostility and second because they have availed me the opportunity to work on something I really wanted to “now” ins tread of later.

    If someone is just overly critical of you, they are in place of fear and judgement for you, and have no respect for you then just move on along and have compassion for the hard life in front of them! This seems to lessen my burden.

  • growthguided

    Detaching from labels or perspective from others is challenging.

    I like to be at a place where I can say I don’t care what he/she says about me (when it is bad). But, when it is positive do I still utilize the same detachment techniques?

    Part of me would like to say yes, but I know inside I don’t because I love that intrinsic reward and feeling associated with the positive label placed upon me!

  • Thanks for sharing Marrisa. Really triggered my thinking.
    One thing I’ve learnt in recent years that has been really helpful for me is that what other people believe, say, think or feel about you (good or bad) has nothing at all to do with you. I used to own other people’s beliefs, words, behaviours about me and towards me like they were an extension of me, until I realised that my way of interpreting the world left my peace and happiness completely dependent on highly variable things completely outside of my control. If I encounter any negativity now I do take stock – to notice if there is something I can learn from it, and what it might be teaching me in that moment (eg is life signalling me to recognise something I need to evolve from/through) but I also make a conscious effort to remember that their stuff is their stuff, and my task in life is to own my way of being, not take on theirs.
    Thanks for your blog, helped me to bring these learnings to the forefront again!
    Best wishes!

  • Xavier Nathan

    This is a very thoughtful article and I feel you have presented here a very plausible alternative to the belief in projection. Thank you.

  • Saelwen

    Thank you for the realization you just gave me. I am continually thinking negatively about how unaffectionate and stand offish my boyfriend is with me. While reading this it occurred to me that while I am affectionate and intimate towards him, I am incredibly stand offish and distant from every other person in my life. I wonder if changing this energy within me would allow him to see the energy change and open up to me a little more. I’m going to try this out, thankyou 🙂

  • Marissa Walter

    Thank you everyone for taking the time to read the article and for your insightful
    comments. It was a subject really close to my heart because I tied myself up in
    knots for a long time, and couldn’t really move forward in healing until I got
    to grips with this issue. I had read so much about projection, shadow work and
    was aware of how I had to take responsibility for my own “stuff”.

    But was still finding negativity coming my way and trying to force myself to
    accept behaviour which was unacceptable because I believed, that there is no
    “other” behaving badly, it was simply my own negativity being
    reflected. This made me feel awful. Then for a while I started to think, hang
    on maybe, really, some of it just ISN’T about me! I believe that part of
    emotional growth is being able to discern what’s yours and what’s others’ and
    it’s a great act of self love to be comfortable doing that.

    Marissa x

  • theresaj01

    Although, I do understand that theory….What if you are just seeing someone whois plain old selfish or mean spirited or…..whatever. Can’t a trait in someone be something THEY actually own, and not a reflection of ourselves? If someone is acting selfishly is that something I have to own or is it really that they are behaving selfishly? I’m having a hard time understanding this….even though I do….I don’t. Lol Please help

  • Anne

    I am with you there. My father lacked integrity in the sense his actions never really followed his words and his words were never really followed into action which brought a lot of pain in my life. Ever since I have been conscious of myself and hold myself responsible for what I say I am going to do and I do it. Another part that I have merged within me is that now I only say and do what aligns with what I have in my heart instead of doing or saying what is expected of me. Having said that it is very easy for me to recognize in others when their feelings are not aligned with what they are saying and then the lack of integrity which follows after. Does that means I am reflecting upon them. No, not really! So there are Definitly something you can spot within yourself that might be present and when someone mentions them to you your voice deepens and heart sinks for a second and a fear sets in. That is not their reflection really because the feelings are yours and they have rised because you beliefs are aligned with them and sometimes they could be just incorrect beliefs. At that point you can look inwardly and see if it is true. Focus on your actions alone. Once you have done that your beliefs will rationalize… Be very honest! If you pick your nose in public and ashamed of the habit admit to yourself that you do pick your nose and that you feel shame for doing that- not the best example but I hope it helps illustrate. If your actions come back with the realization that no actually your beliefs are not true then you just have to deal with correcting your own beliefs- through self love and boasting self esteem and what others believe is their burden to carry. This is the process that has and continues to help me. I have a lot if limiting and false beliefs that with love and help of my love- my fiancé who no matter what is lovingly truthful helps me eliminate. An honest good friend could help in this process. I hope this helps!!

  • Karen Scott-Boyd

    Marissa thank you for your beautiful interpretation – we are shown our potential for light or dark; love or fear. Yes this very much resonated. Namaste

  • Danielle

    I’m four months late on this, but I still figured I would say my thoughts.

    I think it’s great to imagine that everyone has a good heart, but I think it’s also somewhat naive. Some people simply don’t care to think about anyone other than themselves- perhaps they never were told any better, they never had anyone to care for, whatever. I like to think that maybe people aren’t necessarily “bad” but more so “bad for me”.

    With that being said, my personal opinion (and understanding of the article) is that just because you see someone as selfish or mean spirited, it doesn’t necessarily mean that is a reflection of YOUR true self. Do you have the capability to be selfish or mean? Of course, we all do from time to time. But you make to effort not to.

    In the final paragraph, it states “The things being presented to us through other people’s actions or words simply show us what we are capable of, not necessarily what we are.” And I think that’s something good to keep in mind when you notice less than ideal traits among your friends and family. Everyone is responsible for their own actions and taking note of a person who is bad for you doesn’t mean you also possess those traits, but means that you have a clear understanding on who you want to associate with.

  • tim

    Thank you, Marissa. This was a great post. There’s a lot of advice floating around, and you’ve actually helped me make sense of some things I’ve been listening to and considering.

  • Tamanu Oil

    Phenomenal post. I was struggling with the exact same concept of noticing qualities but not necessarily thinking I represented those things, weather they be positive or negative. I admire certain qualities in people, that are not fully developed within myself and I was struggling to understand that connection. Now I have a much better understanding and I am full of gratitude!!

  • lex

    thank you. I’ve struggled with this having been rung out by an abusive narcissistic ex. I don’t accuse them of consciousness by any means which is why I always struggled with this aphorism in regards to our relationship. it can be true about things that irritate us about others but not deeply hurt us such as the double-bindings or crazy making projections of them onto us. it’s does got both ways at all times. while I have my shadow and they have theirs, they rarely project so perpendicularly. usually an interaction and reaction are one persons stuff and another the others’, especially true is one is an empath and another knows no empathy.

  • sunshine114

    Marissa – this is exactly the perspective I was looking for. Thank you. Some days my partner thinks I’m the greatest specimen on the planet, other days, I am scum of the earth. So I am trying to determine which of these are reflective of me, and which are projection from her. I have no problem accepting “critique” and learning from it, but the hard part is sorting through it all. And of course, getting those adversarial days to stop!