You and I understand each other pretty well most of the time. But there are certainly moments when I wonder what’s going on inside your head. At such moments, I’m often tempted to throw up my hands, call you a “typical crazy teen,” and congratulate myself for being the clear-headed one among us. But I try instead to remember a quote by Stephen R. Covey: “We judge ourselves by our intentions and others by their behavior.”
Covey’s quote neatly sums up a flaw we humans share: the tendency to apply a different set of standards when judging ourselves than we apply when judging others. Maybe even more importantly, it points to a fundamental asymmetry in how we experience ourselves as opposed to everyone (and everything) else. That asymmetry works like this: I always live myself from the inside out, but I always see you from the outside in.
Think about it. I have continual access to my own inner life—my thoughts, my intentions, my emotions, my perceptions—so I practically can’t help but understand myself as a deep and complex character. Even if I don’t fully grasp my own motives and biases, my ongoing experience repeatedly proves to me that I’m a deeply feeling, fundamentally adaptable, relatively intelligent, and well-meaning-if-admittedly-flawed human being.
At the same time, I can’t help but see you from the outside in. I can listen to your words, but I can’t hear your thoughts. I can empathize with your plights, but I can’t feel your feelings. As for the intentions behind your behaviors, I can only ask about those after the fact. With only a little effort, I can imagine that you have an inner life like mine. But I do have to use some imagination to get there. And my imagination isn’t always the most reliable of sources.
(Note to self: My understanding of you is always, at least partly, a figment of my own imagination.)
Of course, the same is true for you in reverse: You can’t help but live yourself from the inside out, and you can’t help but see me from the outside in.
(Second note to self: Your understanding of me is always, at least partly, a figment of your imagination.)
This fundamental asymmetry in our cognitive makeup has some serious social consequences. It’s partly because we all see each other from the outside in that we remain vulnerable to culturally transmitted diseases like racism, sexism, ageism, ethnocentrism, etc.—all of which involve judging people by external attributes rather than by the contents of their characters.
At the same time, recognizing this fundamental asymmetry creates an opportunity: Even if you first appear in my consciousness as a thing to be identified, categorized, and classified, I can (and should) remind myself that you’re actually a person to be dignified. Even if I don’t have direct access to your inner life, I can (and should) remind myself that you have feelings like mine that you may want to express, thoughts that you can explain and that we can discuss, and intentions that I may well have misunderstood.
I can remember that you, like me, continually live yourself from the inside out, in all of your existential richness and messiness. And I can remind myself that you, like me, would therefore likely bristle at being reduced to a set of labels and stereotypes—even if you are currently behaving like a “typical crazy teen.”
Finally, I can remember that you will tend to judge yourself by your intentions and me by my behaviors. And I can realize that the best way to show you my own deeper humanity is precisely by behaving in a way that respects yours.
Given the asymmetrical way we’re wired, misunderstanding among humans is normal. But it isn’t a permanent condition. It’s a place from which we can (and should) begin to make things better. And making things better doesn’t require any special mind-reading magic or fancy new translation technology. It just takes conversation and careful listening, coupled with humility, compassion, and kindness. In other words, it just takes the very virtues that make another person worth getting to know in depth.
(Third note to self: If you want to be understood, get to work on your own understanding. If you want to be heard, start by listening.)