We Can’t Choose How Others See Us

Because there is no absolute reality

Everyone has their own reality

Because: “perception is reality.”

When I graduated from college, the concept of “personal brand” was super popular. (Or maybe it still is super popular; maybe it’s just super popular with fresh college grads. I don’t know.) In any case, the whole point was to dictate “who you were”, because “if you didn’t, others would.”

It’s okay advice — to an extent. But the reality is: you can guide people, but you can’t fully orchestrate how they’ll perceive you. Because everyone always has their own interpretation of the facts, their surroundings, and other people — including you.

There is no “real” or absolute reality — even in quantum physics

Experimenting with the travel paths of particles, quantum mechanics have proven that reality is what you choose it to be — or, more specifically: what you test, look for, and see.

A quantum of light, or photon, can either act like a bulletlike particle or rippling wave — but not both at once. And physicists have observed that what influences which of the two behaviors a photon “chooses” is: how it’s being measured.

By passing photons through an apparatus designed to measure its behavior, they noticed that when they measured for “bulletlike” activity, that’s what photons would display. When they measured for “waves,” that’s what they’d display instead.

In response, researchers began “deciding” what to measure only after passing photons through the apparatus, after the photon’s path had been defined. And what they saw was even more peculiar: the photons would rearrange their behavior to match the researcher’s decision, indicating that a perspective in the present determines an event in the past.

Unable to explain the phenomenon, quantum theory still avoids the issue by assuming that, until measured, the photon remains both a particle and a wave.

In other words: everything is Schrödinger’s cat.

Meaning: All realities exist simultaneously, and we see what we look for.


As Amanda Gefter wrote in her article “The Evolutionary Argument Against Reality,”

“We tend to assume that our perceptions — sights, sounds, textures, tastes — are an accurate portrayal of the real world. Sure, when we stop and think about it — or when we find ourselves fooled by a perceptual illusion — we realize with a jolt that what we perceive is never the world directly, but rather our brain’s best guess at what that world is like, a kind of internal simulation of an external reality.”

Donald D. Hoffman, professor of cognitive science at the University of California, says,

“The world presented to us by our perceptions is nothing like reality.”

Because there isn’t one.

Everyone is entitled to their own reality — even regarding other people

Because there is no true and singular reality, and everyone is entitled to their own, including other people.

i.e., everyone will always view everyone else differently than everyone views themselves.

And if it involves all people, that means it also includes romantic interpersonal relationships; i.e., love.

Which means:

We’ll never find a partner who sees us *exactly* as we see ourselves.

But where does “subjective reality” stop and “personal agency” begin? Are we entitled to be seen by others the way we see ourselves? Are we entitled to be valued (and loved) by others for the same things by which we value and love ourselves — and not less?

What does this mean for love?

I don’t know why physicists don’t articulate how this impacts interpersonal relationships. You may assume it’s because human beings are inherently subjective (whereas science is not), but oddly scientists are more than happy to apply their findings to the subjective nature of the human experience — in a vacuum, i.e., regarding individuals alone. But very few physicists take it a step further and discuss what this means for two or more people — or interpersonal love.

Perhaps this work has been left to the philosophers, but in fact they’re pretty infamous for avoiding the discussion of love — and those who broach the topic do so with palpable cynicism, calling it, at worst, a “hazardous painful struggle” (Sartre) and at best, “the most ingenuous expression of egoism” (Nietzsche), a meaningless pursuit (like life overall), or an escape from it (Camus.)

So then we might look to the psychologists, but they mostly approach it with bias — or reduce love to “sex.” (Thanks, Freud.)

Perhaps we might consider a religious aspect — “love thy neighbor as thyself” ain’t half bad, after all — but there you also get misogyny, which doesn’t gel for many people. The best exception here may be Buddhism, which offers innumerable answers on love overall, including the question of “self.” (There is no self. Not because nothing is real, but because everything is one. But some of us aren’t ready for that.)

So outside of that, who’s left to handle the big question?

Do We Have Agency In The “Reality” of Our “Self?”

Do we get to say “who” we are — and choose how we’re loved?

Many of us have felt that quiet, soul-sucking pain of being seen as less than we see ourselves; not being understood and seen, and therefore not truly loved— which is only made worse at the hand of someone we, conversely, truly see, understand, and care about.

Well-articulated in Emma Lindsay’s “Fish Love,”

“Sometimes, I’d go on a date with someone, and maybe they’d tell me how pretty I was — but that comment really said nothing about me. Whenever someone tells me I’m beautiful, they’re telling me they love themselves. They’re telling me that they want to be around people and things that give them pleasure, and that my physical appearance gives them pleasure. But, they’re not telling me that they care about me. They’re not telling me that my lived experience is important, or that how I feel matters to them.”

On the one hand, no, that’s not “real love.” But on the other hand, everyone’s feelings — even those regarding us — are real in their version of reality.

And the answer to our pained, implied question — “do I have a say in how I’m seen?” — is a warm, all-encompassing reassurance:

Yes, we all have agency.

But that agency is situational.

We do NOT get to choose what others see.

That is their reality, and how they see everything — including us — will always be their truth. This is heartbreaking if they think they “love” “us,” when the “us” they “love” is different than the “us” we see in ourselves. There is no real connection here, and even if both partners invest fully, they are two ships passing in the night.

We DO get to choose people who see us for how we see ourselves

This is connection. This is common ground. We cannot dictate people’s reality, but we can choose to surround ourselves with people who sees things similarly. This is not to encourage sheltering ourselves from other perspectives — by all means; this promotes growth! But when it comes to the question of personal identity, there is no soul-suck quite like the soul-suck of investing real emotions into someone who doesn’t see you as a complete “someone” back. We can choose a partner who does.

You cannot love if you cannot understand. And you cannot understand if you cannot see.

It is beautiful and fulfilling to have rich and complex perspectives on the world and life and everything else. But a happy relationship is based on complementary (though never perfect) understanding of one another as individuals; a connection is based on each person valuing their partner, even if slightly differently, just as much as their partner values themselves.

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