There are portraits of me everywhere. They exist in the minds of everyone that I have spoken to or met, whether either or us like it or not. Sometimes these images are fleeting, hard to retrieve, and other times they may be indelibly etched onto one’s mind. For some, they are static, frozen in time, and for others, they may be more fluid, changing with each new interaction. It is easy to ignore their existence – at times, it may even be necessary – but it is, after all, human nature to want to know how other people see you.
Seeing is the operant word here. Our brains almost always construct a mental image of the person we are talking to, even if it is someone called Debbie who is trying to fix your internet problem over the phone, and who you will probably never speak to ever again. After all, it is another person on the other end of the line, and it is part of the human condition to connect a face to the voice – if only to make the interaction a little more bearable. Regardless of why this occurs, my portrait of Debbie may (and will almost definitely) be different to that of her next caller, or one seen by one of her friends.
This mosaic of images tells a fascinating story in themselves. It tells us where we have been, what we have done, and who we have learned from. But perhaps the most terrifying aspect of these portraits is that we are unable to access them, and that we do not know how far they may have spread. A little whisper here and there may become something infinitely more insidious, turning into a portrait painted with brushstrokes that do not belong to us. They have the ability to morph into creatures out of anyone’s control, and they may do so without your say so, or even your knowledge.
As scary and overwhelming as that may be, it is important to remember that these portraits are not, and do not have to be static. You (or who you are assumed to be) can walk out of one, as if in a Harry Potter novel, and come back a different person.
Every time we interact with someone, we inevitably leave a piece of ourselves with them. It is the nature of human interaction, and a quirk that is impossible to avoid. As a result, it is only natural to want to know what other people think of you – and this is fine, as long as it doesn’t become an obsession. There are, after all, bigger and better things to worry about. On the flip side, we should also be willing to change our self-generated images of others, regardless of our prejudices.
At the end of the day, the only image that should really matter is your self-portrait. If you can look in the mirror, smile, and see yourself there, with your virtues and vices loud and clear, then surely – surely, that should be enough.