Their Image of You: When It Becomes a Strait Jacket

Written by on December 12, 2012 in Conversations on the Healing Journey with 12 Comments

Not only do we have to contend with how we see ourselves, but how others see us. This is the image that is “other-directed”. We may have initially contributed to this image, but other people holding it can keep us imprisoned, even if we, or sometimes, especially if we desire to change.

When how other people see us becomes a strait jacket to who we are or desire to be, then that perception can become a form of covert abuse.

This is the phenomenon you might experience if you want to make a health change. Let’s say you’re not at a weight that is healthy for you. Your body and level of energy tells you you need to lose some weight, and so you endeavor to do so. To do that you might have to adopt a healthier lifestyle, watch what you eat, how much you eat, exercise, become more active or rest when you would normally push yourself on. These things require change of behavior and attitude.

Your family and friends may say they support you, but if they’re used to seeing you overweight or having you take care of things even to the point of exhaustion they may be resistant to the changes you want to make. They may even attempt to sabotage them.

They might offer you that piece of cake or encourage you to eat another helping or fill the cupboards with your favorite junk foods. They may tempt you to stay on the couch watching t.v. instead of going on your evening walk or pressure you to stay up late when they know you have to get up early or make you feel guilty if you leave something undone.

The same when you try to quit smoking or drinking or any habit that isn’t in your best interest. While giving you lip service they present opportunities and temptations or even demands that set you up to fail.

There are many reasons why you may not get the support you need. Your changes may remind others of the changes they need to make, but don’t want to or feel they can’t at this time. They may feel your change is an indictment against them.

Even if you aren’t asking them to change their habits, the new choices you make will necessitate a change in how you relate to each other now. It’s not the changes in you they object to as much as the changes they perceive they will have to make in relation to you.

In a way when you become a different person from the one they perceived you to be, it is, also, a kind of loss. Perhaps your vices, the ones you shared and the ones that impacted them for good or ill actually defined your relationship. So changing the habit or behavior changes the relationship, taking the relationship from a kind of familiar safety, no matter how negative, to the unknown.

Unwelcome changes may involve not only what you want to drop but what you desire to embrace. Maybe the change you want to make is personal growth. Maybe you just want to become a better person. You embark on a personal improvement journey, take up meditation or go to church or change churches. Maybe you join a discussion group. Perhaps you become more involved in philanthropic work — volunteering, becoming an activist, embracing your creativity and helping others find theirs.

Perhaps embracing this something new involves going back to school. Or it’s a career decision. You want to go back to work or you want to leave work and stay at home.

Or maybe the changes you wish to implement may not have as much to do with what you do but who you are. You may not switch jobs or take on a different lifestyle. On the surface everything looks the same. You just want to be perceived differently. You want to perhaps explore other aspects of your nature and not be defined by just one set.

People get comfortable in how they see you. If others view you as the class clown, it’s difficult to ever be taken seriously, no matter what position or job you hold. If they see you as not so smart your opinions or views can be easily dismissed. If pegged as the athletic one others may not give much merit to your artistic desires. Or if seen as sensitive then your genuine concerns can be too easily trivialized.

We contribute to how others perceive us, but people, also, have their own agendas and bring personal filters through which they see. These filters often reflect more on those who do the perceiving than on the ones perceived. Sometimes filters are all encompassing, like when we render whole races, the sexes and groups of religious/philosophical beliefs into two dimensional caricatures instead of seeing them for who they are as human beings.

It’s easy to do this with strangers or acquaintances, but preconceived notions and personal agendas can blind or distort our perceptions of our loved ones too.

Sometimes people insist on seeing you in a certain way because it’s just comfortable and familiar. Without any ill intent, whether it’s a change in behavior or a change in being, people who are used to seeing you in a certain way may struggle with the newer you. They like the old you, or at least, are comfortable with the familiarity of it. They have you figured out and they’re comfortable with who they have decided you are — and perhaps, you’ve agreed you are for some time.

Or maybe the image they have of you is what they love about you. It’s what we all fear right? That we’re not loved for ourselves. That maybe we’re just playing charades instead of living authentically. So when we change or share some part of ourselves that’s new or transform ourselves in front of others it’s almost like becoming a stranger to them…and perhaps even to yourself. It may feel safer for you to stay in a strait jacket of a familiar image with all its known expectations and predictable behavior than to venture into a more uncertain changing landscape.

Falling in love with what they have come to expect of you not only makes them unwilling to see you differently, it may, also, make you reluctant to change or step out of that image. Any change, even only expanding upon an image that is still you but now fits a bit too tightly, can be experienced as a betrayal by others and you.

How many times have we been told lovingly never to change? Or sworn, I never will change or asked ourselves If I change will they still love me?

Whether an image is a strait jacket or not depends on how flexible that image is, how closely it reflects the real you and how willing others and you are to let that image go or adjust it as genuine growth and change occurs.

It can be a bumpy ride, but healthy relationships allow for those changes and adjust. But some people go beyond normal adjustment bumps. They create them. And the one being bumped is you as they attempt to stuff you into a strait jacket of their own making.

These people not only perceive you through their filters, they want everyone else to see through them, as well. They want other people to see you through their eyes.

They don’t just introduce you to others, they tell them who you are. They usurp your right to reveal yourself and steal the opportunity of others to get to know you. They may define you right out, but most of their efforts in creating your image is by dropping suggestions or implications into the subconscious minds of others by how they treat you. This can be done through how they talk to you in front of others or about you behind your back.

If you question whether this is happening, observe. What messages do they give to others about you? What clues do they drop concerning you that may create an impression on others? Is that the impression you want to make? What stories do they tell about you? How are you described in these stories?

In what manner do they respond to you? Do they even give you room to speak? When you talk, do they laugh off what you say? Are they dismissive? What is the tone in their voice when they speak to you or about you? Do they smile knowingly at others when you open your mouth or do they talk down to you? Do they begin or end their sentences when speaking to you with your first name, in a tone as if they were speaking to a four year old, patronizing? Do they speak slower when they speak to you, maybe even enunciating a little clearer than when they speak to others as if you were slow of understanding? Do they cut you off as if the thought you were expressing wasn’t worth completing?

What adjectives do they use when referring to you? If not mean, are they still how you really want to be described, to be known? Do their words reflect the truth of you, make you feel good about yourself or do you feel vaguely out of place, out of sight? Do you feel misrepresented or misunderstood. Maybe even invisible? Do you feel insulted or frustrated?

All of this can be done with a smile of course, but laden with the subtle covert message that you are less than those around you or reshaping you into what they want others to see rather than the person who is actually standing right there. This is covert abuse.

For it not only affects how others perceive you, it also affects how they come to treat you, which in turn can affect how you see yourself. Before you know it, you’ve climbed into the strait jacket of an image of someone else’s creation and taken it as your own.

Any image, whether held by you or by another, that lessens who you are or restricts how far you can stretch or precludes you from changing is a form of covert abuse. It’s covert because most of the time you don’t even know it’s happening. You don’t realize you might be being held prisoner to other people’s perceptions.

Being held to an image that no longer works may be fueled by another person’s less than honorable agendas. Or it may be the natural outcome of what you portrayed about yourself but no longer fits or other people’s filters and their own needs to keep things as they know it. It can be a combination or synergy of a variety of dynamics.

You have partial responsibility for the image you hold. You are responsible for what you convey to others about yourself. But you are, also, impacted by the image others hold of you. You cannot be responsible for what other people want to see or their agendas, whether well meaning or malevolent.

Others may insist they know who you are, but you don’t have to agree. Sometimes it’s not about reinventing yourself, but revealing yourself. It’s about being mindful of the story you are telling others about who you are and finding people who are willing to listen. Some will resist. Some may need to be left behind. Others are worth the effort to work and grow with.

Let the empowerment of having the ability to make those choices become a part of the image that reflects the truth about you.

~Demian Yumei

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About the Author

About the Author: Demian Yumei, author, singer/songwriter and artist activist, uses spoken, written word and original songs in her human rights activism. She's a long time traveler on the healing journey and has a lifelong love affair with the creative process. .


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  • Demian Yumei says:

    This article is about how we may be restricted by how others perceive us. It was interesting to me to observe this occur in some personal settings, the frustration one person felt over being “pegged”. Sometimes it’s benign, other times not so much. Either way it’s a challenge to our authenticity when how we’re perceived doesn’t match or make room for who we are becoming.

  • Sarah72 says:

    Wow, Demian, you have so eloquently described and explained a form of covert abuse that happens
    all the time in many different subtle and not-so-subtle ways. This can be especially damaging, for example,
    if someone is describing you in an unfavorable way to others who have yet to meet you.
    Many times, people believe the first thing they hear about a person or a flash impression 
    they have gotten about someone and they stick to that impression. 
    An example again from my life. I have a mother-in-law who pretty much declared war on me from
    the first day my husband and I married. She also did the very same thing to my husband’s
    ex-wife and that woman left within 6 months of getting married to him since his mom was
    so intent on breaking them up. Ten years into my marriage, my MIL is still at it. The problem is,
    she has no real fodder to base her gossip on since I never drink alcohol, I have never tried
    drugs, have never gotten into trouble with the law, and graduated from all my schooling as
    an Honor’s student. On top of that, I have held down various high profiled corporate jobs
    over the years and spent spare time doing volunteer work. Point is, if someone is honest and
    won’t make up blatant lies, it is pretty hard to call someone with a clean background a deadbeat,
    druggie, etc. So, my mother-in-law used this tactic of making up lies about me and spreading
    them around to her sisters, her brothers, nieces, nephews, aunts, uncles, etc. and anyone else
    long before i had a chance to meet any of these people. When my brother-in-law got engaged
    and he flew in to see us with his fiancee, there was this immediate kind of wedge that I could
    feel between us all even though I had never met her previously. In order to make my brother-in-law
    and his fiancee comfortable, I purchased the food they loved (which I asked about in advance)
    and prepared it. Made sure to take them places and went out of my way to make her feel
    welcome. Yet, they went out of their way to be warm and friendly to my husband and sons
    while ignoring me and refusing to eat the meals I had prepared. Well, I kept on keeping on
    and being kind. This past September they got married in her hometown and we flew 2,000
    miles to be there. To make a long story short, it was a very emotionally difficult experience
    because I was willfully snubbed by her family and friends, even when I tried to make conversation.
    On the other hand, my husband was welcomed with open arms.  At one point, I told him
    something was going on and I felt very ill at ease. He said I was being paranoid and that people
    who had never met me before would not take the time and effort to snub me. Finally, at one point
    during the beginning of the reception, my husband’s first cousin, a female my age who I had
    never met, was standing there with her glass of wine. She came over and said, “Oh you must
    be Sarah… it must be a real challenge for you having my aunt (my MIL) for a mother-in-law”.
    Then the cousin gave me a wink. I said, “What do you mean?” Then my husband’s cousin waved
    her wine glass around and said, “You know how my aunt is. Short tempered, holds a grudge, 
    says awful stuff about anyone who crosses her path to the entire family…” I looked at her,
    kind if stunned, and said, “Well… I don’t quite get what you are saying…” Then, she gave me
    that oh-come-on-how-naive-are-you look and said, “She has said some horrible things about
    you to the extended family over the years, but just from meeting you now you are not at all
    who she described you to be.” And with that, my husband’s cousin rejoined her own family
    that was waiting across the reception hall.  I was flustered because I had always sensed as
    much and I felt my face becoming red. I asked my husband to take a walk with me outside.
    I have to admit I was hurt and annoying and I said, “Seriously– how can you or your dad
    expect me to have a civil relationship- let alone any relationship– with your mom?” My 
    husband said, “She is who she is. She has always been that way. My dad has tried to change her–
    I have tried to change her– my brother has tried to change her. She won’t listen. She will
    either deny or cry of you confront her. We all gave up a while ago.” Of course, I had to
    belabor the point because I was so pissed off at that point. My husband listened and promised
    that if his mom said anything to him or in front of him he would correct her, just as he always did,
    but that was all he could/would do. 
    And the short of it is, I am still married, I still have the same problems with my MIL,
    but, after 10 years of marriage, I have now figured that if she cannot stop making up
    cruel lies about me and spreading them around to her family, well, I am going to start
    blogging about how she acts and TELLING the TRUTH about how she acts. Unfortunately,
    I do not have to embellish her behavior because it is consistently illogical. 
    But the final reason I am blogging about it is because my MIL embodies a kind of
    covert abuse that can kind of slip under the radar and blind-side those who
    are not aware of this type of abuse.  I am also blogging about it because it has gotten
    to the point where I need an outlet to share my thoughts or I am going to either get
    really depressed or have to give up my marriage.
    It’s sad because it is the holiday season and I think about all of the families that
    are estranged. I have a great relationship with my parents who live in the
    same town and with my aunts and uncles. My parents also have a great relationship
    with my husband. Prior to getting married, I promised to do whatever it took to be
    a good daughter-in-law so that I could have “one big family” that got together
    during holidays and was close. For the first 9 years of my marriage I bent over backwards
    to smooth things over between my mother-in-law and I. But, as my father-in-law says himself,
    “She hates you because you married her son. It’s not rational and there is nothing you could
    do short of non-existence to please her.”
    That is a pretty sad story, in my estimation.
    If there are any mother-in-laws out there reading this and if you have an estranged 
    relationship with your DIL for some petty reason, I urge you to make amends, if possible!
    Life is just too short.

    • J says:

      @Sarah72 Hi Sarah, Have a look here: I have posted links and books that might be of interest to you. You are not alone in dealing with such a mother in-law. There are many interesting blogs to read, and there is a lot of useful information! ATB, J.

      • Sarah72 says:

        Hello J,
        Thank you for posting the blog link and the books. I look forward to reading about what other women are going through. I recently saw the film “Monster In Law” because my own father in law told me that was what I was dealing with. I saw it, and yep, that is what I am dealing with. When I saw the scene where she hired a private detective to dig up dirt on her future daughter in law and went through the girl’s transcripts, I was like, “Well, that is NOT fiction… because it actually happened to me..” The reason I know it happened was because my MIL was dumb enough to tell my husband that she broke into my filing cabinet to take a look at my college and graduate school transcripts. Her rationale was that I was a ‘loser’ because I majored and graduated with degrees in the humanities. Of course, she did not also notice that my transcript was marked with ‘double Honors’ from the university and a 4.0. GPA. Nor did she care to note that my graduate school transcript contained Oxford University on it. So, it just goes to show– when some mother-in-laws want to get it into their heads that their DILs are evil, they can take the most educated person with a tee-totaling background and find something to complain about.

        • J says:

          @Sarah72  Hi Sarah, These MILs will never make amends. They feed on the havoc they cause. My MIL talks to me in ways that I consider as an insult to my intelligence. I can say to myself, well ok that’s because she has a personality disorder, but that doesn’t mean her presence is any less toxic to me. I hope you will find a way to deal with this, which is healthy for you. I recognize so much in what you shared above. ATB, J.

        • Sarah72 says:

          Here is a question… so I am in the process of finishing course work for a PhD in psychology. I have not yet begun clinical rotations..still in the books, but still have some prior experience with some heavy duty cases. A few weeks ago, I started to pen a book about what to do with narcissist MILs. The book starts with explaining the difference between people who have a lot of narcissistic traits and people who have full-blown (diagnosable) NPD. Ok, from my perspective I think letting readers know the difference and why it matters is helpful. But that is the first chapter. The rest of the book talks about who to deal with those who have ‘strong traits’ and those who have full-blown NPD. i.e when dealing with someone with traits, there is a lot of boundary setting. On the other hand, if someone had full-blown NPD the best thing to do is minimizing contact. That is a very simplistic explanation and summary. Also writing about the psychology involved in terms of the whys, hows, origins, and general family dynamics that allow it to thrive.
          But…. here is the question…. 
          So, I wanted to put this book out there since it will be presenting clinical knowledge in ways that are accessible to everyone. Plus, it is just one more take on how to deal with NPDs. BUT, the the wall that I keep coming up against is how to go a little bit farther and how to actually teach women on how to mentally fortify themselves to such an extent that they no longer feel the toxicity. The reason for this is, though a woman can greatly minimize her contact with an MIL who has diagnosable NPD in its extreme form, there will be times when she and her family cannot get out of face-to-face visits with MIL. Face-to-face visits are problematic because when someone truly has NPD, especially when they are also sadistic in nature, even a face-to-face visit that last an hour is enough to unhinge the best of us. I have noted that some NPDs come on with the force of a tsunami and leave a psychological mess in their wake that is equivalent.
          So, this is where I am struggling in my own life and in my own book. How exactly do I help women, including myself, fortify themselves against incredibly sadistic NPDs who seem to derive some kind of sick pleasure out of hurting others? Any ideas?
          By the way, when I do get around to publishing this book, it will be under a pen name.

        • DemianYumei says:

          @Sarah72 Hey Sarah, if you find a way please do let me know! I’m not sure you can ever fortify yourself to be un-impacted by a sadistic narcissist, because not only do they attack you, they attack the ones you love, and *you’re human*. 
          But if the assaults are vicious and upfront, then your response needs to be swift and clear, especially if you have children watching, and believe me they are.
          I don’t take the bait in the same way that I used to, but I am affected by the game playing and assaults. For me, I’ve had to maintain as much no contact as possible. Of course, if you have children or family ties, then total no contact may not be a possibility.
          Some things we assume must be the way they are…sometimes it means taking another look at things we take for granted. Couples need to come together and decide what no contact means and to what degree if the narcissistic source is outside of your relationship with each other.
          Not saying this is what you should do, but I know for me, I had no choice but to go strictly and literally no contact with my father when my children were young. I haven’t seen him in a couple decades. It’s not a decision I ever thought I would make. But it was necessary. I regret the circumstances, but given that’s what they were, I do not regret my decision regarding it — not then or now. He made his choices. I had to make mine, and my children came before any show of parental filialty.
          I continued my relationship with my mother, though there were definitely issues. And while I wish I had handled certain things differently over the years with her, I have never regretted keeping in touch with her.
          It’s a hard thing to be faced with, but nothing about knowing a narcissist is easy.

  • Hi Demian,
    What I thought of while reading this was the roles that members of dysfunctional families have, and how difficult it is to ever escape the role, not only because of the threat to the family but because we subconsciously take it on.
    My oldest sister left home at 15, and was estranged from the family for almost 30 years. I was 8 when she left and so I barely knew her. I had always looked up to her from afar as the one who broke free. But when I reconnected with her a few years ago, I found that she had created a role for herself almost identical to my mother’s, had married a man almost identical to my father, and was eerily stuck in the same dynamic that she had sought to free herself from. It was surreal to see her take on the same posture, the same facial expressions, the same helplessness that my mother had had all her life living with an abusive, alcoholic husband. The experience made me realize how powerful those family roles really are. Even when we think we’ve gone out of our way to  get out of them, they can follow us if we’re not actively and deliberately working on breaking free of them.
    I also realized through this experience that no matter what I do or accomplish or become, I will always be seen a certain way by my family. They will filter out what doesn’t mesh with their image of me and let in what does. And there’s absolutely nothing I can do to change that. (And, that it’s not personal. It’s just who they are.) One of my favorite quotes is “The farther behind we leave our pasts, the closer we are to forging our own character.” (Anais Nin) This has certainly been true for me. 
    Anyway, a good, insightful post. Thanks.

    • Sarah72 says:

      @Brave New Kitty 
      Hi Brave New Kitty,
      I love your post and the insights that it contains– especially the last paragraph. Anais Nin was one courageous woman and truly ahead of her time. She is right about having to leave our pasts behind in order to start that process of forging identity. But the one thing I would like to point out about that piece of wisdom– something that is very subtle– but that makes a WORLD of difference– is the “how” we leave our past behind. Just as the description you provide of your older sister, it sounds she was wise enough to realize she had to break away, but it sounds like she broke away geographically and not emotionally. The world of difference in breaking away comes in the emotional breaking away and that is even more important than geographical breaking away– though I believe both are necessary. Unless each of us goes through therapy to learn how to break away emotionally and “individuate” we can run away (geographically) but end up living out the same pattern established in our own family of origins.
      Don’t get me wrong– I have tremendous compassion for your older sister. Her story rings of
      that of my great-great grandmother and then my great-grandmother. in 1902, my great-great grandmother left an extremely emotionally/physically/ and likely sexually abusive family in the Ukraine and got on a boat to the US with only the clothes on her back. She married a man twice her age while on the boat in order to “start a new life”. Only, she was deeply unhappy and had children and they had an extremely unhappy family that was a sort of recreation of the one she left in the Ukraine. My great-grandmother (her daughter) was so miserable there that she actually married the town drunk when she was 16 in order to escape her own home (and then my grandmother was born). My grandmother (my mom’s mom) grew up in a home with a miserable mom and a drunk violent father. So, my grandmother hooked up with my grandfather the minute he got back from ww2 and my mom was born. Only, when my grandmother gave birth to my mom she decided there would be something better for her own children. My mom’s childhood was not perfect, but it was a far cry from what the women before her had experienced since my mom’s dad was a non-drinker and a hard worker. My grandfather’s mom lived a couple houses away and she was what my mom describes as a ‘true lady’. My mom spent most of her time there as a child, by choice, and learned how to bake, play piano, paint, and study the Bible with her own grandmother. My mother knew as a child that she had to separate herself from her own mother’s side of the family in order to get some sanity. My mom was determined to turn it all around and she had some very positive female role models on her dad’s side of the family. I am 40-years-old but knew my great-grandmother (the dysfunctional one) since she lived into her 90’s. My own grandmother is still alive and so is my grandfather. My mom and dad are still alive. I am very blessed. But, throughout my life, my mom and I have talked for many hours about the dysfunction she either heard about or witnessed from her mom’s side of the family and how she (my mom) was determined to break the abusive cycle within the family. I think this is what got me so interested in psychology in the first place. When I was growing up, I got to contrast the craziness of my mom’s mom’s family (who we rarely visited) with the peace of my mom’s dad’s family, and then finally got to see the stability, WASP-ish work ethic, and ‘good citizen’ aspect within my own father’s parents. I have observed how in the matrilineal line on my mom’s side, it has literally taken generations to break down bit by bit the original abuse that my great-great grandmother left behind in the Ukraine. But still, even though it has taken generations, it has been worth it. So when people escape abusive situations and try to do better than the last generation, I tell them to be patient with themselves and to go forward with a lot of self-forgiveness because they have made the most crucial step.

      • DemianYumei says:

        @Sarah72  @Brave New Kitty Powerful story, Sarah. Yes, I do believe when you are conscious, you may not heal as much as you want, but any step forward will be enough to make a shift.

      • @Sarah72  @Brave New Kitty I agree with your point that we must break away emotionally as well as physically. It’s a good one, and my sister’s story is a great illustration of that, as you said. If we don’t break away emotionally, we are in danger of living a life “in reaction,”, a life where all the choices we make are either for approval from, or in defiance of, our FOO. Different sides of the same coin, IMO–unless we break free emotionally. 
        Thanks for sharing a bit of your family history, too. In my FOO, both sides are different kinds of crazy, but I have found some solace in the fact that this is not really about me, but that rather I am the recipient of a long line of unhappiness and poor emotional coping skills that has affected everyone in my family, albeit in different ways, for as far back as I have been able to see.

    • DemianYumei says:

      @Brave New Kitty Hi Kitty, thank you for your comment. I’m a bit late in replying but did want to thank you for your wonderful insights. I had to smile as I read, because I see some of myself in your comment. The older I get the more of my own mother I see in me. That’s not an entirely bad thing, because she had wonderful qualities of strength, courage and love, though she did not always express them in positive or empowering ways. She is the one who taught me by example the importance of creativity. And I will always remember the sound of her laugh when something struck her funny or she was happy.
      She did have so much on her though, a huge burden of pain and wounding from her childhood past that she carried with her throughout her life. I can see by looking at mine, that despite vowing I would not make the same mistakes…oh, boy did I ever. Maybe not EXACTLY, but close enough in some areas. My intimate relationships with men have just been messed up…but that’s my father’s influence as well.
      So, I have been on this healing journey for most of my life. I think I am doing better, at least at this point in my life. There have been previous periods though where you may not have been able to tell the difference between my mother and me!
      We can only do our best. And in those times when doing your best wasn’t quite good enough…well, there’s something to be said about compassion and self forgiveness…and learning from your mistakes.
      And I do like your attitude about reminding yourself “It’s just who they are” and not taking it personally. Very empowering. Thank you for sharing this.

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