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Think about all the times we have looked at someone and somehow just instinctively knew something about them. Maybe we perceived an element about their personality, how they treat others, or what their lives are probably like. We may place assumptions on them about challenges in their lives or how happy they are generally.

It is easy to do. As humans, we make snap decisions daily based on our perceptions. Initial impressions can feel spontaneously created by us and can emerge with little effort or conscious decision making. Of course, it’s not just about how we see other people. We look at our surroundings and can notice opportunities that seem attainable or fun, while we may avoid situations that seem dangerous or unwanted. Many times, our thoughts can be as simple as determining if we like or dislike something. It usually feels like an instinct that can happen in an instant.

As much as we generate perceptions of other people in our minds, there are also times where we may create ideas and stories about them and how they engage with the world around them. Often our impressions of people are influenced by our own life experiences. Not only can we take situations that have happened to us and recount them to our friends with a focus on dramatic twists and turns, but many of these experiences shape the way we feel about other people or situations. They create a type of lens that we may see through, and they can change our perspective.

If we have positive experiences with a particular type of person or situation, our initial feeling when experiencing something that may bring up those memories is seen as a more pleasant and optimistic experience. If we get a twinge of discomfort or something brings up memories with a negative outcome, we may choose to not pursue something or someone for concern that it will not end well. We learn through experiences, and that helps to influence our current decision making. Hopefully we don’t usually run to engage those things that haven’t worked out well in the past, and we can avoid making similar mistakes.

I think one of the most interesting phenomenons in our culture is how we share a perceived ability to look at someone and begin to formulate an idea about what their personality is like, how they interact with others, and how they will most likely treat us if we attempt to engage them in conversation. Most of the time, our assessment feels accurate and can strongly influence our decision to approach that person.

This pseudo-psychic way of scanning deep into somebody’s history often helps to determine what we think of them. Unfortunately, these conclusions are not generally based in fact and can be colored by our experiences or moods at the time. Our perceptions of the individual may not necessarily be negative, but they are also not likely to be true or realistic.

It’s normal to size somebody up.  We can look at a person or situation, run it through our long list of memories relating to what we think we know, and make a determination based on our own set of experiences. We only know what we perceive. The problem is that our experiences and memories can be tainted by our emotions, especially by some of the more negative ones. Those of us who have done a significant  amount of work in therapy know that our feelings are not generally considered to be facts. Our perceptions of things do not necessarily reflect accurate reality, especially if we feel very strongly that they have in some way hurt us.

Take, for example, someone that you may commonly see working out at the gym or dancing at a club. You notice his physical beauty, sweaty muscles, and the way that he interacts socially with people around him. He appears engaged in conversations and may be smiling and laughing.

Obviously, he is very happy and probably doesn’t have many challenges in life,  since he is so hot and seemingly well-connected. He also probably has had good buddies throughout his life and plenty of opportunities to hang out in fun situations. This person may also be thought to most likely be standoffish since he is handsome and probably somewhat narcissistic. His physical interest will be for someone with a similar, buff body type, and he will likely be kind of an ass if approached by someone that he doesn’t consider hot. He probably isn’t really that smart, either.

It doesn’t matter if this is an accurate assessment of this individual or not, but it can absolutely influence someone’s decision about approaching this person. On the flipside, you can look at somebody who is socially awkward and may not look like your ideal physical type to determine that you most likely have little in common. You construct your own ideas about how they live their life and what they have gone through.

When you look at somebody on the surface, you notice those things that they choose to present to others. You don’t get to know someone’s gooey insides until you truly engage with them. It’s impossible to know someone’s past challenges, strengths, pain, insecurities, dreams, or dark secrets. None of us put everything on the table. We live our lives keeping most of our history and experiences to ourselves and only share certain things with people who we truly trust and care about.

What goes on inside of our minds is fascinating. At times, our thoughts are clear and helpful, while at other points in time they can become jumbled and chaotic. Sometimes it is difficult to determine why we think the ways we do. Unfortunately, insecurity and self-loathing can taint our perceptions in very destructive ways.

For example, when we evaluate situations where rejection can potentially happen to us, our thought process can get dark and overly negative pretty quickly. There so many reasons why we might get turned down by someone including age, race, body type, HIV status, our life interests, the shoes we wear, or a zillion other reasons. This fear can cause us to avoid taking opportunities to engage with someone. The potential benefits of sticking your neck out are outweighed by the threat of getting your feelings hurt.

Regardless of our upbringing or life experiences, we are all insecure in some ways. Some of us go to greater lengths to heal from them, grow beyond them, or cover them up.  Regardless, we still have our battle scars from what life has thrown at us. These often do not go away and can become extremely debilitating if left untreated.

Hopefully we have learned how to better cope with the uncomfortable feelings that emerge when we feel badly about ourselves. Self-deprecation keeps us from being courageous. These emotions may also be at the cornerstone of why we construct unflattering ideas about other people when we feel intimidated or threatened.

We need to push ourselves to pursue opportunities, talk to other people, and fight for what we want. Take a chance and challenge your insecurities to just say “hello” to a cute person. Don’t talk yourself out of doing it or create barriers to not engage someone. Developing the initiative to face our fears can be very hard. It causes us to engage deep-rooted feelings that have developed throughout our lives, and none of us like to feel disappointed, hurt, or rejected.

Instead of making up what you consider truths about other people, take some time and consider how you can give someone a chance and embrace them for who they are. You are also worthy of gaining good friends and enjoyment out of your life. Wasting time making up stories about other people stops you from learning the true story of their lives. Take the time to get to know someone. You may be surprised that you don’t know as much as you think you do.