"The believer is the mirror of his fellow believer."
Bint Abdel Hamid discusses our human desire to positively influence those around us, and how we can better get our messages and advice across to those we love most.
As people, we see the world through glasses, or lenses, if you will, unique and limited to ourselves, and to what we carry of our individual personality and experiences. What lies beyond our own lens is difficult to tell and to find a person willing to reflect to us a part of what they see can truly be a blessing. Realising this, we find ourselves trying to be mirrors to those around us, sharing with them opinions on the world and on life, and on these very people themselves.
We would like to think that our opinion of the people closest to us can help positively shape them: that as teachers, believing in our students can help them believe in themselves; that as mothers, our sons and daughters can draw strength from our evaluations and perceptions of their capabilities; that as peers, our good opinions of our peers can help them sail through the hardest of times, and that our criticisms can push them to become better people?
But some research in the field of social psychology suggests that the way we see people might not always play into the way they see themselves. What one study* essentially found is this: what we actually think of people may not matter; it’s their perception of our thoughts that ends up aligning itself with their self-concepts, their view of themselves. And making a distinction between actual views and perceived views suggests that there is – or can be – a rift between the two. Where does this rift come from? And how can we work on getting rid of it?
Drawing on the same piece of social psychological research, here are some possible reasons as to why our real and perceived opinions of people may not always line up, followed by suggestions on how to change this. In other words, here are some ways to help the “mirror” you are holding up to others show what you want it to show.
Polish your mirror, and let people look into often.
Just because you think or feel a certain way about someone doesn’t mean you are good at communicating it. You need to be clear about the things you say, and – because we are constantly overwhelmed with large amounts of stimuli feedback – say them often.
If, for example, you are an employer who values her employees, but the majority of your interaction with them is to give instructions for further work, to criticise work received, to suggest how to "make things better next time", it may be the constant demands and criticism that show through. Your employees may feel under pressure, under appreciated, incapable of producing polished work. So as much as request and criticism will be needed, it's important to communicate – in clear and unambiguous terms – your appreciation for good work and workers!
For some Muslimahs home-repairs are second-nature and something they love doing. "I love making things with my hands," shares Ann Kamran, an office manager living in London, who loves to create and see a finished product. "If something needs to be done and it's not getting done, I'll do it. My dear husband spoils me and won't let me do anything laborious around the house, but I will do it on my own if I know my husband is busy."
Hold your own mirror.
Even though you might have something to say to people, if you are not straightforward and clear about it – if you allow them to head the discussion, to use your words as a simple confirmation for what they want to hear, your true perception will not make it through.
A wife, for example, who would like her husband to spend more time at home, to take a more active role in the upbringing of their children, may also be nervous about bringing up the topic. She loves and values her husband, and doesn’t want to start a confrontation, or seem whiny. So instead of being straightforward, she beats about the bush. And every time they have the discussion, all her husband hears is the introduction of "You’re a great husband and father." She stops, he returns the compliment, and she hasn't the heart to carry on. He assumes that everything is fine. Years down the line, the wife may explode, and her husband will not understand where she is coming from. All this time, he has been such a great husband and father – she even said so herself!
Who are you, behind that mirror?
This next point may be self-explanatory and obvious, but that doesn’t stop it from being noteworthy. If you are eager to help someone else out by giving them your opinion, you have to establish yourself as being capable of the assessment you give, and specifically about the area in question.
One way this plays out significantly is between parents and their teenage children. The teenage years are known to be difficult ones. The teenager pulls further and further away, and his relationship with his parents becomes increasingly frustrated. Interaction is reduced to a few passing words here and there, reminders to study hard and do the chores. Suddenly, the teenager is in the middle of a bad crowd, too close to harmful practices, too far away from the deen. When the parents try to sit and down and talk with their child, their advice and assessment may be accurate and dead-on, but the teenager doesn’t see it. Instead, he thinks "They don't understand me, they don’t know what they're talking about," and a parent's good words will have no sway.
Why are you holding that?
Realise that people will better receive your words if they believe them to be said sincerely, for their own merit, and that there is no "ulterior" motive behind them.
Suppose you’re a teacher with a very bright student. Maybe your student is aware of her intelligence, but doesn’t work as hard as she can and should, but doesn’t really care about it. You would like to encourage her to step things up, to take her efforts to the next level, because "genius is one per cent inspiration and ninety-nine per cent perspiration." But maybe, at the same time, you have been nominated for a "teacher of the year award," an award that involves monetary compensation, and is partially contingent on student performance.
It's important that your encouragement to your student, your gentle reprimand of her half-efforts, are understood as genuine concern for her, and not simply an attempt to increase your chances of becoming "Teacher of the Year". Might I also add that your “genuine concern” for her also needs to be genuine? If it’s not, it will likely show through at one point or another.
A stable reflection.
A lot of attributes exist in our societies that have no clear public definition: success, honesty, integrity, etc. On the other hand, certain characteristics can be measured more easily: athleticism (through competition in organised sport), intelligence (through IQ or GPA or test scores), etc. In general, though, it can be difficult for people to grasp a sense of their own success, their own self-worth. How exactly do you measure success? And how – in the absences of astounding intelligence scores – can a person be confident of their own merits and capabilities? There is nothing firm for a person to grasp onto, and this can often translate into thoughts such as, "I'm worthless," "I'll never amount to anything," and other negative mental tapes.
The subjective nature of such attributes complicates the issue of instilling feelings of intrinsic value and self-worth in others. Phrases such as, "You are an amazing person" are great, but unless backed up by concrete examples, threaten to become little more than words that slip and slide in a person's head.
When all is said and done, it's important to remember that – while it's great to help out those we love, and try to influence them positively – making our way into other people's thoughts can only go so far, and ultimately, our hearts and minds are in Allah's hands. And as long as a person's thoughts and deeds are not in violation of the Qur'an and Sunnah, sometimes it's good to step back, put perceptions and perceived perceptions aside, and just be the best friends that we can be – to our friends, our spouses, our students, and our children. Without even trying, our influence as "just a friend” can be greater, by the Will of Allah, than we ever imagined. And we don't even have to know the reasons why it all worked out…...
Bint AbdelHamid is a student of English and Psychology, and hopes to benefit others with what she learns.
Pull quote: What we actually think of people may not matter; it’s their perception of our thoughts that ends up aligning itself with their self-concepts, their view of themselves.
*Shrauger, J. S., & Schoeneman, T. J. (1963). Symbolic interactionist view of self-concept: Through the looking glass darkly. Psychological Bulletin, 86, 549-573.
This article was first published in SISTERS, the magazine for fabulous Muslim women. Visit the SISTERS website at www.sisters-magazine.com to read more articles - and download a complimentary issue!