Seeing potential or seeing reality ~ why I’m not a good judge of character.


Seeing potential or seeing reality ~ why I’m not a good judge of character.


I dreamed last night of someone I’ve had no contact with for five years, someone who I was close friends with at university and for some years afterwards. Five years ago, our sputtering friendship sputtered out altogether in a heated exchange of emails that began as what I thought was an exploration of an area of metaphysics she’d become heavily involved with and ended with me being lambasted for not choosing to take on everything she believed to be true. At the time I was shocked and upset because it felt as though one of my oldest friends had turned on me and tried to rip me to shreds. It felt like it had come out of left-field and was completely unpredictable.

After years of intermittent reflection, I’ve realised it was very much a part of the patterns she’d already exhibited. I’d just never got in the way before. My only big hint was when I’d remarked that a company she was involved in back in the mid nineties, (which sold over-priced aloe vera products with some very grandiose claims) came remarkably close to being pyramid selling. This provoked a brief but fiery diatribe (fronted with those immortal words, “with respect”) along the lines that I knew nothing whatsoever about it and should just shut the **** up. I did. Analysing every scheme, company or church she was ever involved with now makes me see that she was far from the person I believed her to be.

We met when I was 18 and she a few years older and at that time she was very kind and caring. She helped me through some tough times. The long nights putting the world to rights, not to mention each other, showed me what at the time I thought was her true self.

Now I am far from sure. I think I saw her potential, and I acted for the duration of our friendship as if that potential were a here-and-now reality. So the final bitter exchange of words in email came as a huge shock to me, as if she’d changed so drastically from the person I’d thought I’d known. I can see now that she hadn’t changed at all. That in itself was the problem. The person I saw her becoming never arrived.

I’ve done this constantly in my life, but thankfully, so far only four friendships have ended in this way, when reality and my belief in someone’s potential have collided so violently there has been nothing left to salvage. It last happened over a year ago, and the pain it caused me was immense. But conversely, the discoveries it brought me might actually be worth that distress.

I seldom see just who a person is now without also seeing beside them a kind of ghostly hologram of their possible self, which shines and glows and is sometimes so compelling I can become entranced by that potential I forget ( if I ever realised) that this is not what they are now but who they might become. It’s this aspect of it that makes keener the grief of loss when a friendship ends, because it’s not merely the death knell of a relationship that enriched me, but it’s also a very real death of an unborn, unrealised shining soul. Of course, this seems very arrogant to imagine that the severing of my links with a person means that they won’t become a greater being; that’s not what I mean. It means that I will never get to see that transformation.

In the case of my old friend, I can only see a deepening of her flaws and when I saw a recent picture of her, I can see no joy in her eyes, joy that I know I saw once, when we were both young and hopeful of what life might bring us.

Time brings wisdom if we allow it, and now I wonder if I ought to try and NOT see the shining being standing alongside those I meet. Have I the right to impose my visions on others, with my unconscious expectations of their journeys? I do not know the answer to this. But treating everyone as the person they might one day become may be just the factor they need to achieve it, by having someone who believes in them now.

If you treat an individual as he is, he will remain how he is. But if you treat him as if he were what he ought to be and could be, he will become what he ought to be and could be.”
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe



28 thoughts on “Seeing potential or seeing reality ~ why I’m not a good judge of character.

  1. I do so resonate with the grief felt when someone chooses a path that takes them away from their best self, the one that I believed in. In the past when this has happened I have just felt stupid to be so ‘wrong’ but more and more I see it as the other’s choice – this post has really helped to reinforce that. Thank you!


  2. I’m with Goethe–and you–on this. If we see the best in a person and hope for the best, it enables the relationship to be as good as it can be. No guarantees, of course, as you discovered. Still, it’s what we can do.


    • I think it’s often all we can do. but sometimes I do wonder whether I ought to filter this out entirely.
      I’ve also had the converse experience of seeing someone’s evil potential too; that’s horrible.


    • Exactly. I believe that Goethe was as flawed as the rest of us, but he embodies for me this hope for all, that belief that we all can be better.


  3. I keep it simple and pretty much don’t have friends 😉
    I really, really hate to agree with Goethe but I think I have to just this once.
    This really got my wheels spinning.
    thanks Viv


    • 🙂 I’ve been lucky, to have the friends I have who have accepted me flaws and all but who have also seen my potential for so much more and drawn me out and on without being overtly judgemental. Every observation, every analysis is basically judgement, whether good or not, but we only tend to consider the negatives as being *judgemental*. Without the input of others that I could be a better person (in many different ways) I truly believe I would have been dead at my own hand, of despair many years ago. That they saw who I might become is true gold.


      • I have always seen you as shiney .I like what you said about “judgemental” – so true!


  4. This is the kind of really big stuff that calls for gentle exploration with others in a supportive environment, not sure it works as a blog comment.

    What first took my breath away was ” I can only see a deepening of her flaws.”
    Wow. So, no judgement there then. And the scary thing about judgement is that deep within, we don’t have a double standard – if we judge others by harsh standards, those will be the standards by which we judge ourselves. Have a delve around and see if there’s any hint of projection going on here.

    And just who does this ghostly hologram belong to? Are you so sure it’s hers? Or is it more to do with your expectations of how you’d like her to be? It sounds all along as if you knew what she was like, from the hints you picked up along the way. The death-knell comes when the illusion can no longer be sustained, when who she really is takes centre stage with no possibility of being misconstrued. Who is the shining soul you so grieve for? Tough stuff I know, but there are things going on here that you need to take ownership of. Try Googling something like ‘expectations in relationships’ if you don’t have a group or a therapist to try this out on.

    Here’s a bit of what one web counsellor says:
    “The most common cause of relationship conflict comes from unrealistic and
    unexpressed expectations. Misguided assumptions pose the biggest danger when each person in a relationship brings their own, and sometimes conflicting, expectations to the relationship. As we project our viewpoint onto others, we are assuming that they think and feel in a similar way that we would in the same situation, and we expect them to behave accordingly.
    Unrealistic expectations occur when an individual projects onto their
    partner what they want or need. When someone close to us does something that seems in deep contrast with the standards we have associated with that person, we often feel hurt, betrayed, angry and /or confused. Our disappointment gets expressed in the kinds of phrases we‟ve heard or spoken:
    “You‟re the last person I ever expected to do that.”
    “You really let me down.”
    “This is not like you at all.‟
    We cleverly develop a tunnel vision where we only allow through information that supports the view we have of who we want that person to be. The truth is that people show us exactly who they are through their everyday behaviors.”

    Sorry if this sounds less than empathetic – it’s an uphill struggle wading through our own crap. Keep on keeping on,


      • Not offense but rather puzzlement. You said quite clearly you didn’t feel that you weren’t sure it would work as a blog comment and yet you continued anyway. It is my blog and I welcome comments. But I don’t have to agree with them all, just as my readers don’t have to agree with what I write. I’m just not sure what your motivation is in making such a comment.
        Plato once said, Be Kind for all those you meet are fighting hard battles. I’d rather not make it harder for anyone else.


      • My intent, most certainly, was not to be unkind. I suppose my presumption is that if people put challenging stuff out there, they expect to be challenged, and a web interface is the only one we have, even though it’s not ideal for such sensitive matters.

        I hold anyone who is prepared to peer into the shadier areas of their psyche in high esteem, as I know just how painful and hard it can be. But I’ve also learnt that it’s the things that are the hardest to hear or that push most of our buttons that are of the greatest value to us in the long run. They show us the areas where we still have issues, places where we need to go with a searchlight and a scalpel. As Aidan Lucas says, it’s a question of facing the pain. Particularly if it’s an issue that re-occurs in your life, as this friendship one appears to be. If you can see a pattern, then the old adage ‘Do what you always do, get what you always get’ applies.

        So suggesting an alternative take on the situation seemed to me a way forward. And in the people I’ve met who are trying to find their truth, self-judgement, including a powerful if unacknowledged inner critic, is often the most self-destructive trait there is, and the one that can bring most benefits if recognised and brought into the light of day. Hearing of your recurrent deep depression is distressing, and although I’ve never suffered as badly as you, I do know that uncovering my inner critic, judge and saboteur (which I used to project onto others) is one of the most helpful things I’ve done (used to ?? Definitely still work in progress!).

        Whatever, I’m sorry if it was difficult to listen to, and as you say, you don’t have to agree.

        Apologies if you get this twice, my router is acting up.


  5. Hope for the best, prepare for the worst is my motto. As much as we might wish to, we can’t direct the choices of others or the course they will take. We each have our own karma to concentrate on – so now I concentrate on that and don’t hold expectations of others, it’s much less disappointing!


    • Ha, most of my friends and I have gone through the stage of being disappointed in the other and come through the other side. That’s kind of the point. How can you find out what they are without also finding out what they are not? But that takes time and work and actual love to want to work through it. I have friends who I love dearly but know from bitter experience I can rely on them to, say, flirt mercilessly and worse with any member of the opposite sex also staying at the same time. It’s part of who they are; I accept it and do my best to limit damage. I’ve had friends who have problems with booze or other stuff; you simply accept it and ensure that there’s none around. And it works both ways; I’m a very flawed individual, and others project their expectations on me. When both parties are doing that, it takes a lot to get through and form an honest, solid friendship. Most of the time, one or both parties are unwilling to do that.
      Anyway, thanks for commenting. 🙂


  6. Thanks for sharing this.
    It’s natural, we intuit, invest and envision each other’s potential, an expression of love and a powerful postulate that energises each returning spring, each bud – life itself in a way, since without this projection there would be no evolution. But to avoid getting hurt, we need to hold the potential, which always mirrors our own, ‘patiently’ in our heart and imagination, or the disappointment will hurt us deeply. Seeing has its own action as long as we don’t invest in the outcome. A dear friend once said, ‘We are not meant to agree with each other, but to create beauty.’


  7. I don’t think the outcome of a perfect life is to not experience pain and hurt, otherwise we wouldn’t learn so much from the experience (that is, if we permit ourselves to learn, rather than just get upset) .

    Viv, you have shown via your blog that you are a deep thinker, and have shared with us thoughts that perhaps many of us (I mean me!) would shy away from approaching because it would hurt too much. Thank you for showing that the superficial ‘sweetness and light’ is not the erzatz reality of life, rather that, in all it’s gory details, we can see the true precious ‘mettle’ of real friends. (Ooops, pun intended 🙂 x)


  8. Hi Viv…lots to chew in indeed. We place our expectations on a people, creating a version of them WE think they should be, then get frustrated when they’re not. No one wins. The other thought that came to mind when I read your post which I often think about:
    “People come into our lives for a reason, a season, or a lifetime.”


  9. We usually see what we want to see, not what IS. I agree with the quote that Servingothersblog left in his comment.
    One of the aspects about Being in the moment, is to move from being the experiencer to the one who is witness. So when something happens that is hard to bear, if we took the position of a witness, it makes it just a tad easier to bear. Yes, it hurts when people dont live up to our Expectations of them. Look at the flip side, why should they live up to our expectations, when they have expectations of their own to live up to? Shouldnt they have the right to live up to who they want to be?


    • of course they have that right. I do not deny that at all. But relationships are built from unseen, unspoken contracts that we rewrite as a relationship deepens. I would not expect certain things from work colleagues, however friendly we may be. A friendship of 20+ years standing carries with it a lot of history, and a lot of discovery; in this particular case, this friend had stood as godmother to my only child. Even though the relationship was not one it had once been (I would not have descended unannounced to visit, as once we all did) I think it merited better attempts at communication from both of us.
      As for shifting to be a witness to something hard to bear, well, that brings the risk of disassociation and all that involves and in my experience simply delays the time to face one’s own failings and mistakes. I also believe that it is better to experience pain and learn from it if you can than to step to one side and witness it.
      Considering other’s expectations of us, well, I have a very dear friend who never bothers to let us know he’s going to visit; he lives currently in South America and if he is over here in the UK, he usually just turns up without phoning. I asked him about this and he said, “Well, I figure you’ll KNOW I’m coming!” I can’t help feeling this is an UNREASONABLE expectation of me, but hey, what do I know?
      I’m trying to find the fine line between imposing my own expectations of others on them, and of believing in their capacity to reach for their potential, and of being a support to them to do this. I get it wrong, perhaps. Perhaps I should just not have any friends.


  10. One other thought. In all my recent soul searching, I often note that there is so much positive thinking out there, so much “bliss.” What people don’t talk about and what is less obvious is how hard this all is. It’s so easy to theorize about how to be, much tougher to actually be it.


    • Very true.
      I find people take refuge in the positive thinking and stay there, like people who rush for shelter in a shop from a sudden summer rainstorm and forget among the beautiful things on offer there that they’d set out on a journey.


  11. I’ve learned that what you see in others is often a reflection of self. And, I’ve also learned that the only person you can change is yourself. Yes, sometimes, people can encourage others to change and sometimes they do, but not in the direction you expected. Why have those expectations of change in others? Why have perceptions of others? How is this change a reflection of you? Something else to ponder. Placing your perceptions of another onto that person is very dangerous. The only person you should judge and perceive is yourself, because the only true life experience you can gain are the shoes you are currently standing in. People need to own it and be very careful about placing perceptions of how things should be onto others.


    • I am in the process of writing about that mirror effect so I’m happy to say I am very well aware of it. Thank you for your thoughts.


    • That’s very kind of you. I’m at a fairly odd place right now, in myself, feeling very numb and disconnected. It’s probably just pain and tiredness.


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