On the Idea of You

4 minute read

Confidence: likely (note: still working on how to present various relevant metadata here like epistemic certainty or personal importance.)

Disclaimer: I’m not an expert on this topic. These are my musings. As with all of my writing, please attempt to read charitably.

Recently I’ve been thinking about the concept of “the idea of you”. “The idea of you” is the internal model we build of someone in our head. When I think of someone, I’m using my idea of them. It is not them, it is my model of them. This might sound obvious, but I hope to show that it’s easy enough to fail to internalize this. When our models of someone become strong enough, or so tightly held, we lose our ability to love the real person.

In The Way to Love, Anthony de Mello writes:

If you hold on to an idea about someone, then you no longer love that person but your idea of that person. You see him/her do or say something or behave in a certain kind of way and you slap a label on: She is silly or he is dull or he is cruel or she is very sweet, etc. So now you have a screen, a layer of fat between you and this person because when you next meet him/her you will experience them in terms of that idea of yours even though they have changed.

Think about a time you’ve had a crush, especially if it’s someone you didn’t know that well. Imagine how that person felt in your mind. Their essence. What they were like to you. Compare this with what you now know about them and notice the differences between the two “people”. Both are still not actually the person, but hopefully the differences in memories helps clue about this effect.

Tessa Violet gets it:

Or think about a falling out you’ve had, maybe with a friend, former lover, or coworker. Did you ever feel that they were interacting with some internalized concept of you, rather than the actual you? It comes across like you’ve been locked out, like you’re being talked past, or that they’ve frozen you in time. Sometimes it might feel like nothing you can say or do to change their “idea of you”.

From the excellent song ‘Monster’ by Dodie: (music video)

I’m guessing that I’ve grown horns
I guess I’m human no more
I can tell I’ve rotted in your brain
Oh, how easily passion twists
You think I’m a crazy bitch
I craft my words to fit your head
‘Cause no one listens to the dead

Dodie knows exactly what I’m talking about! It happens to all of us, in varying degrees.

I had a work experience many years back where I felt I was mistreated by our CEO. In those rollercoaster months, interactions with the CEO slowly built up in my head. I felt like he made wild judgments with no basis and that he had screwed me. I had my boss and people around me on my side. I came to feel secure in this image I built of my CEO. Those growing feelings came to every discussion we had. Whenever we would talk, this is the light I was seeing him from. His real person, his real actions, and his real words had to try to escape the confines of my entrenched idea of him. I wish I had been able to see with fresh eyes, to come to every interaction without a decision already made about who he was. I’m certain the end result would have been the same (me quitting for a new job), but I know that I wasn’t able to show him the love he deserved because of my “idea of him”. I mention this story in hopes of showing that it’s really quite easy to fall for the trap of holding “my idea of someone” equivalent to the actual person.

Here’s @uncatherio dealing with this idea with her dating profile:

I think Catherine hits in on the head here. Reification, when you treat something immaterial — like happiness, fear, or the “idea of you” — as a material thing, isn’t ideal. You need to be willing to throw it out and see anew.

From Anthony de Mello once again:

If you wish to get in touch with the reality of a thing, the first thing you must understand is that every idea distorts reality and is a barrier to seeing reality. The idea is not the reality, the idea “wine” is not wine, the idea “woman” is not this woman. If I really want to get in touch with the reality of this woman I must put aside my idea of womanness or Indianness and experience her in her thisness, her concreteness, her uniqueness.

What do you think? Are there places where strong tightly-held mental models of someone are a good thing? I haven’t found any yet, so until then I’ll be trying to see you for you :)