Perilous Self-Deception: When we have a distorted view of how much others care for us

John DriggsMany of us fool ourselves into believing that other people care about us more than they really do. Or else we don’t grasp just how much some people have to offer us and push away real love. Too many of us are in a no-man’s land of self-deception when it comes to getting close to others. Some of us admit that we just don’t “get” relationships; others of us feel we are experts on relationships. Actually neither is true. Many of us have inaccurate ideas on how people feel about us but only later on know when we are truly loved or not loved. Overall it’s better if we see others and ourselves in a more realistic light. We must take off the rose-colored glasses of gullibility and remove dark opaque lenses of cynicism to have a clearer view of who is close to us and who is less close to us. Let’s have the wisdom to know the difference

I went with what appeared to be a gem of a man for two solid years. He was respectful, sexy, and attentive to me in ways that words could not describe. He had a bright future as a doctor of internal medicine. I drooled over him and followed him around like a puppy dog. We’d dance in the street, go clubbing with friends, and couldn’t get enough of each other. All of us have the one love of our life. He was mine. It all happened so fast. The future looked good as I completed my MBA studies. Unfortunately, after I graduated something mysteriously changed. He said he couldn’t see me as much as his studies were getting more intense, He subtly put down my degree as less academically rigorous compared to his and he got a little jealous of my contacts in the business world. I constantly made excuses for him and minimized the warning signs. My mind went into a tailspin as I desperately tried to reel him back in and have the fun we used to have. I was sick with fear of losing him. All of this came to a crashing end when I caught him kissing another intern. My heart was shattered and I kept asking myself, “What happened here?” Finally it dawned on me that he really wasn’t into me as much as I thought he was. I was better as his fawning admirer than I am today as a competent adult woman on my own. I got fooled by this one and my heart has never been quite the same.

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My son and I were really close when he was young. That all changed when I separated from his dad ten years ago. As my son grew older he had less to do with me. I attributed the distance between us to the hard feelings he had towards me for the divorce. After all, I left his dad for another man who truly loved me. My son felt sorry for his sad-sack dad. Perilous2

Last week I ran into my son at the Mall. I barely recognized him as he had grown into a mature man. He ran up to me and gave me a big hug and said he really missed me. A week later I got a text from him saying we should get together and talk. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing and felt that I had died and gone to heaven. I didn’t think he cared about me! Then I remembered the occasional cards he sent me over the years just to say hello that I never responded to. My heart ached for how I had dismissed his efforts over the years. Perhaps, just perhaps, it was my guilt over how I had hurt his father and not his resentment towards me that explained the distance between us. I stopped being afraid of getting close with him. We had a lot of catching up to do!

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These bittersweet examples of inaccurate love perspectives are just a glimpse of the many variations of human relating. To further complicate things, most of us change over time with our loved ones. Who we were years ago is not who we are today or who we will be tomorrow. The same can be said about our partners in caring. It’s best if we continually reflect on how things are changing between ourselves and a loved one and discuss how to best support each other. Blindly relying on an assumed old pattern between you and a partner may be quite perilous and result in a diminished life.

The Dangers of Assumed Love

When we assume other people care about us when they don’t so much we can really have our hearts broken and put ourselves in danger. Being clueless about a partner’s controlling us and our putting our partner on a pedestal can set us up for toxic and possibly violent relationships. Assuming our friends will be there when we really need them and ignoring their recurring veiled indifference to us can set us up for shock and heartbreak when our first life crisis sets in and in fact no one is really there for us. Having someone be our friend for ulterior motives may lead them to give us misguided feedback in their own self-interest just at the very time we need an honest relationship. The time to discover a friend is not as friendly as we need isn’t when we are in the throes of a life crisis. It’s best to find out before our life crisis that a friend is less of a real friend. Also, when we only imagine others are our real friends when they’re not we can fall into the hopeless trap of trying to get them to love us and become desperate. Taking others for granted with no demands on them may also cause them to take us for granted even more so. There is hardly a more depressing feeling than having lots of people we know and feeling alone in the world. The scars from such experiences can last a lifetime. It is normal to feel heartbroken and discouraged when this happens. We are not at fault for expecting more from friends. We would be way wiser to call a spade a spade and find some real friends.

The Dangers of Dismissive Love

Some of us are in the habit of not seeing how other people really do care about us when they actually do. We may dismiss kind gestures or caring words with an aloofness that shows we’re uninterested in allowing people to be close to us. Often times we’re not even aware that we’re holding others at arm’s length. We may quite negatively view other people without even giving them a chance. We may see them as too needy when they are actually just being nice to us. We may choose to have only superficial relationships.

Clearly none of us is required to like everybody and we all can fall into an occasional bout of taking our friends for granted. But having an overall pattern of dissuasiveness can really harm us in the long run. We may become lonely and despairing towards life, thinking that no one really cares for us. People with this pattern may actually lack the ability to let people love them and have difficulty expressing authentic caring towards others. Sometimes they may have a snobbish view of what life owes them and how they are better than others. This syndrome makes for a lonely, empty life that inclines us towards addictive behaviors, insincerity and chronic depression.

Sometimes people complain about not finding the right person in life to love them. Actually just the opposite is true. Many people are and have been available to love them but we just don’t see them. When you don’t feel lovable yourself you will not see when others truly care for you. To feel loved we have to allow others to care for us. Dissuasiveness is a way we protect ourselves from letting people love us. Most of us wonder “What’s so bad about allowing others to be truly nice to us? Is there anything to be afraid of?” Unfortunately some of us dismissive people are terrified of our own unloving side and have what we feel are good reason to keep others at arms’ length. Some of us choose to be blind rather than be loved.

Why Do Our Views of Love Get Distorted?

It’s extremely important that we lighten up on ourselves if we are dismissive or too gullible. All of us have times when we are like that and we don’t do so consciously or maliciously. Our distortions of how we see others are rooted in our unconscious fears of being harmed again as we were once earlier in our lives. Looking through a distorted lens is our way of not seeing what we cannot handle.

People who are gullible are deathly afraid of being abandoned so they ascribe positive qualities to others that aren’t realistic. They may say “Oh, how thoughtful that person is for giving me this present” when in fact that person is using the present as a bribe. Often they project their own good qualities on to other people who do not merit such admiration. It’s a way to pretend that they are safe when they aren’t. People who are dismissive see their own emotional vulnerability as a threat when it really isn’t. They don’t want to feel emotional as it makes them squirm out of fear and shame. So keeping people at arm’s length and taking the superior position falsely appears to keep them safe and away from feelings. It’s hard to believe that our perceptions of others are due to struggles internal to ourselves that occurred years ago. We would rather have an inaccurate view of others than to look accurately within ourselves. Winnie the Pooh said this best, “We have met the enemy and it is us.”

Perilous1How do you know when Caring is Real?

I would be a very wealthy person if I could give a quick answer to this question. Let me try anyway. Most of us learn the hard way to know when love is real. We do it by trial and error, with the emphasis on error. To do so through life experience it’s best to not to be too gullible or too dismissive with others. Authentic caring is a behavior that persists over time to bring about the best in ourselves and another person. It is not just a “feeling” or “chemistry” or the hope in the potential in another person. Certainly it doesn’t hurt to have a thing for another person, so much so, that we feel we cannot live without him or her. This is merely romantic love, a good start, but not a real confirmation of authentic love. Many of us fall for other people simply because they appear different but are in fact not good for us.

Many of us fall in love with bad boys or girls because they are more exciting than our boring life and because we feel underneath that we don’t deserve real caring. That’s what lands you in a therapist’s office.

On the other hand, real caring is built on mutual respect and devotion over time, not quick romance. It is a two-way affair where you have enough in common and your differences are generally accepted. When you hang out with a caring person you can count on them to ask you as many questions about yourself as you ask about them and have a partner offer you as much as you offer him or her. If you have concrete evidence that your relationship is a two-way street over an extended period of time then chances are better that you have the real thing.

Realize that sometimes you may not be getting full cooperation from a partner because you are pushing love away or you are being insensitive to a love one. Often the problem we see in partners originate from ourselves and vice-versa. Read Willful Blindness: How We Ignore the Obvious at Our Own Peril by Margaret Heffernan (Walker and Company, 2011) or The Gift of Fear by Gavin De Becker (Little Brown and Company, 1977).

Real love is about offering with no guarantee that it will be accepted, and receiving even when we’re sure we will not be offered it. Real love turns us and our partners into better people and false love does just the opposite. The famous poet Elizabeth Barret Browning said, “I love you not only for what you are, but for what I am when I am with you.”


John H. Driggs, L.I.C.S.W., is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in private practice in St. Paul and co-author of Intimacy Between Men (Penguin Books, 1990). He can be reached at 651-699-4573.

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