It’s something that’s been said throughout history: “Don’t judge a book by its cover”, yet we can’t seem to train our minds against those almost-immediate assumptions we make daily. Granted, it’s human nature, and we’re slowly changing our ways–or at least, I hope we are!–but change takes effort, and that seems to be the sticking point for a lot of people: effort.
In a recent interview, Miley Cyrus claimed that people dismiss traits they don’t like about themselves. “That’s just how I am”, they’ll say, and move on to the next incident without reflection. But Miley advised that if people took the time to examine their faults, and be more conscious of their actions/behaviours, they could be better–they could change!
Her comment made me think about author Alyson Noel and how she’s implemented change in her views/responses towards negativity. As a result of years of meditation, Alyson’s gradually trained herself not to engage in it, spoken or otherwise.
It was after a post she shared in December 2019 titled, “Energy is contagious. Ask yourself: What am I putting into the world? What am I allowing into my space?” that I first began thinking about change and how I might implement it in my own life.
In the piece, Alyson explained that she’d been in line at a supermarket. It was the Christmas period, so inevitably it was busy, and the staff were under pressure to assist with only two registers open. Impatient, a woman behind began to complain about the speed of service. Her outburst swiftly found an audience and others contributed to her negative verse. “It was like watching a virus spreading in real-time. One by one, they abandoned the line [for the other] in a huff, until I was the one left standing at the front” . . . “I told the cashier she was doing a great job, that she wasn’t responsible for other people’s choices, and she’d handled a difficult situation in an admirable way”.
I imagined myself in those circumstances and was ashamed to admit I would have been a sheep. Alyson had really set an example with her behaviour, and it was a shame to see how others let their emotions (and the opinions of others) dictate their own.
While this was something I wanted to work on, my initial response to Miley’s comment was in regards to my ASD and how it dictates my thoughts and emotions, particularly towards making judgements about others. It made me wonder, can what is typically innate be changed?
I’m guilty of making snap-judgements, and a lot of the time, due to the paranoia associated with my ASD, they’re completely wrong. But what’s weird about my opinions is that they’re not based on a person’s overall look, they’re based on a person’s facial expressions/structure–I know, it’s weird, try not to judge. For example, I might have a subconscious thought like, “Their face is stern, and their eyes hatefully narrow; they mustn’t be very nice”. Naturally, I know it’s ridiculous, but my brain runs with that initial idea and mutates it until a monster stands in its place. That monster inevitably becomes the innocent person I (typically) so wrongfully judged.
To help you understand, someone I always thought looked unapproachable was Ray Liotta. The actor’s sharp features, pronounced jaw, barely-there lips and slanted eyes put the fear of God in me about his character. I don’t know why I associated features like this to mean ‘unkind’. Still, I did, so when, at seventeen, I attended the first of several NHS mental health meetings, I’d been horrified to find the practitioner shared an uncanny resemblance to Ray. Right away, I labelled him based on these preconceived notions: he was going to be strict, no-nonsense. He wouldn’t take no for an answer. He would want results and nothing more. Mental health didn’t matter to him–this guise was all part of his job. On these notions, I had a panic attack on the sad grey chair, in the restrictively dull room, in front of this tyrant who had no doubt branded me a fool. After all, he ate little girls like me for breakfast.
But I was wrong. About everything. The seemingly-terrifying monster asked if I was okay and if there was anything he could do to help. He told me about his daughter, who had similar difficulties and how they impacted her. He understood why I was the way I was and didn’t hold any resentments. He genuinely wanted to help.
I didn’t know it then, but that meeting was the first of many lessons in changing my mindset.
A few years later, one of my pre-diagnosis jobs involved ducking and diving through a manic sorting office with around two-hundred other people. For anyone, this kind of environment would be stressful, but for someone with anxiety-dictated ASD, it’s essentially hell on earth. My employment there didn’t last long, namely due to bullying from management, but it was the straw that broke the camel’s back concerning my ASD diagnosis. But I digress! With so many bodies and faces, it was exhausting trying to mix. Add the stresses of being ‘the new girl’, and it was a recipe for disaster. Outside of the school/college setting, I’d never been around so many people, and in my own time, I rarely mingled, so it was all a massive culture shock!
I couldn’t understand how socialising and forming bonds came so easily to others. It all seemed like some natural talent I hadn’t acquired. As a result of this, and fueled my disorder, I began to distance. I made opinions based on this ‘look’ I deemed nasty or friendly. I worried that people were speaking behind my back. Any passing glances I immediately assumed were hate-filled. Thus the paranoia grew, and I began to isolate myself further and further as a result of stupid suspicions formed off stupid first-thoughts. And how wrong those had been!
The very people I’d thought scary (minus one) turned out to be the most considerate. In some way or another, each had experience with mental health or had an innate desire to care for others. It was another lesson for me in learning not to judge. They helped me through some difficult times.
Now, when I catch myself critiquing, I try to stop immediately. I’ve come to learn that you can only assess people based on their behaviour and choices. Like with books, outward appearances can be deceptive. With a shift in attitude, not only can our opinions change, but the very energy we emit can as well. We should aim to help others thrive through example, not wither under the contagion of our negativity.
I hope I’m a better person for these lessons.