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It’s your interpretation!

Twenty years ago, I was feeling overwhelmed in my work as a manager of police officers in the Internal Disciplinary Service for the Sao Paulo Civil Police Force, Brazil. Those days were so stressful; it was like being engaged full-time to my job, with a sword pointed at the top of my head and a knife against my chest. To make matters worse, our director never seemed happy with the results of our paperwork and each month we used to receive from him what I secretly called “the monthly telling off.” I mean, he used to call all of us for a monthly meeting in his office, just to say how dissatisfied he was, despite our efforts.

One afternoon, during that difficult stage, one of the male managers came to our office and shouted the words: “meeting with the director.” Immediately, I stood up and headed off to the lift, as I was sure I had been called as well, even though my own boss had remained in his place, speaking on the telephone.

Inside the lift there was another male manager who asked me, in a very surprised way, if I had really been called for that meeting. I answered: “sure.” Why on earth would I be spared  the monthly telling off?

When I arrived at the director’s office, I had a big shock: the place was packed with men, most of whom I had never seen before and I was the only female present. One of them asked, equally shocked: “A lady?!”. I could see the surprise in all those male faces, who seemed to be asking the same question: “Who called her in?”

The director came towards me and kindly offered me a seat at the desk. In that moment, I was told what that secret meeting was about: they were making strategic plans to catch one of the most wanted men in the country, who was believed to be hiding inside a certain building on that day. Although I was the same rank as everybody else in that room, but not operational, I easily concluded that it was never been meant for me to attend that meeting and that actually I’d misheard those four words shouted inside my office.

I said: “Sorry, sir, I thought it was the usual office meeting.” He answered: “It’s all right” and I left that place feeling awful and traumatised for life. My inconvenient presence in that secret meeting for some minutes made me become known as  being “the one with her head in the clouds”.

Time went by, but I can still remember how I felt disappointed with myself for that mistake. With the help of a friend, I learned to take that incident as a life lesson. From those 4 words – “meeting with the director” – I had built in my mind a huge fantasy that didn’t match up with the reality. So, the whole problem had been my interpretation of those words according to the framework I had developed in my mind.

My unfortunate experience got me thinking that it is not only in working life that we can jump to conclusions and misunderstand facts or some of the little things around us, but also in our relationship with friends, relatives and partners. Some unconscious assumptions we make about a situation can result in interpretations leading either to satisfaction or disappointment. If you achieve satisfaction, nothing could be better, but you can also generate large or small disappointments. Most of the time, the higher the hopes you build around a person, the greater the disappointment if those hopes are unmet.

In fact, our huge expectations are essential to the success of our relationships. Do you know why? We want  to share the whole loaf with our peers, we don’t want just crumbs thrown from the meal table for us. Communicating to friends, partners or family members our need for attention, comfort and security in a honest way is key, for in doing so, we may find out that sometimes we have unrealistic and selfish beliefs about what another person can do for us. Unfortunately, most of us do it only after a disappointment has happened. We ignore those things that could be better managed through open and polite dialogue and which can bring us wonderful surprises.

Remember that there are times in our lives when we see a lot of our friends and other times when we don’t. Being more realistic can make a big difference in our relationships. When we think about other peoples’ worlds, not just our own, we may find out that they also live with pressure and that’s possibly the reason why they may be failing us or be unwilling to respond to our unrealistic hopes in that moment. To be able to look at things from another person’s perspective means to be able to walk at least one mile in their shoes, which can be hard work.

A friend of mine once rang me to tell that her husband had given her a holiday in Paris with some of  her closest friends. After five days, she spoke with him on the telephone, saying that her travellers’ cheques were running out and as he had asked her not to use her credit card, she could see no other way, except coming back home. She expected him to say: “yes my darling, come back, I am missing you so much.” Rather than these romantic words, she heard from him: “stay there, please, don’t hesitate to use your credit card.”

She felt devastated by what she interpreted as being coldness and far from her expectations of him… I said to her she shouldn’t take these things personally, instead she should clarify with him all her doubts, before jumping down his throat. She did it and was rewarded by a much more unexpected surprise: his intentions were to join her on that holiday later and he had even tickets to Paris, but his work colleague had retired and so the pressure on him was higher than anticipated and he just couldn’t do it. He had said nothing to her before, being afraid of putting her under the same pressure.

So, gleaning her own interpretation of her husband’s words on the telephone and keeping it quiet, my friend was solely responsible for all her unnecessary suffering. Now that couple is planning their second honeymoon!

My father has a heart of gold, and he is also the most trusting person alive that I know in this world. He would often call strangers to our house whom he met on the streets, believing that people are innately good and nobody is setting out to cause him any harm. On the other hand, many are on the sceptical side, and they think of everybody as being highly suspicious. Neither extreme is ideal. If we trust others too much or too little, we are at risk of being rejected and excluded by our society. The question is: how to be good and kind towards others, without becoming a fool? What is the balance between being overly trusting and being too distrustful? The challenge is to step back and analyse our assumptions to make sure that they match up with the reality, so that the interpretation built upon them will also be true. And from experience, we can learn.

The best relationships are the ones where trust is built up in stages, when people involved initiate a trusting behaviour which is reciprocated. Being overly distrusting can exclude you from becoming part of relationships and  being over-trusting can give you some terrific friendships and even widen your world, as long as you learn to decrease the likelihood of being betrayed.

As a daughter of a great believer, I am very often credulous, unconsciously interpreting people as doing their best all the time. Following my trusting nature, usually I give plenty of information about myself to everybody I have just met. Actually, all of us sometimes feel very vulnerable, which makes us more prone to be trusting. So, probably the best way is to trust in the logic of your instincts. Learning to interpret what your body is saying is key, as often our subconscious mind is more effective than our conscious mind at picking up clues. If you feel knots in your stomach, heart racing or tremors in your hands during a talk with an acquaintance, perhaps something isn’t right.

Everybody has been disappointed at some point in their life, but once disappointed, how do most women react? Crying on the chest of their sympathetic friends, whilst telling them all the little and tortured details of what was so traumatic, which usually causes even more trauma. Not that the grieving time isn’t important; to acknowledge our disappointments and not just ignore them is crucial, but how to do it effectively? Some ways are constructive for managing disappointments, which can build up resilience and tolerance, making us, in the long run, stronger people. After having your cry, you can help by addressing your hard feelings without attacking others. It is important to be honest and at the same time very polite, talking slowly and quietly with the person who has failed  you. Never use artificial sentences, such as “I don’t feel really hurt, but…” , when you know that actually you beat yourself up. Rather than making accusations, you can show empathy and sympathy, as you may also have collaborated in that disappointment and so you can learn what you could have done differently as long as you are more flexible.

Difficulties are made to be overcome, so it is probably better to stop tearing your hair out and take a  look at that person if you have never done it before. It can be hard to talk with that friend, as confidence is needed. Nobody is born with confidence; we need to exercise our inner strength through daily investment in all our potential, so that we can grow and, accordingly, build our convictions. Even feeling a bit hurt in the self-esteem department, you have the power to be who you truly are and speak to that person, explaining your interpretation of why, how and what made you disappointed, as well your previous expectations. By doing so, you may both end up sharing a whole loaf together and laughing your socks off.

We women can do it, as we are braver than we think.

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