“I feel like they put me in a box and don’t let me be the real me.” That’s a popular refrain. If you haven’t said it yourself you’ve probably heard someone say it.
The truth is we do put people in boxes. As we get to know people we gain knowledge and develop assumptions about them. And that information affects how we interact with them. In many ways it makes life easier by simplifying our actions. For example, if I know which of my friends like sushi and which don’t, I won’t bother asking those that don’t to go out for sushi.
We do it in other ways, too. We assume we know how someone is going to react. We may choose which friends to discuss a problem with because we know that they will be less critical and more supportive than other friends.
Another reason we like to build boxes is for safety. Let’s face it, it is difficult when we don’t know what to expect out of someone. When we aren’t sure what reaction we’ll get it begins to make it unsafe to interact with them. So we have a vested interest in keeping them in their box. If they start getting out if can feel scary, not knowing what unpredictable reaction they’ll have or action they’ll take.
But there is a flip side to box building. People build boxes largely based on the information provided by the other person. That’s right, we give other people the specifications to build their box around us.
Think about it. If we consistently have a negative reaction to something, people will tend to stop sharing that with us. If we say we enjoy something or dislike something, people will incorporate that information into the box. And isn’t just what we tell or show people about us. It is also what we don’t show them or tell them. When we withhold information about what is important to us, what our core values are, people are left to fill in the blanks from their own imagination. And there is a high probability they may do it wrong.
Even if we accept that we all build boxes, what we often fail to recognize is that we are largely responsible for providing the the plans for the box. We each choose the image that we present to others. We don’t even present the same image to different people. So different people may each build a different box for us. But that is because we gave them different information, different plans.
And therein lies the danger. Each time we present an image of ourselves that isn’t authentic or omits important information, then the box that is built fits us less well. And over time that can begin to rub us the wrong way. And then we get irritated by the box and start blaming the builder.
This is typically less of an issue with less important relationships. But the more important a relationship is the more we want to be accepted for our authentic self. The more connected we want to be. We want the box to fit. But we also know that exposing our authentic self to important people makes us vulnerable. And that means the possibility of rejection by someone that matters. But we can’t have it both ways. We can’t hide our authentic self out of fear and then get upset that someone doesn’t build their box with that information.
The next time the box starts rubbing you the wrong way ask yourself – Is the builder to blame or did they just follow the plans you gave them?