A guy is riding in the first-class cabin of a train in Spain and to his delight, he notices that he is sitting next to Pablo Picasso. Gathering up his courage, he turns to the master and says,
‘Senor Picasso, you are a great artist, but why is all your art, all modern art, so screwed up? Why don’t you paint reality instead of all these distortions?’
Picasso hesitates for a moment and asks, ‘So what do you think reality looks like?’
The man grabs his wallet and pulls out a picture of his wife. ‘Here, like this. It’s my wife.’
Picasso takes the photograph, looks at it, and grins. “Really? She’s very small. And flat, too.”Seth Godin
This guy clearly didn’t like the way Picasso represented reality in art. But his representation of his wife didn’t represent the same reality to Picasso’s.
Representation is more than just reality, more than what meets the eye; it is an interpretation of something that can be seen, heard, or experienced. In other words, representation is a way of communicating ideas and feelings.
One of the reasons that Picasso’s art doesn’t represent reality to some people is because when you see a representation of an object, you use what you know to interpret the object. So if you see a cat, you know, it’s a cat and not a dog.
Your interpretation is based on your understanding of the world and how objects typically look, but Picasso disrupts the image you have, so you’re not sure what is being represented.
But are representations accurate?
Represented in court
There is currently a high-profile court case between two major stars; yes, you know who they are.
The way these two people are represented to the jury and the public is down to how their lawyers represent them.
The lawyers want to represent their client in the best light and the opposition in the worst, and they choose their witnesses and questions to reflect that.
And they carefully pick the jury members to reflect that too. If the case, as this one does, contains references to domestic violence, the jury has to be screened to make sure that no jury members have a history of giving or receiving violence.
Because it doesn’t matter how well someone is represented, your personal history overrides what you hear and causes bias.
Even if you don’t think that you have biases around the way something is represented, imagine you see a cat’s paw. Do you picture the whole cat? But what happens if you see a steak? I’ll bet you don’t picture the whole cow?
All representation depends on the way you see the world. And the way you see yourself.
How do you represent yourself?
The way you represent yourself is thought to be a guide to the way you see yourself. The version you have in mind of yourself. Your identity.
Some people wear outrageous clothes imagining that the clothes represent their personality. They dress in a way that makes them feel that they express their unique personality, even if it means standing out from the crowd. Maybe particularly if it means standing out from the crowd.
For others, representation is about fitting in and conforming to how society expects them to look. They wear their clothes as a uniform that represents their chosen career.
Picture a government official. Yes, that’s the look.
Do you always represent yourself accurately?
Is your representation accurate if you represent yourself as a god-fearing monogamous person and your ex-partner knows that you systematically worked your way through the local football team?
Does the way you represent yourself depend on the context or audience? If you’re going for a job in a traditional accountant’s office, you probably don’t want them to know about the football team we just talked about.
Or the nights out dancing on the table at 2 am. Which, btw, is an excellent reason to check your social media privacy settings.
Naturally, you want to represent yourself in the best way, so the way you represent yourself might change depending on the environment.
So which representation is true? All of them. Because you’re not a one-dimensional, rigidly fixed personality, why would you only have one representation?
What do things represent to you? How about money?
What does money represent?
Many people make money mean something about their life. You might want a lot of money as that represents success to you?
But if you’re an actor working on the stage, you might think that netting millions to appear in a Hollywood farce is a sell-out. You might make the money mean the actor is devalued despite the cash in the bank.
To some, money represents power. They believe that the more money they have, the more control they have over their lives. They see money as a way to buy influence and get ahead.
Others view money as a representation of security. They believe that having a lot of money will protect them from life’s setbacks and uncertainties.
But if this were true, a millionaire’s relationship wouldn’t end in divorce.
What does a relationship represent to you?
I have clients who want to stay in a bad relationship because they imagine even a bad relationship represents security. They would rather stay with someone they no longer like, let alone love, than be seen as single and all that being single represents to them.
Whereas other clients love being single. To them, being single represents freedom and choice.
They wear their singledom as a status badge.
What does status represent to you?
Having the right kind of house or the right kind of job?
To some, status represents worth. To the neighbors? Friends? Family?
What would status represent if you woke up alone tomorrow in a post-apocalyptic world?
You probably wouldn’t want the biggest house or the flashiest car if no one were around to impress, so it’s worth asking yourself why status represents worth?
Is it because you want other people to see you as rich and successful? To have this representation of you.
Represented by others
How do others see you? It’s a question that you might not often think about, but it’s an important one. The way that others see you affects the way that you see yourself.
Think of parents who say that this child is clever or arty or, even worse, isn’t good at anything. The way you’re represented as a child can inform how you see yourself throughout the rest of your life.
I had a weight loss client who couldn’t lose weight. As we talked, she realized that when she was a child, her mother had told everyone that she was a big eater, and she had taken this on as truth and continued to eat big meals, far more than she needed, all through her life.
How do you feel if an ex represents you as mean or nasty to their friends? Do you feel that you want to put the record straight? Does it make you doubt yourself and your behavior?
Or do you shrug your shoulders and move on?
But you can only get hung up on the way others see you if you buy into their version of you. Others will only see a representation of their thoughts.
And representation isn’t reality.