I have always been a big fan of comics. Growing up, I used to read X-Men voraciously. Even today, I still enjoy reading them. The series, which spawned a wildly successful empire of films and merchandise, was first created in 1963 by a legendary animator named Stan Lee. The comics follow the trials of a team of superheroes (or “mutants” in the parlance of the books because of a gene mutation that gives them their superpowers) who fight to protect the world from evil.
When I was growing up, my parents moved me and my siblings around quite a bit. The only constant thing in my life was change, and for that reason and others, I often felt on the outs. When we moved from Turkey where I was born to Germany, I was the new kid with a funny accent. In high school after we had returned back to Turkey, I was the geek. Later, when I was in the states pursuing a PhD, I came to understand that I was gay. Throughout my life, though I have made friends wherever I have ended up, I never really felt like I have belonged. I have always felt like there was something about me that was different and that made me strange. I never have felt fully understood.
It’s not hard to see now why I found the stories of the X-Men so irresistible. There in those pages was a group of men whose differences were precisely what gave them strength. What made them different was their superpower. The X-Men are misunderstood by the rest of normal society because of their difference, and for that reason I identify with them.
Still today, I feel empowered to try to live up to the values that the X-Men embody. The X-Men teach us that our differences come with responsibilities that extend beyond the responsibilities we all assume as part of our social contract. I’m thinking specifically of the responsibilities of self-representation, self-protection, self-defense and self-preservation. The X-Men have to defend themselves against the constant threat of discrimination and violence. Some of us might see our differences as burdens or dangers and, in a sense, they are, but choosing to see difference as a responsibility has helped me build self-confidence; it has allowed me to relate to other people who might otherwise dismiss me, or worse. It has helped me overcome my fears in many different contexts in my life.
I don’t really have any fears at all besides being misunderstood. In fact, when I think about it, my only true, unresolved fear in life is being misunderstood, and I think that’s because for so long I have been misunderstood. I’ve been misunderstood in dating contexts where my friendliness and forwardness have been mistaken for an interest in only having sex. I’ve been misunderstood in the workplace where my idealism is mistaken for naivety rather than ambition. I’m misunderstood by even some of my closest friends who sometimes take my tough love, honesty and directness as rejection.
Just the other day, I encountered a misunderstanding that was hurtful and confusing. I was on a work trip to Porto Alegre, Brazil and during one of the off-hours of the conference I was attending, I opened up a dating app to try to make local friends and maybe find a cute date. One guy who I matched with began questioning me about my profile because he thought that I was a catfish impersonating me. He unmatched me and then reported me as fake, and I was blocked from using my own account!
I’ve been haunted by this episode for weeks, and it has led me to reflect on why people are so often misunderstood online. We live so much of our lives online that in many ways who we are online is just as real to us as who were are in the analog world. What an unsettling thing it is essentially to be told, “Nope, sorry, you haven’t sufficiently authenticated yourself online. You aren’t real.”
Most people like me have a huge discomfort with the ambiguity that comes from being misunderstood. We don’t like uncertainty. Scientists have shown that when we look at a face, an indifferent expression puts us in more stress and discomfort than when we confront someone who is angry or upset. Simply put, uncertainty makes us uncomfortable. We expect the worst in situations that are not certain. In the absence of information, we make up an explanation, and we are usually wrong. The same goes for communication online and offline. Often times things are not what they seem, and we misread them. As a consequence, we fill our lives with anxiety, discomfort and stress.
We all have experienced the feeling of being misunderstood. This may be in part due to the negative impacts of the media. One recent poll found that 62% of adults believe that news they see in newspapers or on television or hear on the radio is biased and that 44% is inaccurate. We are so used to marketers, corporations, brands, politicians trying to deceive us for their benefits that perhaps this mistrust has started to seep into our relationships with the people around us. We don’t trust each other anymore. We have come to question other people’s intentions. The consequences of misunderstanding are dire. Relationships fall apart when we realize the person we’ve been dating is not who we thought they were.
If we truly want to be understood, we have to be ourselves. We have to be brave and confident but humble and kind as well. We have to be authentic and expressive, we have to be earnest and supportive. We can’t let our humility discourage our courage. And, when we are misunderstood, we can’t give up hope. We might even surprise ourselves with how refreshing it can be when we are our authentic selves, when we truly share who we really are with others — no filters allowed. We might even discover that once we do that, the doors of possibility to love and romance — to being understood as we truly are — begin to open again.