When prejudice isn’t real

Once upon a time, I met a woman who didn’t like me. I thought she didn’t like me, at least. She never smiled at me, rarely spoke to me, and generally didn’t seem thrilled at my presence in our Sunday school class.

Obviously, she didn’t like me.

Obviously, there was something wrong with me for her to dislike me.

I racked my brain for what was wrong. Had I offended her? Was I too honest about my bipolar disorder? Was I too quiet or awkward or— too something, some defect without a name and therefore without a solution?

Years passed. I shrugged it off. There were other people in the church who did like me, despite this nameless defect, and I consoled myself with their friendship.

One year I had this woman’s child in my VBS pre-k small group. The woman (I’ll call her Anna) pulled me aside on the first morning. “Daniel” (not his real name) “is still wearing pullups. Usually he can make it to the bathroom, but I’ve packed extra ones in his bag.” She sighed. “We’re working on toilet training, but he’s been in the hospital so much with a catheter in . . .” Another sigh. “It’s hard.”

Oh my.

“Oh, and I’ll have to come by about ten o’clock to hook his G.I. tube to the medicine bag, let it run for about twenty minutes so he gets all the food in his system, and then come back and clean out the tube.”

Double oh my.

I had known that three of her four children had a rare disease. It was a frequent prayer request at church. I had known that they were often in the hospital, travelling to see specialists, and trying to find what the best treatment would be. I had known all this.

But at this moment, listening to her schedule, knowing that the family went through this routine multiple times a day, looking at the dark circles under her eyes, it struck me: She’s not unfriendly. She’s tired.

It wasn’t about me. It never was.

As it turned out, one of the other VBS leaders was a former nurse and Heather volunteered to hook Daniel’s G.I. tube up and clean it out afterward, so Anna could have a four hour break. The look of grateful delight on Anna’s face was almost painful to see. How could I have missed the obvious?

How? For starters, I was focused on myself and my problems.

I was so self-conscious about my mental illness that it became a filter by which I judged others’ behavior toward me. I interpreted any negative (or even neutral) behavior through this filter, and believed that I knew their motivations when I didn’t. Moreover, I had allowed this misinterpretation to influence my behavior and attitudes toward them.

I think most of us do this. We have some aspect of our identity that we are sensitive about. It could be anything from the trivial to the important aspects of our humanity. We believe that others judge us for these things.

Please hear me out. I am not saying that prejudice doesn’t exist. It does. Prejudice is real. People can be hateful, judgmental, arrogant, and intent on shoving others down to prove their own superiority. People may be judging us.

But not always.

People can be prejudiced and not realize it, and unintentionally hurt us with careless words, or they might be aware of their prejudiced nature and not care. When confronted, they might be stunned into silence or defend their behavior or tell us things like: “It was just a joke. Get over it!” “Here comes the P.C. police with their political correctness crap.” “What’s your problem? Everybody says that.”

Or they might apologize, and ask how they can make things right between us. That’s the best case scenario. (It’s probably also the hardest one because it requires work from both of us. Things like forgiveness and listening and grieving the past are difficult but worthwhile.)

All of these responses are possible when someone is truly prejudiced. But is the objectionable behavior really prejudice to begin with, or am I assuming it is?

In thinking about prejudice and stereotypes, I’ve realized that I need to be careful. Sometimes, what I see as negative behavior toward me might be a product of my perception, not a reflection of reality. I need to think first.

  • Did they mean this in the way I interpreted it? What was their tone or body language during this incident?
  • Is it really negative? Would another person interpret these words or behavior in a negative light? (This is a big one for me, because my mind can distort things; I usually ask my husband or mother how they interpret the issue.)
  • Is there another possible reason for their behavior? (Even if I don’t know the person, can I think of other reasons for this person to behave this way?)
  • And, if I know this person well (and not just “this type of person,” which is a stereotyping on my part), is this a pattern of behavior or is it out of character, possibly resulting from a bad day (or lack of sleep, or hormonal imbalance, or issues with medication, or other stressors)?

Sometimes, it really is prejudice against me.

And sometimes, it’s not about me at all.


35 thoughts on “When prejudice isn’t real

  1. I do that filtering thing too, Laura, and it’s an interesting awakening when I find out their behavior/attitude/words are not about me at all. I can be really self-centered that way. I’m glad God blesses me with those awakenings, though, and allows me to get to know the person.


    1. I’m glad when God gives me those awakenings, too. Back when I first joined Facebook, one of the first people to friend me was “Anna” and she was super-supportive of me, and I got to learn more about the issues her kids have and support her with prayer.

      Liked by 2 people

    1. I know my perceptions can be very skewed, and I need to think hard about whether those perceptions match reality or not. Unfortunately, sometimes that means that I don’t trust my own perceptions/intuitions (often negative ones, with nothing to back them up but a feeling of unease), and it turns out that I was right.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Your blog post helped me just today. I took NAMI-OC’s volunteer coordinator’s lack of response to my volunteer application as an affront, when she was simply swamped from the recent NAMI Walks event. When I called this morning, she dug up my emailed application and set up an interview. Yay!


  2. Reblogged this on Kitt O'Malley and commented:
    We must be careful not to assume the worst, not to project our own fears and insecurities onto others. Read this thoughtful blog post from Laura Droege about her experience miscontruing another mother’s demeanor and behavior, assuming the other mother was prejudiced against Laura due to Laura’s openness about her bipolar diagnosis:
    “Sometimes, it really is prejudice against me.
    And sometimes, it’s not about me at all.”


  3. It can be tricky to know when prejudice is really at work or not. On one hand you have to worry about being paranoid if you have the illness; on the other hand, some instinct or just your natural observational skills may be telling you something isn’t right. Then there are those who harbour stigmas and do discriminate people with mental illness, but will not admit it if you ask what a particular attitude or tone of voice displayed towards you means. Thanks for sharing this story though. It teaches a valuable lesson: it’s not always about us.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Karen, thanks for commenting.

      You’re right. Sometimes our instincts may be telling us something isn’t right. (Every single man I was romantically involved with–prior to my husband–hurt me, to varying degrees. But what’s really sad is that in each case, I had an extremely negative gut-level reaction to them when I met them. Then other people told me how great these guys were, I persuaded myself that I couldn’t be right, and put myself in a position where I was vulnerable. If I had only listened to my instincts!)

      It’s hard to know whether the prejudice is there, if it’s just paranoia (or, alternately, self-centeredness). Probably the best thing is to pray for discernment and clarity of thought.

      Thanks again for the thoughtful comment!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I agree. I have had similar experiences with men. In retrospect, I have finally learned one thing: to trust my gut. It is so easy to doubt our selves because we are told Oh your illness makes you prone to paranoia or you’re over-thinking things. I believe that persons who suffer with this may have to observe longer, test more, ask more questions, and as you say pray harder, because that is how you are going to be able to discern between what is good and what is evil, what God wants for us and what He doesn’t. If we fill our hearts with His word daily, then when the evil one comes, we will hear the still small Voice, and we’ll know it’s not that voice in our head. One of the tests that never fail me is looking in a person’s eyes. They say the eyes are the windows to the soul. I find gazing into their eyes, if you are discerning, will always tell you the truth and raise a red flag which should explore with questions and more observation of eye contact. It may not work for everyone, but I believe eyes rarely lie.

        Liked by 1 person

    1. Projection as an art form? Hmm, that sounds like something I should’ve heard about in my contemporary art class, and believe me, I heard about some really strange things that semester!


  4. What an excellent example and such an insightful post (as usual!!) Like reader Jeannie I too have turned projection into an art form. At least we have greater awareness of this self-destructive behavior now after reading your post. Thanks to your comprehensive examination of prejudice, we can remember your points when we’re about to assume something that may not be the case…not one bit! *Thank you*!!!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Assumptions are a big problem, I think. So often we assume things based on a snap judgment of another person’s appearance/actions, and if we’re not careful, it can turn ugly very quickly.


  5. sometimes I have to think, if it is prejudice, so what? Do I want to confront it? Do I know this person’s pain, where the prejudice came from? I haven’t walked in their shoes. I don’t know their story. Everyone has their own story.
    Until I am ready and willing to sit down and really find out what that story is and work with that person, or be prepared to hear the comments that you sometimes hear like….”everyone says it”…then I simply feel compassion for the person and go on.

    But I do need to also stop and think, this may have nothing to do with me. As you did.

    The other day I was in a doctor’s waiting room. I have COPD, I coughed. It wasn’t a pretty cough. The waiting room was fairly empty and I was sitting away from most, but the person at the front desk glared at me. I thought…yes I coughed, get over it. I am a little overly sensitive about it. I coughed again, she again gave me this sideways look. I said something to my husband. He said, “maybe she is concerned.” Well I wasn’t in the mood to hear this….but maybe she was. I felt if she was concerned she wouldn’t have been looking at me in this sideways kind of way, she would have looked straight at me and asked. But then she could have been trying not to make me feel uncomfortable and was trying to just check on me without me noticing. He’s right, she could have been concerned. I needed to get over myself.

    I do try to find compassion first. I think I do not know what this person has been through, what is going on in this person’s life…..ect. This is how I try to think. then I get hit by something new…and my whole world changes. The COPD is new and I’m touchy. I’m getting there. But right now I feel like everyone things I’m contagious. 🙂

    this is an excellent piece. thank you for your insight.


    1. I can relate to how everything changes with a new diagnosis. It was like that for me with the bipolar II diagnosis. I don’t know much about COPD, though. Probably there are a lot of people who do think you’re contagious–like me, they don’t know much about it–but I hope you’ll be able to educate those who are closest to you about COPD. Best of luck with your treatment.

      “Do I want to confront it?” This particular line of your comment hit me. Sometimes confrontation isn’t the best thing; I don’t want to get into an altercation with a stranger because it’s just not safe! And sometimes, confrontation is unnecessary, even with people I know. I may not be in the right frame of mind, and come across as hostile or angry, or the other person may not be in the best frame of mind to receive a rebuke or even a questioning. Compassion, grace, and understanding are always excellent to apply in relationships! Thanks for sharing your story and commenting.


  6. You are so right that it is not always all about us. I am better at empathising since being on seroquel. How I perceive things has also changed dramatically. I am also more inclined to ask questions such as “How are you?” rather than making assumptions. But people also have some challenges when dealing with me. They too make assumptions. I have been called a snob and stand-ofish when in reality I simply did not know how to interact properly with other people.
    Your story highlights the importance of putting shame aside and being honest about what is going on. It allows for understanding rather than assumptions.
    Like you, I am open about my BiPolar and people take this into account when they have interactions with me. They give me a bit of leeway.
    I am so glad you got to understand that this woman did not dislike you, that she was just so tired.


    1. I identify with your point about not knowing how to interact properly with others. Social interactions can be difficult for me, especially when I’m not doing well or feel insecure in the environment or am intimidated by the other person. Thanks for commenting, and thanks for being open about your bipolar; I think that when other people see that it’s okay to be open about our issues, they come closer to realizing that it’s okay for them to be honest and vulnerable with others.

      Liked by 2 people

  7. Even if you are not suffering from anything, you very often make it about you and you feel like people don’t like you because you are you… You feel like they judge because of… I don’t know what… maybe in my case because we homeschool, or because I am an expat, or because my hair is red. There is always something which can make us feel unsure, vulnerable. And you post is a good reminder to take a step back and analyze what is happening. Because, as you said, it might as well not be about us. Thank you for sharing this!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s true that all of us can be self-centered and make everything about ourselves, even when we don’t have some illness or other issue that might be stigmatized. Humans can be so insecure!

      It’s interesting that you mention your red hair. A while ago, I read a blog post from a mom of a red-headed girl, who was also the daughter of a red-haired woman, and how they always felt “defined” by their hair color. While sometimes that was a source of insecurity for them, it was also a bond between grandmother and granddaughter. It wasn’t something I had thought about before.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. That is really interesting to hear! See I am the only red head in our family (my great-grandmothers apparently were on both sides of the family). So I had nobody to bond. But I have heaps of stories about being a red head and insecurities as a child…

        Liked by 1 person

  8. I do understand so well this post… because I am super sensitive to how others react to me and most especially it does happen when going through depression or even telling others that I spent years in it…. My husband is someone who I trust to give me another perspective if he feels I’ve over-reacted … Diane

    Liked by 1 person

    1. My husband is definitely the person who will tell me, “Hon, chill” or “Yeah, I think you’re right, there is something strange/offensive/whatever going on here.” Thanks for commenting. I’m glad you enjoyed the post!


  9. I like the illustration you used about your relationship with “Anna” because it is so easy to think that someone has a problem with me when in reality that person is struggling with life’s difficulties, just like I am. I am beginning to resolve to ask questions when I have the opportunity to try and understand why a person is either communicating in a certain way or if that person is struggling. Of course it all takes balance. I think God wants us all to be considerate of others and communicating compassionately is one way to show that, but we also need to ask for help and consideration when we are going through difficulties so that others can demonstrate God’s love for us. I guess that is what I mean by balance. I hope it makes sense.


    1. I understand what you’re saying. I’ve often had problems asking for help and consideration, all the while inwardly wishing that the other person would simply “know” I needed help/sympathy/kindness without me telling them. If I think about it, it’s not terribly considerate of me to expect other people to read my mind or know my feelings without me communicating that message to them. Thanks for commenting!


  10. Just last night, a friend used the word ‘spying’ on me. It was meant as he later explained, to amplify the way he checked up on me. But hell had already broken loose. I had settled on that word, overreacted, blacked him out and felt several things at the same time. Gosh, when I am going through so much up there like now, and depressions visits in daily shifts, having to actually deal with perception of what others truly say or mean/my reaction over reaction, is really too much. I just uped and came to spain for a few days of meditation. Maybe I can’t go on with that particular relationship after all. Yes, it’s not always only about us – but, we are all we have in us to deal with before dealing with others. I dunno if my last sentence makes sense, but I liked it when he told me he thought I was now existing on Survival mode!!! Thanks for sharing your story Laura


    1. Marie, I think that makes sense. We only have our particular point of reference for how we react to other people, and even if we know that it’s not always about us, it’s still hard to get out of our particular worldview and see from others’ perspective. Good point. Thank you for sharing your story. I think I might’ve overreacted to the word “spying”, too!

      Liked by 1 person

  11. ! I’m white, married and grew up in the deep south. Had I not made some great fendirs at school and had the grandmother I did, I might have taken on the hateful attitudes that continue, I’m sad to say, to infect some members of my own family. Since I’m not a blogger (just a big fan!) I did not know about this blogging event, but I am very active on Facebook with groups who are fighting prejudice in all its ugly forms. Thank you!


  12. Oh boy, have I found myself at the other end of “assuming”, sometimes!!!! Never fails to amaze me how my “little girl insecurities” sometimes creep back into my thoughts and WHAM! I’m that insecure youngster with curly black hair and buck teeth and wondering why he or she “doesn’t like me”….Doesn’t matter how old you are or how much therapy or “life experience” you acquire in life….there are (vulnerable) times we all travel down that road. Excellent piece, Laura! As usual, I enjoy your writing so much!!! 🙂


    1. Speaking of insecurity, I constantly find myself believing that I’m still 20-21, an age that was extremely difficult for me, and want to curl up in a ball and hide, unwilling to confront those who want to silence me. I imagine that most people have that mental age their minds resort to in times of insecurity, whether that age is associated with childhood or teenage years or young adulthood.

      Liked by 1 person

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