By Joachim Vogt Isaksen
Do you sometimes experience that the mere presence of other people leads to
feelings of discomfort and tension? When not knowing exactly what other
people think of you it may lead to self-doubt and feelings of insecurity.
According to the American sociologist Charles Horton Cooley (1864-1929), the degree of personal insecurity you display in social situations is determined
by what you believe other people think of you.
Cooley´s concept of the looking glass self, states that a person’s self
grows out of a person´s social interactions with others. The view of
ourselves comes from the contemplation of personal qualities and impressions
of how others perceive us. How we see ourselves does not come from
who we really are, but rather from how we believe others see us.
The main point is that people shape their self-concepts based on their
understanding of how others perceive them. We form our self-image as the
reflections of the response and evaluations of others in our environment. As
children we were treated in a variety of ways. If parents, relatives and
other important people look at a child as smart, they will tend to raise him
with certain types of expectations. As a consequence, the child will
eventually believe that he is a smart person. This is a process that
continues when we grow up. For instance, if you believe that your closest
friends look at you as superhero, you are likely to project
that self-image, regardless of whether this has anything to do with reality.
The concept of the looking glass-self theory constitutes the cornerstone of
the sociological theory of socialization. The idea is that people in our
close environment serve as the “mirrors” that reflect images of ourselves.
According to Cooley, this process has three steps. First, we imagine how we
appear to another person. Sometimes this imagination is correct, but may
also be wrong since it is merely based on our assumptions. Second, we
imagine what judgments people make of us based on our appearance. Lastly, we
imagine how the person feels about us, based on the judgments made of us.
The ultimate result is that we often change our behavior based on how we
feel people perceive us.
Building a strong self-image
“I imagine your mind, and especially what your mind thinks about my mind,
and what your mind thinks about what my mind thinks about your mind.”
Charles Horton Cooley.
So how can we, or anyone else, know who we really are? Can you be sure of
the “real you”, separated from all the stuff in the outside social world?
You have probably experienced that you have had a strong sense of another
person´s dislike for you, only to later find out that this was not the case,
and that this person really liked you. The “real social world” as
we perceive it, is often not only wrong, but may even serve as an illusion.
All people want to be liked and be appreciated for talents or personality.
But if we have a weak self-image, if we believe that the opinion of others
are more important than our own, we can end up living our lives in
accordance to other peoples´ expectations. Sometimes, other evaluations
mean more to us than our own. This is quite a distressing thought, since it
implies that others´ opinion of you can run your life.
A person’s construction of an “imagined self-image” is done unintentionally.
We are not consciously aware that we often try to conform to the image that
we imagine other people expect from us. If a person develops a negative
self-image the self-esteem will tend to be low. Low self-esteem and poor
self-image has long been associated with a whole range of psychological
problems, and it is necessary to counter the passive individual that depends
heavily on the social world for building self-image. Hence, we should
develop a self-image that is more based on our own evaluations rather than
how we believe others look at us.
The concept of the looking glass self-offers insight not only into our own
thinking, but also to how we form our identity based on how others see us.
If we are interacting with others we are vulnerable for changing our
own self-image, a process that will continue throughout our lives.