“I’m seen as the ‘sensible’ one – I better step up and do it.”
“I better not disappoint people and be boring at this party – after all, people are relying on me to be the clown. God, I hate myself sometimes.”
“Even though I know I should tell him, I better not say anything – that’s not what people expect of me as a stay-at-home mum.”
“They think I’m strong and resilient. I better play the hero.”
Our self esteem is influenced by how we believe others’ perceive us
How we see ourselves – and how we behave – is governed in part by the expectations of others to act out the roles they’ve assigned us. We’re influenced, as Charles Horton Cooley’s ‘looking glass self’ theory suggests, to view ourselves through others’ perceptions. And the perceptions we believe others have of us can be negative and undermine our self belief. Even if they’re seemingly positive, like the last of our examples above, seeking to live up to an ideal self means we are living to please others, which has negative consequences for our self esteem.
Bruce Wayne & Batman
Take Bruce Wayne of Wayne Enterprises. By night he’s Batman, donning his pointy mask and cap, but by day he’s walking the streets of Gotham as the playboy, Bruce Wayne. He gets drunk, surrounds himself with nubile swimwear models, and drives fast cars as he believes the role of a billionaire bachelor should do. He hates himself for it but does it nonetheless. So it is in our own social circles, we label people then applaud the ‘clown’ in the group when he gets drunk and fools around, or seek the advice of a ‘wise’ friend who responds with pearls of wisdom however good or bad.
A famous experiment
When we try to live up to the expectations others have of us, we create a self-fulfilling prophecy. And a famous experiment in the 1960s by two American sociologists, Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson, showed the true power of the self-fulfilling prophecies. In the experiment, they randomly chose 20% of primary school children from 18 classrooms and told the teachers they were ‘intellectual bloomers.’ The teachers were told these children would show remarkable gains during the year. The teachers responded by encouraging these intellectual bloomers; their body language and facial expressions communicated they were special. The relationship changed between teacher and child, and the teachers started to find the bloomers more ‘appealing, more affectionate and better adjusted’. The acid-test were exam marks: the randomly chosen bloomers who’d been singled out, consciously and subconsciously, by teachers for special attention showed marked improvement in their results.
What does this mean for us? Well, we should look to identify the roles we play out for others, and decide for ourselves whether they play a useful purpose, which builds our self-belief and are aligned with our authentic self. And we should realise that the signs and messages people send back to you about your own behaviour is tainted by their own conscious and unconscious beliefs, prejudices, value systems and social etiquette, all of which stops people from showing what they really think of you. In other words, you can’t ever rely on others to show you who you really are because they too are looking through their own set of glasses. The only person you can trust to show you who you are is yourself.
Exercise: The roles you play
- What ‘roles’ do you think others assign to you at work? Are these positive or negative?
- How do you think others see you socially and in the workplace? Are these positive or negative?
- How are you compounding the negative perceptions or ‘roles’ others have of you by behaving a certain way – by playing certain ‘roles’?
- What do you need to do to break free from these roles – both in the workplace and at home?
- What roles would give you most integrity and contentment?
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