The Looking Glass Self: Believing is Becoming

cat-mirror-lionWhere does self-esteem come from? Is a person born with a healthy self-image or is their estimation of themselves encouraged by the outside world?

The looking glass self is a social theory which holds that your image of yourself is created from the way others react to you. Or more importantly, how you perceive that others react to you. We perceive that others see us in a certain way, and respond accordingly. This image is then reinforced by others responding to the image we created in reaction to the image we perceive we have.

In other words, your sense of self, identity, and self-worth is created in a three-step process:

1. You imagine how you appear to others

Ex: She thinks I am intelligent and good-looking.

2. You imagine how others are judging you based on that appearance

Ex: She thinks that I believe I’m better than other people since I am intelligent and good-looking.

3. You feel pride or shame based on this judgment, and change and evolve in reaction: either conforming with the judgment or opposing it

Ex: I am better than other people because I’m intelligent and good-looking.

Some interpret the looking-glass self to mean that your outside environment is the major contributing factor to your sense of self-worth, so a person can’t be faulted for their image of themselves, whether that image be beneficial or damaging. But this is not necessarily true — what is more important is how the person believes they are seen.

How is this relevant to you and your sense of self-worth?

At the basis of the looking glass self is your perception. You believe that you are seen a certain way, and shape your sense of self in reaction to this. What moves you to feel proud or shameful and change yourself is not the judgment of other people, but your own judgment. What you see in the mirror may or may not reflect reality in the minds of others, but it always reflects your reality.

This means in order to form a healthy self-image, you have to picture yourself as that image, not anyone else. Self-esteem is not determined by your environment or your genes, but by your attitude towards yourself. In the looking glass, believing is becoming — what you believe about yourself is what you become.

What are you? What are you becoming?

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13 thoughts on “The Looking Glass Self: Believing is Becoming

  1. I just decided this weekend that I am a professional singer. By that I mean that I sing at a level required for those who make their living at it. I decided this because I just sang my first solo role in an opera, and my singing teacher and mentor are proud of me!

  2. Sherry,

    “I just decided this weekend that I am a professional singer.”

    Oh? Cool. 🙂

    “I decided this because I just sang my first solo role in an opera”

    Really? It’s funny because I could always picture you being an opera singer, in my head.

    But I’m still waiting to hear some of your opera! I need to know all about you people and your activities. 😉

  3. Not sure what to say. I’ve always had a pretty clear image of who I was (or wanted to be), but it was clear early on it’s never how people perceived me. So I’m used to the difference between how I see myself and how others see me.

    That being said, how I felt about myself always depended on how people saw me. Sometimes, too much. It took me a long time to stop really caring what people think about me. And, naturally, their view on me got better, because people like those who don’t particularly care about their opinion.

    But I am still unable to make people see me the way I think I am. However, I don’t need that. I just stopped trying. And boy, it was a relief!

  4. Oh it’s not something you’re born with at all.

    I’ve gained my confidence first moved to JoBurg, before that I was just the skinny kaffer girl with nappy hair that never took up any space. Just trying to be in my own little bubble.

    I just got kinda angry living in JoBurg. I mean I thought it was bad in a township with the sexual harassment. But oh boy. Add Zulu men+ Nigerians+ Zimbabweans = very scared girl. But I toughen myself up. I tuned up my “ghetto” self to maximum!

    “You come over here for a minute Girli-oh, Have nice time with some nigel-oh meati-oh!” – Random nigerian man

    “Shut up wena! Before I’ll call for the boyz (A gang of mostly Zulus who kinda protected the section I lived in) or stick you myself!” – Me

    Urh I’m terrible at writing Nigerian accents lol.

    Well, I got a pretty high self esteem nowadays I think.

  5. Mira,

    “I’ve always had a pretty clear image of who I was (or wanted to be), but it was clear early on it’s never how people perceived me.”

    How so? Did they tell you something different from what you thought?

    “how I felt about myself always depended on how people saw me. Sometimes, too much. It took me a long time to stop really caring what people think about me.”

    I don’t know if we ever stop caring what people think. I think everyone cares what people think, just to differing extents.

    Nkosazana,

    Interesting story… Lol. “Skinny kaffir girl”. 🙂

  6. I don’t know if we ever stop caring what people think.

    I know. That’s why I wrote “I REALLY stopped caring”… I meant it in a way I don’t care as much as I used to, and what others think don’t influence me that much anymore.

    How so? Did they tell you something different from what you thought?

    Everything about me is different than people think. Ok, this sounds so emo, but I don’t see it as that important or a defining trait for me; it’s just how it is. It all goes with my poor social skills, I think. People see me as cold, distant, humorless, almost asexual. And very, very boring.

  7. Mira,

    “meant it in a way I don’t care as much as I used to, and what others think don’t influence me that much anymore.”

    Ah, okay.

    I don’t see you as cold or distant. And you’re certainly not boring! I think you’re just very introverted. I get a warm vibe from you sometimes, but you’re also a very “mental” person, so that can get in the way of all the warm fuzzies. 🙂

  8. Here is a clip from YouTube –

    Start at 5:00 if you are in a hurry. I am the lower voice in the duet ..

  9. This can be a debate that goes back to the fundamentals of nature vs. nurture.

    Self-esteem is due to both, and anyone who has studied children’s cognitive theories, they will find out that children naturally have high self-esteem, and it’s noticed during the early years of gradual motor skills and self development. Therefore, you’re born with high self-esteem. However, as time goes on, and that child is placed into enviornments where peer and societal pressures are instilled, the strength of that self-esteem is tested, and it will either be strengthened or weakened. This is when the factors of nurture come into play because one’s personality begins to set in, and depending on the type of personality a person has, also correlates to self-esteem.

  10. Eliss,

    You’re right that it’s debatable: there has been some enlightening criticism of the looking glass theory. IMO, the looking glass is not all there is when it comes to self-esteem — other factors are at play. But it’s a good [starting] point.

  11. Each person you meet is a mirror ~ that is all they are
    Your choice to believe what they see is important and
    your choice not to buy into their skewed mirrors and perception of you
    will be paramount to your own Love-Ability
    The mirror reflects the physical image only
    and you will need to look deeper
    Into the mirrors of your soul
    – your eyes.
    Looking often at yourSelf will give you all the answers you need
    Are you prepared to Look? Really Look?
    Each lovely person is unique
    and has no need of validation by others
    Step away from your social conditioning and all the messages you have taken on
    Walk away from unloveables
    And make a decision to love yourSelf
    A little more each day

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