The looking-glass self, or how others shape our identities

In 1902, the American sociologist Charles Cooley came up with the concept of the looking glass self, which he described in his work “Human Nature and the Social Order.” It’s based on the idea of the so-called “reflected appraisals,” which is one of the main psychological theories about how we form opinions of ourselves.

The assumption behind the looking-glass self is quite simple. It states that our self-views form as a result of our perceptions of other people’s opinions of us.

That is, what we learn and know about ourselves comes from others, from the outside world.

This notion is especially applicable to the way children form their self-esteem. For instance, if parents or teachers praise the child for their math skills, s/he will infer that they are good at math, and their confidence will increase.

Most of the time, however, as studies have found, it’s not the real opinions that go into our self-views, but rather — our apprehension of these. Of course, it’s not hard to grasp that these perceptions can be very biased. But nonetheless, the theory states, they have the power to influence the way we see ourselves in a rather big way.

Pegging the way we think the world sees us to how we form our self-concept may, undoubtedly, seem as a rather frightening idea. For one thing, it rather unequivocally suggests that we don’t have full control over how our self-esteem forms — i.e. the individuals we most often interact with affect our self-opinions.

There is a silver lining, though, the theory tells us. Not all people’s assessments have the same weight. Naturally, we would consider the opinions of family and close relationships to be more relevant to our self-concept than those of strangers.

Additionally, those we deem to have authority or credibility have greater leverage. Further, what is assessed also matters — we tend to be more sensitive to opinions that we deem significant to our self-concept.

The process follows three steps, according to the theory:

first, we imagine how others see us,

then, we imagine how they assess us,

and finally, we develop our self-views through these judgements.

But we do hold some power, of course, over how our personalities are shaped. And we do have a say in how we choose to define ourselves, and thus — how much we let outside opinions leak substance into our self-image.

Selecting carefully the people we surround ourselves with and the dimensions we base our confidence on can often make all the difference.

Finally, the main thing to take away from the theory of the looking-glass self is to recognize that our self-esteem doesn’t form only as a result of self-knowledge, or how much we generally like or dislike ourselves, but is also a by-product of our social interactions.

Simply put, we need to be mindful of who we let into our worlds.



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