Why we gravitate to others who see us as we see ourselves

Self-esteem is not easy to build, no doubt about this.

What makes it especially challenging is that low sense of worth can come from many sources, which often can be intertwined and work together to undermine our confidence.

One of the greatest influencers on our self-esteem is our relationship with others–our parents, friends, peers, spouses even. They often help shape our self-views in a rather profound ways. Why does this matter?- Simple. Because having a healthy, favourable self-image is a great barometer of how much we generally like and value ourselves.  

Negative self-beliefs, in contrast, tend to have quite the appetite for destruction—mental and physical. And they are also susceptible to what I deem to be a snowballing effect- negative thinking brings more negativity–it’s a vicious circle, which is hard to break free from.

Science also leans toward the same conclusions. In fact, a rather interesting observation has been noted by psychologists–that our self-esteem is not only influenced by other people, but that we sometimes actively look for confirmation of our negativity. 

In 1983, William Swann—a professor of social and personality psychology from the University of Texas at Austin—proposed a concept, known today as the “Self-verification Theory.” The main idea, he claimed, is that we gravitate to others who see us the same way we see ourselves.

In other words, we seek validation of our self-opinions from others, even when these views as negative, and will “interpret” feedback in a way to make it “fit” what we already believe.

Rather disturbing discovery, isn’t it? 

As one can grasp, it’s also an unsafe—to state the least—behavior for those with negative self-views or low self-esteem. Such individuals, the theory reveals, will be driven toward others who corroborate their own grim self-attitudes, AND will also sometimes deliberately act in a way to make people see them unfavorably! [1]

Perhaps even more shocking is the discovery that, in relationships, gloomy imagers (and thus, low esteemers) often drift toward partners who mistreat and even abuse them—all, of course, profoundly in sync with the side effects of undervaluing oneself.

The reasoning behind such seemingly bizarre actions, the theory explains, is that through the process of self-verification, we seek to re-establish our identities—our social roles, personality traits and values, which will give us the perception of predictability and control over the events in our lives. [2]

That is, if we believe we are not worth being respected, loved and appreciated, we will most likely behave in ways to re-affirm and even elicit such attitudes from others.

A small flaw, for instance, that we become negatively fixated on, may turn into a huge act of self-inflicted pain and misery. Not only that, but we will often want to intentionally convince others to see us the same way. Hence—the snowballing effect.

Studies on this phenomenon have confirmed that if we see ourselves in an unfavorable way, we will seek people who will confirm these self-beliefs. And if we can’t find any, we will behave in a way to evoke these reactions from others. For instance, we’ll act in a small way, will avoid eye contact, will slump our bodies–to portray low self-esteem. Or if we believe that are not likeable, we may act mean  or rude toward others, to elicit a negative reaction from them. All of this–to confirm to ourselves that we are unworthy, as we’ve always believed it.

Pretty bad situation to find yourself in, isn’t it? More importantly– is there anything to help us break free from such unhealthy behaviour?

It appears that the only logical move we can make to treat such a skewed self-image is to follow the wise guidance of the King of Hearts to the White Rabbit in Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland” :“Begin from the beginning”—and trace our histories to the origins of what makes us exclusive, unique and different individuals. Falling in love again with our own exquisiteness will give us back the hope to dream again—that it is possible, after all, to lastingly refurbish our gloomy thoughts and revamp the man in the mirror.

But the greatest victory will be that the world will see us, perhaps for the first time, for who we truly are—a lion who’s been hiding inside of a kitten for way too long.

~ Evelyn ~

. . . 

[1] Swann, W. B., Jr., & Hill, C. A. (1982). When our identities are mistaken: Reaffirming self-conceptions through social interaction. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 43, 59 – 66.

[2] Swann, W. B., Jr., Stein-Seroussi, A. & Giesler, B. (1992). Why people self-verify. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 62, 392-401.

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