Disclaimer: I’m not a psychologist, mental health professional, or self-help expert. I write about psychology/wellness topics because they interest me and am in no way qualified to speak about these subjects professionally. Please do not take my posts as medical advice. Seek out a licensed professional to diagnose/treat any mental or emotional health conditions.
I felt inspired to write about self-perception after an interaction I had a few weeks ago…
I recently started taking acting classes. I absolutely love them – in addition to acting, the classes involve a lot of self-exploration and self-reflection. Basically, you learn a ton about yourself.
Nestled in a cozy circle with my classmates, I’d somehow gotten onto the topic of being deeply insecure. I talked about anxiety, never being “enough”, and feeling teased by dreams on my horizon that I never seem to reach.
When I finished my sob-story soliloquy, there was a moment of silence. And then, my teacher spoke up. “Wow!”, she said. “I never would have expected that from you. On the outside, you’re a bold, put-yourself-out-there type of person. Kind of like a Demi Moore!”
Of course, I was flattered to hear this. And a bit stunned. Her praise kindled a question deep within me: is there a fundamental mismatch between how I see myself and how others perceive me?
Why Can’t You See Yourself the Way Others See You: The Origins of Poor Self-Perception
I’m convinced that for most people, a negative self-perception starts young. It can bloom even in a loving, supportive household where nothing is fundamentally wrong. And the saddest thing? It’s usually a result of chasing an ideal that you’ll never reach (in my case, perfectionism and wanting to be a person I’m not). In other words, if you had a good upbringing in a generally supportive environment…you were probably the aggressor against your own self-perception.
Now, that’s not even accounting for situations where people’s self-perception is under direct assault.
The parent who criticizes their child for not looking or acting a certain way.
The teacher who acts disapproving when a student underperforms.
The coach who dismisses a player because they don’t bring enough skill to the table.
Each of these dings and dents in our self-esteem erodes our sense of self-worth and leaves new impressions that we’re quick to take to heart. Toxic impressions like:
- I’ll never succeed at the things I want to do.
- I can’t measure up to others.
- I’m not good enough.
- I’m (insert negative trait here).
So, why can’t you see yourself the way others see you? Because your glasses are tinted with years of impressions and ideals that others have heaped on you. Impressions that may be inaccurate, unfair, uninformed, or just plain false.
My Self-Perception Timeline
As a Kid
I’m fortunate to have many loving and wonderful people in my life. Sadly, many of these people faced the terrible trifecta that is anxiety, depression, and obsessive-compulsive disorder (to some degree or another).
Scientists estimate that somewhere between 20 and 60 percent of our temperament (or more broadly, our personalities) are determined by genetics. So it’s no surprise that growing up I was especially anxious. Outlandish “what ifs” had a chokehold on my thoughts, and the fear only seemed to worsen as I aged. I was also a naturally compliant and obedient child. I had no trouble being exceptionally harsh on myself if I didn’t live up to my lofty expectations.
As a Teen
Cue the turbulent teenage years. The adult fear of “what am I going to do with my life?” snuck up on me early (like, 13 years old early). And of course, being the person I was (am), I had some audacious goals. I wanted to attend the fancy schools, get all the accolades, be the best at everything I did, yada yada yada. Basically, I wanted to stand apart from the crowd and be someone special. Every normal teen has the urge to be seen, but paired with perfectionism? That’s a toxic cocktail.
As an Adult
Growing up can knock the stars out of your eyes really fast. As I edged toward adulthood, I realized that some of the goals I’d set early on were unrealistic. But instead of moving on in a healthy way, I spent a lot of my early twenties pining to be someone who I’m naturally not. It sucks to admit it, but I wasn’t fair to myself.
I had an idealized “Cool Girl” in my mind who I wanted to be. “Cool Girl” is based on a potpourri of real-life and imaginary people. Cool Girl is a superstar at everything she tries. She has boundless energy and is witty and fun, but mysterious with an aloof edge. “Cool girl” is a social climber who gets what she wants. She speaks her mind with a smile and a laugh that disarms anyone who’d dare challenge her. You’d almost call her manipulative in her approach to getting what she wants – but it’s mostly harmless, and you like her too much to call her out on it. Cool Girl is an entrepreneur, a daredevil, and a risk-taker. People know her name. Oh, and of course, “Cool Girl” is drop-dead gorgeous. And tall. 😏
And you know who “Cool Girl” is not?
Me. Like, at all.
I don’t mean that in the self-deprecating sense (one of my goals for my 30s is “less deprecation, minimizing, qualifying, and downplaying”). I just mean that truthfully. I’m not tall. In fact, I’m super short. And while I have great traits, for the most part, they are not the traits that Cool Girl has.
Can You Fix Poor Self-Perception?
If you’ve held certain beliefs about yourself for years, it can be extremely hard to unravel them.
How many kids have struggled in math class, thrown up their hands, and exclaimed “I’m bad at math?” And then kicked the doorstops out from under future career or school opportunities due to this long-held belief?
How many adults have exited turbulent relationships dragging the baggage of their partner’s constant criticisms?
How many people have wilted in social situations due to thinking they’re “awkward” or “weird”?
You get the point – our self-perception rules our actions, and our actions determine our future. Therefore, if you have poor self-perception, you may be setting yourself up for a future where you don’t reach your full potential.
Not to mention, poor self-perception is associated with poor mental health outcomes and an increase in destructive behaviors like smoking and drug use.
Years of comparing myself to “Cool Girl” was poisonous to my self-perception. But, I’m glad to say that with a lot of concerted effort, I’ve come to love and accept myself for who I am. So in many cases, it’s possible to change your perception of yourself if you’re willing to put in the work.
I’m not going to elaborate here on how to change your self-perception – perhaps I’ll save that for another post. Instead, with the stage now set, I want to get back to the original topic: why can’t you see yourself the way others see you?
Why Can’t You See Yourself the Way Others See You: My Thoughts
As I stated earlier, we view ourselves through warped lenses that don’t always reflect the truth. Even our perception of something concrete, such as our physical appearance, can be distorted by these pernicious glasses.
If you’ve spent any time on Instagram, Snapchat, or other visually-focused social media platforms, you’ve seen how people will edit their photos – either subtly or outrageously – to create an idealized image of themselves. This phenomenon is so pervasive that there’s even an (entertaining) subreddit dedicated to it.
It’s burgeoning research, but studies are starting to show links between Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD) and social media use, especially in women. And don’t even get me started on the rampant comparisons that invade our minds after just minutes of scrolling. Not only are we creating unreachable standards for ourselves through obsessive filtering – we’re then comparing ourselves to the outlandish caricatures we see. And you know the scariest part? The editing can be so subtle and so convincing, that we don’t even realize we’re being duped.
When you look in the mirror, you may not always love what you see. But I’d encourage you to look in the mirror – instead of your phone camera lens – and identify things you appreciate about yourself. And when the people close to you praise your physical features, believe them. 🙂 They’re sharing their honest perception with you, which is incredibly valuable in a world rife with falsehoods.
Mentally & Emotionally
Personally, this one is tougher for me. You can look in a mirror and get a dead-accurate physical view of yourself. But what looking glass provides a true mental and emotional picture?
There’s not an exact answer. But wise people have said that you are the sum of the people you surround yourself with. So, if you’re associating with negative, narrow-minded, spiteful, or petty people, you might start to reflect some of those unsavory traits. Conversely, if you buoy yourself up with kind, responsible, thoughtful, and loving people – your perception of the world and yourself may be quite different.
Finally, there’s value in asking people you trust for their opinions. If you want to better understand how you’re perceived by others, direct these questions to someone you trust:
- What are some observations you have about me?
- What are my positive traits and my negative traits?
- How do I act in [X] setting? Is there anything I can change?
- What do others think of me when they meet me? What kind of vibe do I give people?
Don’t get down on yourself if you don’t love every answer you hear. After all, the point of the exercise is to understand how others see you – not to seek out praise.
For people in the throes of a self-perception crisis, it’s common to desperately wonder: why can’t you see yourself the way others see you?
We live in a world where we’re force-fed perfect images, idealized lives, and highlight reels. Breaking away from this and perceiving your true self takes time, effort, and patience. Don’t get down on yourself in the process of reversing your poor self-perception, and recognize that it’s a process. It could take days, months, or years to change your thinking. Be loving to yourself as you embark on the journey of seeing your true, beautiful self.
Do you struggle with seeing yourself the way others see you? What are some solutions you’ve found?