How to separate our job from our self-worth

Dr. Katherine

In Fulfilment, Happiness, Mindset Posted

Does your career or role affect your confidence? That is, does what you do for a living influence how you perceive yourself, and others perceive you?

In part 1 and part 2 of this blog series, I spoke about how the reaction of others and comparison with others can influence how we feel about ourselves. In this blog I’ll look at Argyle’s third factor, how social roles affect our self-perception.

In this blog you’ll learn:

  • how and why the role we play in society affects how we feel about ourselves
  • why we act differently to get people to like us
  • how we control others’ impressions of us

The confidence role

Does your role affect your confidence? If you’re not sure, let me ask you this: have you ever been in a situation where someone asks you, ‘So, what do you do for a living?’ All the time, right? It’s the very first question after we introduce ourselves. It’s the ultimate go-to for comfortable small talk.

But here’s the thing—have you ever not wanted to answer? I know that’s happened to me, when I was unemployed, or doing a job that I wasn’t proud of. It was especially the case when I didn’t have a clue what I was going to do for a career!

To help explain this further, take a look at each of these photos and consider the first thing that comes to your mind. It’s extremely important not to edit your thoughts, such as trying to come up with the most morally accepted answer.

Fact is, the employment or role we choose, or what role chooses us, will certainly affect our identity. There are certain roles out there that are looked at with honour, such as being a movie star or a Nobel prize winner, and others that carry a stigma, such as being a prisoner or a homeless person. If you agree that this is true, regardless of whether you think it’s right or wrong, this would mean that how we feel about our identity depends on our place in society.

Therefore, if we are trying to improve our levels of confidence, regardless of whether we like our jobs or not, it’s important to remember that there are many things that will influence how we feel about ourselves, one being the role we play in society. Take some time now to consider how you feel about your current role and whether it affects you in a positive, negative or neutral way.


The Looking-Glass Self

Therefore, if we are trying to improve our levels of confidence, regardless of whether we like our jobs or not, it’s important to remember that there are many things that will influence how we feel about ourselves, one being the role we play in society. Take some time now to consider how you feel about your current role and whether it affects you in a positive, negative or neutral way.

Fact is, the employment or role we choose, or what role chooses us, will certainly affect our identity. There are certain roles out there that are looked at with honour, such as being a movie star or a Nobel prize winner, and others that carry a stigma, such as being a prisoner or a homeless person. If you agree that this is true, regardless of whether you think it’s right or wrong, this would mean that how we feel about our identity depends on our place in society.

Let’s continue with some work by Charles Horton Cooley, an American sociologist who came up with the concept of the looking-glass self. He stated that a person’s identity arises from a person’s interactions with other people. Essentially, he proposed that how we see ourselves does not come from us, but rather from how we believe others see us. He eloquently summarized this in the following quote.

I am not what I think I am and I am not what you think I am; I am what I think that you think I am1.

Bringing back memories

This reminds me of the first time I ever wrote a scientific paper. Scientific papers are very different than just writing up a report or writing an essay; you must follow specific guidelines and also phrase things in certain ways. They often include an abstract, an introduction (a presentation of the problem and past studies that looked at solving the problem), a detailed description of the methodology of your experiment or study, a results section (which includes statistical calculations), and a conclusion. It’s pretty intense, let me tell you.

I had spent what I thought was an enormous amount of time on it and submitted it to my supervisor with pride. I thought he was going to say I did a really good job.

When I got my paper back it was covered, and I mean covered, by red marks. Basically, the entire thing was scratched out. My first thoughts? I thought my supervisor had made all the comments and mark-ups because he thought:

  • I didn’t belong in his lab
  • I didn’t deserve my scholarship
  • I was stupid

I remember this experience well because I ran to the bathroom and cried my eyes out. I called my best friend from my little flip mobile and told her I was quitting. I was done. Finito. Basta. Over it.

Changing memories

Do you think there could have been an alternative explanation to what happened? If you a fly on the wall looking at the situation, what else would you have seen?

Well, I couldn’t have been any more wrong. I later found out that the reason why he spent so much time on my paper was that he saw potential in me, and wanted me to learn how to do things better.

So this is kind of like looking at a horse. We were both looking at a horse, but I was looking at it from the more negative end, you know, the end of the horse where all the poop comes out? And he was looking at it from a more positive side, the nose end. Same horse, different perspective. And that’s the funny thing about life: there are always two sides to every story.


The Looking-Glass Self Steps

This experience is a good example of the looking-glass self theory, which involves three steps:

  1. We imagine how we appear to others. Remember, this is only what we’re imagining, not what actually is. In my case, I imagined my supervisor thought I was an idiot.
  2. We imagine and react to how we think the other person would evaluate us based on what they’ve observed of us. I imagined that my supervisor considered me lazy and stupid, so I reacted by running, hiding in the bathroom and crying. I wanted to quit my degree program.
  3. Our sense of self is based on perceived judgements made by In my case, I perceived by the red marks that he was making a judgement that I was stupid. Therefore, my perception caused me to have a lower sense of self. I felt guilty and ashamed of my work.

The interesting thing is that this experience had a long-lasting effect. For example, whenever I later handed in assignments, even though I knew the corrections on my initial assignment were because he believed in me, I would always preface it by saying, ‘I know it’s not that good, I’m just not good at this’ to ensure his expectations of me were lowered. Funnily enough, still to this day I often feel I’m no good at many things in regard to academia, but that’s another story!

The most important thing to note is that we aren’t being influenced by the impressions of others. My supervisor never once said I was lazy or stupid, far from it, in fact. We are influenced by what we imagine those impressions are. The obvious problem of doing this, that is, basing what we think about ourselves on other people’s assumptions, is just that—they’re only assumptions. Our interpretation could be incorrect.


Looking Glass in Life

So if we’re using the looking-glass self as our go-to theory in regard to social roles, that would mean that our perceptions of ourselves are not only based on what we choose as our role, but also how we think others evaluate us in that role.

Here are some examples:

  • If we’re an emergency physician and save lives, and we’ve been named best in our field, we’ll be looked upon favourably by But what happens if we actually believe everyone thinks we suck at our job?
  • If we’re an investor and make lots of money, we’ll be envied. But what if we make a bad deal and assume everyone thinks poorly of us?
  • If we’re a supermodel, we’ll be adored. But what happens when we start ageing and we imagine that everyone thinks we should retire because we’re past our prime?

 

In this case, we’re in a lose-lose situation because—even if we have what is considered a ‘high’ social role—if we, even for a second, imagine that others think poorly of us, we’re right back down the totem pole of self-worth again.

Take some time to now consider situations that have made you doubt yourself. Was it because of concrete evidence? That is, could you prove in a court of law that he or she truly thought something about you? Or, was it because of what you presumed others were thinking of you?


Self-Presentation Theory

It’s not surprising that we try and convince people, ‘Hey, we’re an awesome, worthy human’, by choosing roles that show us to be attractive, intelligent, powerful and likable. But the interesting thing is that we’ll also say positive things about the person we’re talking to in hopes of leveraging our status. What does that accomplish? It boosts their self-esteem, and we’re the reason for that boost.

So let’s now look at how we change our behaviour to influence how others evaluate us. This is a quote by Thomas Eliot, a famous twentieth century writer and poet.

There will be time, there will be time. To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet2.

Essentially what he is saying is that we all put on an act, but this act is pretty much pointless because everyone else is acting as well.

The self-presentation theory proposes that we behave and communicate in a certain way, hoping this will influence what other people think about us.

Essentially, we do things to try to control our audience’s impression of us. The theory was based on some of the groundbreaking work by Erving Goffman3, a sociologist. Sociologists study how we interact with each other and toward other important things, such as love, religion, laws and rules and the government. Essentially everything that is involved in both personal and societal interactions. Goffman observed that, much like Eliot’s quote, in our day-to-day life we use various techniques to ensure we’re not revealed as actors, as well as to control the impressions of others.


Consistency and Compensation

When it comes to acting and controlling the impressions of others, one thought is that we use consistency and compensation to ensure we maintain control of the situation4.

Consistency means we will do whatever we have to do to ensure our attributes appear stable and in line with how others expect us to be. For example, after receiving the horribly marked-up paper, I did nothing else but study and work my arse off so I would be seen as the smart, scholarship-deserving student, even though I didn’t feel that way. I wanted my attribute of intelligence to be consistent and stable in the eyes of beholders.

The problem with doing this is if we have already imagined that the people we’re trying to fool have labelled us as dumb, we’re pretty much screwed. Because we feel no matter how hard we work and how amazing our grades are, we think that they’ve already made their minds up. We are dumb, and that’s that. The gavel has dropped.

So what do we do now that we’re in this lose-lose situation? We try and compensate by telling them a whole bunch of new and awesome but totally unrelated stuff about ourselves in the hopes of regaining their respect and approval5. It’s like a magic trick, we’re diverting people’s attention so they stop focusing on the main aspect of us (in my case, intelligence), to make them concentrate on something else.

At that time, I was also obsessively focused on my looks and tried to have the fittest, best body in the entire university. Because then, even though I thought everyone thought I was stupid, at least they would think I looked fantastic.

It’s kind of like a fallback position, but the problem is that even your fallback position is weak too.

As a quick summary, consistency means we will do whatever we have to do to ensure our attributes appear stable and in line with how others expect us to be. We compensate by telling them flattering but totally unrelated stuff about ourselves in hopes of regaining their respect and approval.

Let’s face it, we’ve all done it, we’ve all tried to BS our way out of a situation, so there is absolutely nothing to be ashamed about. But now that we know about consistency and compensation, you can use it to your advantage.


Five Impression Strategies

Let’s move on and talk about the five specific strategies that we use not only to ‘control’ others’ impressions of us, but also the emotions that result in others due to our behaviours6. See if you can relate to any of them.

  1. The Sleaze. The goal of ingratiation is to influence, manipulate or make a person like you, known as the attribution of likability, by using flattery or charm. However, the outcome is highly dependent on the concealment of the underlying motivation. Meaning, if it’s too obvious that the person is using charm, it will backfire. Have you ever used charm to get someone to like you? Or perhaps to give you an advantage? Or has anyone ever tried to get on your good side?
  2. The Completely different to the ingratiator, the goal of intimidation is to convince someone you’re dangerous. This is to make the other person think that if things don’t go a certain way that you, the intimidator, will use tactics that involve pain and humiliation to get your way. For example, a robber may use a fake gun to intimidate you into trying to get your wallet. Have you ever used intimidation to get your way? For example, if you have a dog, have you ever appeared scary to control their behaviour? Has anyone done that to you?
  3. The goal of self-promotion is to create respect by persuading others that you are competent. For example, I did everything in my power to self-promote after my botched scientific writing experience. I was trying to make others believe I was intelligent and had good writing skills. Sometimes it makes sense to self-promote—for example, when we’re dating and want to appear desirable to the other person. Or when we’re applying for a job. Have you ever self-promoted yourself to gain the respect of others? Or has anyone ever self-promoted themselves to you?
  4. The Pope. The goal of exemplification is to create guilt by showing that you are the better person. For example, you make a public donation at a charity function, and then call out your friends and colleagues to do the same thing. Or when you cycle to work and ensure that your car-driving neighbour sees you. It’s kind of like practicing what you preach, but the preaching comes across strongly through over-the-top behaviours, not words. Have you ever used exemplification to puff yourself up? Or has anyone done that to you?
  5. The goal of supplication is to create pity by indicating to others that you are helpless and needy. For example, a child exaggerates their incompetency so that their parent will do things for them, even though the child is fully capable. Have you ever used supplication to get attention or get what you want? Like appearing sick so that you get tended to by a friend or a family member, for example? Or has anyone ever done that to you?

 

Note that while there are five different types of these controlling behaviours, many will overlap in real life. For example, you might use ingratiation to charm someone and then use supplication to make them pity you and give you the attention that you feel you’re lacking.

In addition, the use of self-promotion tactics is common. Why? Because we want others to like us; it feels good! And there’s nothing wrong with wanting to be liked. Challenges occur when we go outside of our moral boundaries to achieve likeability.


Final summary and action points

 

Here is your key take-home message:

In this blog you’ve learned why and how the role we play in society affects how we feel about ourselves.

What role we choose, or what role chooses us, will have an effect on our identity. We also learned there are certain roles that are envied and others that carry a stigma.

The self-presentation theory proposes we behave and communicate in a certain way hoping this will influence what other people think about us. We also use consistency and compensation to try to control the situation we’re in.

Finally, we may use five specific strategies not only to ‘control’ others’ impressions of us, but also the emotions that result in others due to our behaviours. These strategies include ingratiation, intimidation, self-promotion, exemplification and supplication.

 

Actionable advice:

Social ideals are a huge component of social roles. In short, social ideals are a standard that society believes to be ideal, and people oftentimes try to imitate this ideal. The closer we are to imitating that ideal, the more confident we are.

What’s important to remember is that your choice of occupation is separate from who you are as a person. One will contribute to the other, but it doesn’t dictate the other.

Also remember that the effect of social roles on people is not a one-way street. We have all likely stigmatised someone else because of who they are and what they do. It may not be intentional, or even conscious, but at least being aware of how our opinions of social roles can affect self-esteem provides us an incredible opportunity to make the world a nicer place to live in. If we truly believe everyone is equal, then start treating people that way.

Dr Katherine xx

 

Continue reading the third part of this blog series here – How to separate our job from our self-worth.

 


References:

  1. Cooley CH, Schubert HJ. On self and social organization. Chicago: University of Chicago Press; 1998.
  2. Eliot, T. S. “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” Gleeditions, 17 Apr. 2011. Originally published in Poetry: A Magazine of Verse, June 1915, pp. 130-135.
  3. Stone GP. Review of the presentation of self in everyday life. Erving Goffman. AJS 1957;63(1):105-105. doi:10.1086/222140
  4. Baumeister RF, Jones EE. When self-presentation is constrained by the target’s knowledge: Consistency and compensation. J Pers Soc Psychol 1978;36(6):608-618. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.36.6.608
  5. Baumeister RF. Self-esteem, self-presentation, and future interaction: A dilemma of reputation. J Pers 1982;50(1):29-45. doi:10.1111/j.1467-6494.1982.tb00743.x
  6. Jones EE, Pittman TS. Towards a general theory of strategic self-presentation. In: Suls J, editor. Psychological perspectives on the self. Volume 1. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates; 1982.

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