At a glance:

Building on what we learned last week about comparisons in my article “The reactions of others: a trap for our self-esteem”, the question is: does your role affect your identity? In this article, I explore why it’s important to consider how our roles and perceptions of others’ impressions affect us and what we can do to protect our self-esteem.

Job Titles ≠ Personal Value

Do you believe your role affects how you feel about yourself and others? 

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?’ It’s the first question after introducing ourselves because it’s the ultimate go-to for comfortable small talk. Have you ever not wanted to answer? It has certainly happened to me, for example when I was unemployed, or doing a job that I wasn’t proud of.

Our job becomes our identity

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 an outcast.

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 how we feel about ourselves, 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 if it affects you in a positive, negative or neutral way.

The Looking-Glass Self 

Charles Horton Cooley, an American sociologist, came up with the concept of the looking-glass self. It suggests that a person’s identity arises from a person’s interactions with other people, proposing that how we see ourselves does not come from us, but rather from how we believe others see us. He eloquently summarised 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 am.

Charles Cooley, Inscriptions: Prairie Poetry

Here’s an example:

The first time I ever wrote a scientific paper was very challenging. Scientific papers are very different from writing a report or an essay, because you must follow strict 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. Let me tell you it is INTENSE!

I had spent what I thought was an enormous amount of time on it, and submitted it to my supervisor with pride, hence why I thought he was going to say I did a really good job! But… 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:

  1. Thought I didn’t belong in his lab.
  2. Thought I didn’t deserve my scholarship.
  3. Thought I was stupid.

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

The other side of the coin

Do you think there could have been an alternative explanation to what happened?

WellI couldn’t have been any more wrong. I later found out that the reason why he spent so much time on my paper was because he saw potential in me, and wanted me to learn how to do better. This is kind of like looking at a horse: we were both looking at one, but I was looking at it from the more negative end (where all the poop comes out) and he was looking at it from a more positive side, the nose end. Same horse, different perspective.

More sides to a story

That’s the funny thing about life: there is always more than one side to a story. The most important thing to take home is that we aren’t being influenced by the actual impressions of others, but rather our interpretations and assumptions of their impressions. The problem is, our interpretation can be incorrect.

Perceptions Smerceptions

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 on how we think others evaluate us in that role.

Here are some examples:

  1. If we’re a physician that saves lives, named best in our field, we’ll be looked at favourably by others. But what happens if we secretly believe everyone thinks we are incompetent?
  2. If we’re an investor that has made lots of money, we’ll be envied. But what happens when we make a bad deal and assume everyone thinks we’re finished?
  3. If we’re a supermodel, we’ll be adored. But what happens when we start ageing? We might imagine that everyone thinks we should retire because we’re past our prime.

There are all lose-lose situations 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 XYZ catalysed your feelings? Or, was it because of what you assumed others were thinking of you?

Summary and final words:

  • Our role or job can affect our identity and how we feel about ourselves and others.
  • The concept of the “looking-glass self” suggests that a person’s identity arises from their interactions with others and how they believe others see them.
  • Our interpretations and assumptions of others’ impressions can influence our perceptions of ourselves.
  • We may doubt ourselves based on what we assume others are thinking of us, even if there is no concrete evidence to support those assumptions.
  • It’s important to consider how our roles and perceptions of others’ impressions affect our self-worth and take steps to improve our self-esteem. 

But at the end of the day – no one is perfect. It’s natural to worry about what other people think of you – and heck – it even keeps us humble. But the trick is always: care more about what you think about yourself above what you might think others think of you.

Until next time, never forget that every day is your chance to shine.

Dr Kat xoxo