Outside In

Have you ever thought about how others perceive you? And how their perception of you shapes or strengthens your own identity?

I’ve thought about the concept of identity for many years now; and in the past nine years, I’ve come to understand that several factors contributed to the development of who I truly am. We are a compilation of many things.

Factors such as culture, family environment, friends, and the interactions with others influence how we shape our identities. During my time in the Ph.D. program, I came across many theories about identity, acculturation (as a result of immigration), and leadership. One of my brilliant dissertation committee members introduced me to Charles Horton Cooley’s famous theory, “looking-glass self.” This theory supports the notion that our sense of self (who we think we are) is derived from our interactions with others. In other words, someone’s perception of us contributes to how we view ourselves. The three main factors of looking-glass self are: 1) people imagine how they appear to others, 2) people imagine the judgment of that appearance, and 3) they develop their identities through the perceived judgments of others.

I bring this up today because it’s important to understand that we attach meanings to how we see ourselves; however, depending on the external environment and the inputs we receive, our identity may be shaped, expanded, or changed along the journey of life. It means we can transform ourselves at any point in time. But we can’t change what we don’t know.

One exercise that can help you learn about how you come across to others is asking those closest to you (and those who don’t know you well) these questions:

How do you perceive me?
How would you describe me to others?
What’s unique about me?

These are not easy questions to ask someone, simply because their perception of you may not exactly match what you think. But instead of shying away from this exercise, why not try to understand more about yourself through someone else’s eyes? You may be surprised by the results. It may help solidify what you already thought. Or it might prompt you to make a change in yourself.


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