Apr 232013

Robert Burns’s poem To A Louse is a cautionary tale, describing the sort of mortifying situation I dread. The poor girl thinks people are admiring her but actually they’re pointing and staring because she’s got a louse on her bonnet.

On the other hand, we have the new advertisement for Dove, a video that’s gone viral round the internet recently, whose message is: you are more beautiful than you think. I have a variety of misgivings about this experiment and its conclusion but, in the end, it’s designed to sell products, not win any award for psychological breakthrough. I don’t think anyone can argue with the overall point that the way we perceive ourselves (both what we look like, as illustrated, and what we are like) can differ – and sometimes differ wildly – from the way other people perceive us.

So, what can we learn from the Scottish poet and the American advertisers? How can we find that middle way, to be aware of our literal and metaphorical lice, while maintaining a healthy level of self-esteem and not being excessively introspective?

On the Louse side, I think the lesson is to stay grounded and not allow ourselves to get carried away in the heat of a moment’s attention by the idea the world must suddenly have discovered how fabulous we are. From the outside, modesty and self-deprecation are attractive traits; from the inside, they are protective. If we always err on the side of humility, we should be safe from Jenny’s fate.

But of course there is an extremely fine line between self-deprecation and self-doubt. The point of staying grounded is to be able to make a calm assessment and see reality as clearly as it’s possible to do, given the absence of objective truth. We’ll never see the absolute truth about ourselves because we’re always looking through the prism of our history – and nobody else can see the absolute truth about us either, because they’re looking at us through their own prisms. It’s important to know ourselves as well as we can, to hold ourselves to account and also to give ourselves credit when it’s due. And it’s important to remember we have control over what we’re like and the impression we make on the world.

On the Dove side, I think it’s useful to be reminded how widely perceptions can diverge and I think the lesson is to use this to encourage ourselves to play up to the top end of the tolerance window in the way we present ourselves. What I mean by this is that, to a great extent, people take us at our own valuation. To a great extent but not completely – although more on the negative side than the positive. Basically, if I demonstrate low self-esteem, the opinion you form of me is virtually guaranteed to be low. Even if you can see I have more to offer than I believe I have, low self-esteem tends to elicit negative responses, as I was saying a couple of weeks ago.

If I demonstrate high self-esteem, you are likely not entirely to take my word for it but to probe a bit, so you can form an opinion based on evidence of my characteristics and abilities as well as the vibes I’m giving you. If you judge my self-esteem to be inflated, I will go down in your estimation, probably past what one might think of as the objectively fair level. This is why it’s important to know ourselves and also to be humble. But to return to the tolerance window thing, it’s good to present ourselves as confidently as we can get away with.

To quote from another literary source, “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players”. Everybody is an actor. Let’s make sure the character we’re portraying is the person we want to be.

Facebook Twitter Pinterest Plusone Linkedin Tumblr

  2 Responses to “To see ourselves as others see us”

  1. Hello Mary, I stumbled upon your article while browsing the web for information about the difference between our perception of ouselves and how others see us. At first, my objective was based merely on visual perception, but like it is nicely noted in the text here, our whole image of ouselves is hugely impacted by our own history, including our looks. That got me to the realization that no stranger will appreciate my change from a skinny boy on the verge of anorexia to.. a less skinny one (gaining a bit of mass over last years thanks to becoming a gym rat) as they do not know my past. This is just an example off the top of my head, after the important result is that I appreciate myself more, but it shows how difficult it is to separate one’s self from their past. And it is also quite difficult to find the line between staying humble and emit low self confidence..

    I found your article both entertaining (the part about the world finding out how fabulous we are made me laughing) and both soothing and “grounding”, which is a nice mix.

    Sorry for my comment not really being a comment, originally it was supposed to be an e-mail but I was unable to find your e-mail address.

    Glad you managed to make such changes in your life, wish you that your journey through life gets only better (with the obligatory bump here and there that everyone experiences :-)).

    • Marek, thank you so much for taking the time to write this. I really appreciate your engaging with my blog and your kind words.

      Well done for pulling yourself back from the verge of anorexia and moving towards shaping the body you want. Yes, strangers will have no idea what it has cost you to get here but I hope their admiration of your new, strong, toned body will give you the affirmation you need.

      I wish you a positive, exciting and fulfilling journey through life.

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.