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.