Help me, help me
You know me better than I know myself. ~People in Planes

A few months back, Simine Vazire and Erika N. Carlson of Washington University in St. Louis released a psychology study that, for most, goes against traditional views of the self. We tend to, naturally, be under the impression that we know ourselves better than anyone else could ever know us.

Albert Camus once said, “It is probably true that a man remains forever unknown to us and that there is in him something irreducible that escapes us.” And while it is probably accurate to say that there will always be pieces of yourself that the majority of the world doesn’t see, it’s time science (even one that’s rather squishy) humbled you a bit.

Because, as it happens, you don’t know yourself as well as you think you do.

There are aspects of your personality that are actually less evident to you and more evident to those in your immediate acquaintance. So, it’s not that we don’t know ourselves, it’s just that there are… blind spots in our own view. These blind spots develop because of our wishes, our fears, and our unconscious motives.

Then again, perhaps this concept isn’t that difficult to understand. You know that obnoxiously attractive boy, the one who seems to have a twisted self-image? The one you find yourself constantly wanting to cheerfully bludgeon with an over-sized teddy bear stuffed with billiard balls? We all have at least one person like that, one person who you frequently find yourself shaking your head about.

“Why can’t you just look at you in the same way that I do?” you think (or hum in frustration).

And that person might find themselves surprised to learn that you are right. Vazire says, “To get a complete picture of a personality, you need both perspectives.” It’s almost exactly like a looking in a mirror. Without that reflection, you’d never know what your own features look like. Your intimate friends and family can fill in the gaps for you and give you the complete picture of yourself.

If only you’re willing to listen.

Each to each a looking-glass
Reflects the other that doth pass ~Charles Horton Cooley

The whole thing reminds me of a concept in social psychology- the looking glass self.

In actuality, the looking glass self concept is almost a mirror (see what I did there?) of the aforementioned study. In our previous study, people on the outside see the reality of the self, and we can only achieve full identification of the self through studying both our internal view and the reflection of that of our intimates. Here, however, the self learns its identity through the view of it reflected through others.

The looking glass self is concerned, not only with the self being shaped through the perspectives of others, but also with the fact that this inevitably leads to us reinforcing those perspectives. We imagine how others see us, we imagine how they judge us as a result, and we develop our self in reaction to these judgments.


I first encountered this concept, not in a psychology class, but in one of the libraries on the Cornell University campus. A chronic procrastinator, I had put off writing my required 20-minute “PubSpeak” until… well, basically until two days before I had to give it. I’d had the opportunity to sit through (and participate in) a handful of presentations, so I knew I couldn’t just wing this like I did my oratories all through Speech and Debate in high school. I was actually going to have to prepare.

On top of all my reading and my other required papers. As always, my procrastination tends to mark me as a right idiot.

Previous presentations had been very serious affairs. We were allowed to talk about anything we wanted, so long as it was an issue that we were passionate about and that was relevant in today’s society. Other presentations included genetic engineering of food, something about the federal reserve system, and an argument on the importance of the cyberpunk genre.

I wanted to live up to them, prove that I belonged in this group of intellectuals (when, in all actuality, I felt incredibly outclassed). But I also wanted to be, well, me. And I’m a bit of an irreverent little shit. In the end, I did a presentation on stereotyping, groupthink, and the looking glass self that both bitingly mocked traditional high school stereotypes and explored the validity and necessity of such groups. Complete with humorous stick figure diagrams.

At the time, while I argued that social groups are necessary and natural, I held that the reinforcement of outside perspectives in shaping the self was, more often than not, ridiculous at best and dangerous at worst.

I don’t necessarily hold to that belief now.


Yes, sometimes we reinforce negative perspectives if we focus on those mirrors and shape our identity around them. But one thing about the looking glass self concept is that we aren’t shaping our identity from one blanket mirror reflecting the whole of society’s thoughts back at us. Instead, everyone (or every group) has their own mirror. Different people see us different ways. After all, based on trust, situation, and level of intimacy, we show different people different things.

Let’s smash these two ideas together.

Focus on the mirrors of your intimates. After all, according to Vazire and Carlson, these are the people that know you best. They know things about you even you don’t.

I like to think of it a bit like metallurgy. Your self starts as this chunk of ore. The ore goes through many stages of refining, sometimes repeating steps multiple times. And, in the end, what comes out is still chemically the same. It’s just… purer.

We’re stuck in refinement, galleons. Our self is constantly shifting itself to suit the views of the world around it. But, if we focus the majority of our attention on our intimates, what we have is a cycle wherein our intimates see the aspects of our personality we do not, we listen to them and take in this information, adding it to our own view of our personality and shaping it into a more complete whole. Around and around this can go, each time having us emerge with a more complete puzzle of who we are. We refine our personality, keeping the strongest aspects of who we are (the good and the bad- those closest to us see our faults as well as our strengths) and discarding the pieces we’ve been tacking on to appease people in our life who don’t even matter.

I like to think that, if we could adhere to this, every year would distill us further and further down to our essence. Chemically, we are the same person we have always been. We’ve just become purer (not in a moral sense, necessarily) forms of ourselves.

Eh, it’s a pretty enough notion, I suppose. It reminds me of one of my favorite poems, by the great E.E. Cummings:

my mind is
a big hunk of irrevocable nothing which touch and taste and smell
and hearing and sight keep hitting and chipping with sharp fatal
in an agony of sensual chisels i perform squirms of chrome and ex
-ecute strides of cobalt
nevertheless i
feel that i cleverly am being altered that i slightly am becoming
something a little different, in fact
Hereupon helpless i utter lilac shrieks and scarlet bellowings.

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