"Know thyself," urged Socrates, and "The truth shall make you free."
Sullivan (1953) spoke of "good-me," "bad-me," and "not me" parts in all of us. The first method reduces the misery caused by an unreasonably harsh self-critic, the "bad-me" part. It deals with how we feel about ourselves. This method deals more with how we think about ourselves. Our self-concept is the foundation of our entire personality; it affects almost everything we do. All of us have a part that wants to feel good about ourselves and to have others approve of us. This is our "good-me." However, our actions are subject to interpretation (our "having a good time" may be seen by others as "laziness" or "alcoholism"). Most of us who are not depressed usually see ourselves in a good light (in spite of the self-criticism and feelings of inferiority mentioned in method #1). This exaggeration of our goodness by the "good-me" can cause problems too, which this method deals with.
Sometimes the "not me" part keeps us from noticing things we don't want to see about ourselves. Generally we would be better off facing the truth, i.e. becoming more self-aware. There are several interesting personality measures in this area (Fenigstein, Scheirer & Buss, 1975):
Private self-consciousness (sample items rated on a scale from 0 to 4):
- I'm always trying to figure myself out.
- I'm generally attentive to my inner feelings.
Public self-consciousness (sample items):
- I'm concerned about the way I present myself.
- I worry about what other people think of me.
Snyder's (1980) Self-Monitoring Scale (sample items):
- I guess I put on a show to impress or entertain people.
- In different situations and with different people, I often act like a very different person.
Low private self-consciousness is not thinking or knowing very much about your inner feelings. High private self-consciousness involves knowing ourselves, e.g. realizing we wear several social masks and being able to predict our own behavior as well as seeing ourselves as others do. Self-monitors with high public self-consciousness often use many masks to manage the impressions they make on others. They may even, at times, pretend to believe and feel differently than they really do. Sometimes, this is conscious deception, i.e. just "putting your best foot forward," not self-deception, but sometimes high self-monitors are not sure themselves what is their "pretend self" and what is their "real self" (Snyder, 1983). Other people are low self-monitors with little social awareness and/or with pretty fixed ideas about what they should be like; they may want to "tell it like it is" or they may just not care what others think of them. These low self-monitors may or may not be aware of all their parts--urges and feelings--inside; there is only a moderate correlation between private and public self-consciousness. The major point is: we can't be consciously in control of ourselves if we aren't aware of all our "selves."
- It takes me time to overcome my shyness in new situations.
- I get embarrassed very easily.
To Thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man.
Everyone recognizes that how a person sees him/herself is not necessarily the way it is. Thus, for every aspect of our lives (every part), there are three selves: (1) the perceived self--the way we see that part of ourselves, (2) the real self--the way we truly are, and (3) the ideal self--the way we would like to be in that area. Research has shown that a big discrepancy between the perceived self and the real self or the ideal self will probably lead to unhappiness and poor adjustment. This method is concerned with our misperceptions of our real self. Obviously, our errors can involve thinking we are better or worse (see the last method) than we actually are and refusal to admit certain parts of ourselves.
It is well known that self-deception and defense mechanisms, as described in chapters 5 and 15, lower our anxiety and protect our self-esteem by helping us deny our bad parts and avoid reality. In a similar way, many of us put ourselves in the best possible light by (1) taking credit for our accomplishments but denying blame for our failures, (2) exaggerating our own importance, (3) assuming that others need to change, not us, and (4) seeking or maybe even designing in advance excuses for our failures. Almost all of us want to be happy and like ourselves. But should we lie to ourselves? Being honest with ourselves is a crucial first step towards coping with reality (Hamachek, 1987).
How we see ourselves is powerfully influenced by how others, especially important others, see us. So, messages from others in the past may help explain our misperceptions. It seems logical then that feedback from others in the future may help correct our misperceptions. Furthermore, we can learn about our own rather vague attitudes by observing our own behavior. For example, have you ever been surprised by your reaction to a certain kind of person, say, a person of a different race or an obese person or a homosexual? Have you ever had a fight with a lover and left him/her thinking "good riddance," only to discover a day or two later that you missed him/her terribly? Sometimes a part of our true selves is revealed by our own unexpected reactions; the better we know ourselves, the less surprised we will be and the better we will cope.
Goethe said, "If you want to know yourself, observe what your neighbor is doing. If you want to understand others, probe within yourself." We can observe others more objectively than we can ourselves; understanding others improves self-understanding. We can discover our motives easier than we can our neighbor's; self-understanding helps us understand others.
- To realize that we sometimes think we are better than we are and to try to correct this tendency.
- To recognize that fears and misconceptions keep us from making self-improvements and living up to our potential; this insight may set us free.
STEP ONE: Uncovering self-deception: self-con and self-hype.
It's nice to like yourself. Having self-esteem helps us be happy, healthy, and effective. So, we select friends and do things that make us feel good. But we also present ourselves to others in the best possible light and we distort reality a little bit to make ourselves look good. We give ourselves the benefit of the doubt. I'll give some examples of the latter; you see if you are guilty of any of these defensive deceptions.
(1) A tendency to take responsibility for successes and deny responsibility for failures. This is illogical but it makes us feel better. Examples: if our school won, it's "we won" but if our school lost, it's "they lost." If you do well on a test, it is because you "really hit it" or "are good at _____," but if you bomb the test, it is because "it was a stupid test" or "there were lots of trick and vague questions" or "what a lousy teacher!" If you have a good relationship with someone, it is because we "work at it" or "talk things out" or "I'm real attentive," but if the relationship is in trouble, it is because "He won't talk" or "She wants her way" or "He/she is so irritable." Remember, though, that in chapter 6 we learned that depressed persons are the opposite; they feel at fault for failures and not responsible for successes. Somewhere in the middle of these two extremes is the truth--honesty is the best policy because we need to face our shortcomings and not blame others. Think about how you tend to respond in several situations and ask your friends what distortions they suspect you might make.
(2) A tendency to exaggerate our own importance and our own strengths. Almost everyone can consider him/herself superior if he/she selects carefully the basis of comparison--just my face, my body, my athletic ability, my musical ability, my social skills, my brain, my social status, my car, etc. We tend to consider only our best features (Hamachek, 1987). We exaggerate our role, our strengths and our contributions. Examples: when group projects are done, most persons tend to feel his/her contribution was greater than the others would judge it to be. If you ask a married person who makes the major contribution to the marriage, 70% say "I do" (Ross & Sicoly, 1979). About 85% of people in high school think they are above average in intelligence. College students think they will live 10 to 20 years longer than the average person their age (Snyder, 1980). "Yep, lots of college students are budding alcoholics but not me" or "Yeah, I believe the reports about cancer and smoking but I don't think it will happen to me." In general we tend to inflate our image and deflate others--they cheat on taxes and spouses (more than I will do), they can't be trusted (as much as I can be), they won't work as hard as I will, they are prejudiced (more than I), etc. These "I'm OK, You're not OK" tendencies and the exaggerated sense of self-importance cause many problems (see chapter 9). We need to face reality. How much do you do these things?
(3) A tendency to believe others will change and we won't have to. Examples: when considering marriage (or divorce) we are more likely to think of our partner as having to make certain changes rather than us. When our partners have more or less sexual drive than we do, we expect him/her to adjust to us. When students don't do well, they expect the teacher to change and the teacher expects the students to change. When poorly paid foreign workers produce a cheaper product, we want them to stop flooding the market rather than our changing. When the wealth of the world is very unequally distributed, we resist the idea of changing and suggest the poor nations raise their standards of living. Isn't there an air of superiority implied in these situations? Surely it would be better to have an egalitarian attitude among caring people who are unafraid of change.
(4) A tendency to create excuses for our failures. Not only do people "explain" away their past failures, there is growing evidence that some people even devise their own barriers to success, i.e. they provide themselves a "handicap" which will serve as an excuse in case they fail in the future. Examples: One motive, among many, for students to party and use drugs is that being "out partying" or "high" or "hung over" is an acceptable ("I'm a popular, fun-loving person") excuse for doing poorly in school. Just like being injured or ill explains why an athlete doesn't play well. Even the procrastinator (see chapter 4) has an excuse for not doing well--"I put off studying." Furthermore, all these excuses--drinking, illness, or disorganization--afford another special pay off, namely, they permit the user to continue his/her self-concept that he/she has the ability to do really well if he/she had really tried. Obviously, if you use excuses and believe your own excuses, you are not seeing your real self. Do you use excuses?
In summary, (1), (2) and (3) suggest that some of us have strong tendencies to think we are right--almost a determination to prove we are right or superior and others are wrong or weak. In addition, (4) implies that we shield ourselves from seeing our weaknesses, so we can go on feeling superior (see chapters 5 and 15). Yet, such a misinformed person will surely eventually have difficulty relating to others and coping with life. Also, all this unconscious conniving to help us feel superior raises a question: Doesn't some part of us have to know or suspect we are inferior-to-our-aspirations before these defenses would be erected? I think so, just like the braggart shows signs of self-doubt by boasting too much.
STEP TWO: Recognize the barriers to growing, learning, and being the best one can be.
Sometime changes, even self-improvements and career advancements, can be more scary than satisfying. A person may feel fairly content day to day but over a period of time become concerned that he/she is in a rut, unable to make his/her life better. There are two kinds of barriers to change: (a) it is comfortable to just be yourself and (b) fears can be a barrier to succeeding. This comfort with yourself can be a problem, e.g. suppose you have a terrible temper. You have learned over the years to accept being "hot headed"--it is part of your self-concept. You may not like your temper but it is an established, permitted part of you. Criminals sometimes feel they were meant to defy the law and be punished. Students sometimes think of themselves as poor readers or writers or test-takers and readily accept low grades. Our self-concept develops over the years--it is us. Any challenge to our view of ourselves is threatening, something to be resisted. For instance, if a normally mild tempered person flies into a rage, he may say, "I wasn't myself." We protect our self-concept. There is a tendency to continue acting out our self-concept; this inhibits change. Now, let's consider several fears that also inhibit change.
(1) The fear of growing up. As we outgrow the relaxed, pleasure-oriented habits of childhood, we are expected to become more reasonable, more responsible, and more mature. Being grown up may mean giving up an easy life, working steadily, exercising self-control, taking care of others, being assertive, overcoming shyness, making sure things get done, etc. These changes can be a hassle and even scary.
(2) The fear of success. If you prove you can do something well, people will expect it of you all the time. Show you can fix delicious desserts and you'll be asked to make them. Show you can take good notes and you will become the secretary. Show you can make the best grade in the class and the teacher as well as your parents will expect it every time. If you are successful, you may acquire more responsibilities and expose yourself to more hurts. Be successful on the job and you will be given more to do. Be successful in love and you are in jeopardy of being dumped (or having children to support). Do well in school and you will be expected to continue in school until you do poorly.
(3) The fear of excelling. Maslow, who studied self-actualizers, i.e. creative, outstanding achievers, thought that many of us fear and dislike successful people...and, thus, we may be reluctant to become great. Consider how often we hear someone's achievement degraded: "Wonder how he got so much--probably his family had money" or "Wonder who she had to sleep with to get where she is" or "I'd have lots of friends too if I had a car like that and money" or "Anyone could make all A's if all they did was study." Such put downs of reasonable goals (status, promotions, friends and grades) sounds a little like "sour grapes" and this kind of thinking might reduce one's drive to achieve one's own potential.
(4) The fear of knowing. A lot of people would be reluctant to find out their spouse was unfaithful or abusing the children or breaking the law. Once you know, you may have to take action. If you don't know, you don't need to do anything. Likewise, people avoid finding out what is wrong with a person lying on the sidewalk. Knowing the situation requires a person to do something because ignorance can no longer be used as an excuse. Likewise, knowing the poverty, illness, and starvation in the world puts pressure on us to act. Discovering a problem at work or knowing a better solution to a problem than the boss knows can sometimes be scary. Drinkers, smokers, over-eaters, procrastinators, and insulters don't want to know the eventual results of their behaviors. We use defense mechanisms to keep from knowing the truth about ourselves.
Do any of these fears ring true for you? If so, awareness may be the first step to overcoming the barriers to becoming your best true self.