Managing the Mirror

Managing the Mirror

Identity is so much more than how we feel about ourselves. There’s an internal factor to it, but there’s also an external factor. It’s a constant PR act, the managing of how we appear to the world. This is more the case than ever, in the days of social media. We are constantly on show. What we’re talking about here goes back to old school social psychology: back to Mead and Cooley, and the concept of the looking-glass self. Meade’s theory was fairly simple. In his opinion, our self-concept is formed by our social interactions, in three stages:
  • Imagining how others see us
  • Imagining how others judge us, based on what they see
  • Imagining how others feel about us, based on those judgements
This may sound very passive and disempowering. Cooley, however, grasped that this isn’t one way traffic, and we’re not doomed just to take whatever people decide to give us. We’ve got a large amount of control over what people see. We’re not just passive recipients of their feelings and judgements. And if we know this will happen, we get some level of control over their responses. This isn’t manipulative, although it may sound that way. It’s just how we work. So how do we do this? This is what I mean by a PR exercise. It’s image control. We do it by what we wear, what we say, what we do, what we achieve. By the possessions we own, the company we keep and the job titles we carry. We’re essentially authoring our own looking glass self. The amount of effort we put into it varies depending on how much we want to impress each person holding the looking glass. If you care what someone think about you, or you need to make a positive impression on them, you’ll put in a lot of effort. For others, you won’t bother. Although in my theories, looking glass self is a long way from explaining our whole experience of identity, it certainly covers a portion of what’s going on. And it’s something we need to look at and understand. Our looking glass selves are the ones that many people put out on social media. They lay it out in front of their new romantic partner or their new employer. They spread it through their marketing pictures – not just because it might get you to want their lifestyle and spend money with them, but because it creates a certain response in judgement and in feeling. If we all do this, you’re probably asking, how is it a bad thing? The problem with looking glass self comes when you’ve built a persona very far removed from who you really are and what you really want – but you’ve dug yourself so far into it that you can’t get out. This happens a lot. People unable to share that their life isn’t as rosy as they’ve painted it. And people whose life is pretty amazing on the outside – but they hate it, because it isn’t built around what they wanted themselves. People have asked me if it’s just “faking”. That’s not really fair. Sometimes you’ve had to do it for so long that it’s become a habit. And you forget to ask yourself if what you’re living and portraying is who you really are, or if it meets any of your own needs. If you’re finding life unsatisfying, if your days drag and you can’t muster up any enthusiasm, take a look at who you are, in the context of your world. You might find some unexpected answers. Are you really being you? Or have you got stuck in the looking glass?