Our self-perceptions are often instilled in us before we have a say in them. Learning to change how we see ourselves helps us find our hidden strengths, or improve weaknesses we didn't know we had, to get along better in life.
Accurate self-perception is a necessary component of self-improvement. If you don't know where your strengths or weaknesses lie, you don't know what areas you need to work on. Or how to leverage your assets! Self-perception is simply being aware of who you are, what you're like and what you're capable of. Your self-perception goes beyond positive self-esteem though. It may involve acknowledging your shortcomings ("I suck at playing the violin, and that's OK"), adjusting how you view your skills, ("This skill I thought was boring is actually useful and neat!"), or recognising your problem areas ("I'm not as hard-working as I like to think").
Adjusting your self-perception comes down to being honest with yourself. Recognising your weak points helps you identify when you need to ask for help. Acknowledging your strengths can give you the courage to assert yourself even when you don't feel like you deserve to. What you do with the knowledge is a whole different can of worms, but here's how to adjust when your perception doesn't line up with your reality.
Prep Work: Identify Your Own Self-Image Fallacies
We often have self-perception problems because our emotions or misconceptions lead us to false conclusions. Anyone who's ever argued on the internet for more than a minute knows how easily logical fallacies can sneak in. When those leaps in logic face inward, though, they can alter how we perceive ourselves. For example:
- "I screwed up, so I am a screw up." This all-or-nothing mentality lends itself to low self-esteem, but it's a false correlation. We're good at dwelling on our mistakes, but bad at remembering when we got it right. The negative doesn't eliminate the positive.
- "I'm not good at this yet, so I never will be." Everyone sucks at everything until they don't anymore. Failing a hundred times at something is discouraging, but it's incorrect to assume that those failures mean you're not good enough. In fact, those failures are how you get better.
- "Someone doesn't like me, so no one likes me." People who like or approve of us may not say it as often as someone with a grudge, so it's easier to focus on the negative.
- "I've never had any complaints, so I must be good." Unfortunately, those closest to us may not always be the most objective reviewers of our talents. Until your skills have been put to the test in an arena free of bias (like the workplace or public performances), a lack of complaints doesn't prove talent.
You'll probably never be completely free of internal logical fallacies. However, identifying when you're making a logical leap can kickstart the process to learning the truth. From there, you can start making the necessary changes.
Step 1: Perform a Self-Assessment
The first step in fixing your perception of yourself is to identify how you see yourself. One way to get started is a technique from cognitive behavioural therapy (or CBT) programs. Psych Central recommends writing 10 of your strengths on one side of a paper, and 10 weaknesses on the other. This exercise forces you to take an honest look at yourself:
This is your Self-Esteem Inventory. It lets you know all the things you already tell yourself about how much you suck, as well as showing you that there are just as many things you don't suck at. Some of the weaknesses you may also be able to change, if only you worked at them, one at a time, over the course of a month or even a year. Remember, nobody changes things overnight, so don't set an unrealistic expectation that you can change anything in just a week's time.
You may need to seek outside input from others if you can't come up with ten for both sides. Once you're done, keep the list, because it will come in handy for the next thing you can do.
Step 2: Seek Outside Input (and Listen to It)
Outside input has the ability to either validate or negate how we perceive ourselves. If you think you're not that great of a singer, but the crowd at karaoke disagrees, you might start to change your opinion. For that reason, if you really want to adjust your self perception, seeking outside input is absolutely necessary.
Author Scott H. Young offers some tips on how to get honest feedback. As it turns out, not everyone is completely forthright when you ask for an opinion (often for good reasons). Depending on the topic, you may need to coax out the full answer, or explain that it's ok to be honest:
- Read Between Lines. Look for what they didn't say, not what they did. I'll admit this can take practice, but when you receive feedback where you question the sincerity, notice what wasn't said. If you wrote a how-to book, did they actually use the advice? If you gave a persuasive speech did they enjoy it or did it change their opinion?
- Pull Out Gradual Honesty. Some people need encouragement to give you their honest opinion. Make it clear that you are ok with the harshest of their remarks and give them an opportunity to reveal more.
You can check out Scott's post here for more specific tips. Most importantly though: Once you get feedback, listen to it. One of the most common mistakes we make when getting input from others is filtering out the stuff we don't like. I can totally play the guitar, they're just jealous, right? Nope. You asked for feedback, now accept it. If it's true, you'll probably hear it from more than one person. Be prepared to accept that the feedback you get is at least somewhat true, even if it's uncomfortable.
Step 3: Challenge Yourself and Step Outside Your Comfort Zone
Of course, feedback from others is only one way to find out what you're capable of. There is a faster, more effective way too: doing it. You may not think that you're good enough to get a job as an actor. However, nothing will prove you wrong faster than getting hired.
Of course, that doesn't mean that someone with asthma and high blood pressure should join the Army on nothing but a wish (unless your name is Steve Rogers). But having a realistic approach to what you can do, coupled with some optimism that things could work out alright, can be a key to making it happen. One psychological researcher named Sophia Chou at the National Taiwan University examined this concept of the realistic optimist. To put it simply, people who understood the risks but chose to be hopeful about the outcome not only performed better, but were happier:
Interestingly, the realistic optimists also got better grades, on average, than their less grounded peers — probably because they didn't delude themselves into thinking they would do well without studying or working hard, Chou said.
Traditionally, a more realistic outlook is paired with poorer well-being and greater depression, yet the realistic optimists managed to be happy.
As Chou explains, people who evaluate their situation, but still challenge themselves anyway find that they're better equipped to handle those challenges. The result is a more successful outcome due to their preparation, but also an increase in satisfaction due to their moderate expectations.
Step 4: Emulate the Habits of Others
How you perceive yourself may affect how you behave, but the relationship also works in reverse. We've discussed before how something simple like faking powerful body language can help you feel more confident. This concept works fairly broadly. If you think you're too cynical, try being intentionally optimistic on social media. If you start deliberately hunting for the good in something, you may find it.
As an article in The Guardian explains, our perceptions of our self and our relationships can be manipulated by things as simple as having a cell phone out at dinner. Putting the device away may make us feel as though we're more "in the moment" and strengthen the bonds we have with others. That means (somewhat ironically, in fact) that if your perception of yourself doesn't line up with reality, changing your external habits can influence how you perceive yourself:
It's weird enough that a phone on the next table at a restaurant might reduce the chances of two people hitting it off on a date. But the Swedish study points towards something weirder: not just that we're subconsciously influenced by our environments, but that we infer our very sense of who we are from our behaviour. Normally, we assume things work the other way: that a person who thinks of herself as compassionate will therefore act compassionately. But "self-perception theory" proposes that the opposite's also true: we observe our behaviour, then reach conclusions about who we are. "After purchasing the latte, we assume that we are coffee connoisseurs," as the psychologist Timothy Wilson writes on edge.org. After returning the lost wallet, we conclude that we're honest. In reality, many pressures shape our behaviour — maybe, Wilson writes, we "returned the wallet in order to impress the people around us". But we conclude "that our behaviour emanated from some inner disposition". Or we're tricked into believing we answered a survey favouring one side of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — and assume that must be our view.
In practice, this can be something as simple as getting a new wardrobe, or starting a new habit. Say, for example that you don't feel very confident. Try working out. Get a piece of clothing that you think makes you look cool and start wearing it. Learn how to enter a room with confidence. The more you walk in the habits of confidence people, the more you'll start to feel confident yourself.
Our perceptions of ourselves will probably never be perfect (and a little self-delusion can sometimes help). However, many of us go years without fulfilling our potential or trying new things because we simply don't perceive ourselves as able. Or worse, we live with flaws because it never occurs to us that they're problematic. If you don't think you can go after your dream job, you're worried you can't attract that person you're really into, or you simply lack confidence, the problem might not be your situation, but just your perception. Your ideas about yourself determine the course of your life, so don't leave them to chance.