In an effort to build confidence and inner strength, parents and caretakers often teach kids that others’ opinions of them don’t matter. Nothing exemplifies those self-affirming tendencies more than today’s most popular catchphrases: “Do YOU!” Or the Taylor Swift inspired “Shake it off.” And of course the ever-popular “Haters gonna hate!”
But the truth is that there is usually valuable information inside of others’ perceptions, and we are often quick to throw the baby out with the bathwater.
Self-awareness, a primary objective of my work with clients, is a key ingredient to sustainable success in every domain of life. One pragmatic approach to developing a better understanding of oneself is to focus on the connection between our sense of self and our everyday behaviors.
It follows, then, that our self-views should line up nicely with other people’s views of us, because they are constantly observing our behaviors.
The reality, though, is that there is often a glaring gap between the way others see us and the way we see ourselves. And, the bigger the gap, the more dysfunctional our relationships tend to be. Perhaps most striking is that research shows different people see us in fairly similar ways—meaning that we, not others, have the faulty perception.
For example, in the workplace, multi-source feedback has become a powerful strategy for evaluating individual reputations at work. Turns out that there is more similarity than variability between multiple evaluations of the same person. And, several scientific studies show that other people’s views are more predictive of our future behaviors than our own!
So why is it that accurate self-awareness is so rare?
1. Feeling bad sucks.
From kids who blame their teachers for poor grades to employees who blame poor performance on their boss, there is no shortage of real-world examples of people deflecting responsibility if it helps them to feel better about themselves. The cold hard truth might sting, but it’s the key to affecting real positive change on ourselves. Getting honest feedback from people you trust is a critical first step to deepening your self-awareness.
2. It makes others uncomfortable.
Most people feel awkward or uncomfortable giving negative feedback. In fact, social graces generally dictate that being brutally honest is cold-hearted and unacceptable. The truth is, we desperately need people who are willing to give it to us straight in order to become our best possible selves.
3. Self-Esteem has trumped self-awareness.
Popular psychology has embraced the self-esteem movement, often prioritizing self-love over self-knowledge. I am the very first person to promote self-compassion and self-acceptance—but only after committing to the process of inquiry and self-reflection!
So. How can you begin to deepen and improve the accuracy of your self-views? Try these strategies for some quick results!
1. Commit to seeking honest feedback from people you respect. Ask, “What could I do better?” “What qualities am I missing that you have seen in successful people?” “What are my blind spots?” “Where do I stand to improve the most?” Brace yourself for some potentially hard-hitting responses. The key is to take this feedback seriously, not personally.
2. Make it easy for people to give you honest feedback by explaining to them that you are seeking to improve yourself and won’t benefit if they simply stroke your ego. Let them know you value and respect their opinions. You can also make it easier for them by combining constructive criticism with positive feedback by asking, “What are my two biggest strengths and my two biggest opportunities for growth?”
3. Keep your goal top of mind: accuracy of awareness. There is a lot at stake for those who don’t make this process a priority: low or inaccurate self-awareness has been linked to poor leadership performance, poor mental wellbeing and self-destructive behaviors. So don’t let your ego get in the way of obtaining valuable feedback that could set you up to succeed.
Looking within can help you discover who you want to be tomorrow.
Looking at your reflection in the eyes of others can help you discover who you are today.