Enlightened Living

Meaning and mindfulness in everyday life

Are Other People Your Mirror?

Reflected self-perception keeps us one-dimensional

How much energy do you put into thinking—or even worrying—about what others think of you? The degree to which we allow others to define us can be a serious obstacle toward developing and maintaining a healthy self-perception.

Most of us have a pretty good idea of who we are, or at least believe ourselves to be. That idea is informed by things like our racial and ethnic history, our religious and spiritual upbringing, our various social roles and our sense of personal value and self-worth. How all that is reflected back to us by our relationships, community and environment also helps scribe our self-definition.

But when the balance between self-perception and reflected self-perception shifts more toward the reflected—in other words we rely more on what others think of us than what we think of ourselves—we start down a road that can lead us anywhere from fleeting self-consciousness to paralyzing anxiety. This kind of emotional disruption is different from more general social anxiety in that it’s not situational or transactional—it’s internal. It is part of a story we tell ourselves that likely has no real basis in reality.

The more we allow others to dictate our self-perception, the more power we give away and the less dimensional we become. For example, it’s not uncommon for us to hesitate around a decision like a job change or a particular purchase if a friend or sibling doesn’t think it’s in our best interest. But should healthy reconsideration give over to self-doubt because of our concerns about what someone else will think about our decision—and us, by association—rather than some legitimate, pragmatic concern, we are allowing the other person to undermine our sense of self and sense of place, dictating our overall self-perception in the process.

In the extreme, giving ourselves away in this fashion can even begin to chip away at our ego integrity. That level of extremity and dysfunction is often reflected in dynamics like codependence and boundary issues.

The key to maintaining the balance between self-perception and reflected self-perception is actually pretty simple. Don’t take it personally. Accepting the idea that everyone has an opinion—and, in general, people feel their opinion is more right than wrong—but that opinion is theirs and something that might inform, but should not impinge upon our life can provide us with an astonishing freedom.

Once we release our attachment to the tyranny of others’ opinions, we find that many of our self-created obstacles lose their charge. The more evidence we gather in service of revealing to ourselves our basic goodness, the stronger we become in ourselves and the richer our lives become, in turn.

© 2012 Michael J. Formica, All Rights Reserved

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Michael J. Formica, M.S., M.A., Ed.M., is a psychotherapist, teacher and writer. He is an Initiate in the Shankya Yoga lineage of H.H. Sri Swami Rama and the Himalayan Masters.

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