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Metaperceptions: How Do You See Yourself?

To navigate the social universe, you need to know what others think of you—although the clearest view depends on how you see yourself.

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I gave a toast at my best friend's wedding last summer, a speech I carefully crafted and practiced delivering. And it went well: The bride and groom beamed; the guests paid attention and reacted in the right spots; a waiter gave me a thumbs-up. I was relieved and pleased with myself. Until months later—when I saw the cold, hard video documentation of the event. As I watched myself getting ready to make the toast, a funny thing happened. I got butterflies in my stomach all over again. I was nervous for myself, even though I knew the outcome would be just fine. Except maybe the jitters were warranted. The triumph of that speech in my mind's eye morphed into the duller reality unfolding on the TV screen. My body language was awkward. My voice was grating. My facial expressions, odd. My timing, not quite right. Is this how people saw me? It's a terrifying thought: What if I possess a glaring flaw that everyone notices but me? Or, fears aside, what if there are a few curious chasms between how I view myself and how others view me? What if I think I'm efficient but I'm seen as disorganized? Critical, but perceived as accepting?

Konstantin Sutyagin/Shutterstock

While many profess not to care what others think, we are, in the end, creatures who want and need to fit into a social universe. Humans are psychologically suited to interdependence. Social anxiety is really just an innate response to the threat of exclusion; feeling that we're not accepted by a group leaves us agitated and depressed.

The ability to intuit how people see us is what enables us to authentically connect to others and to reap the deep satisfaction that comes with those ties. We can never be a fly on the wall to our own personality dissections, watching as people pick us apart after meeting us. Hence we are left to rely on the accuracy of what psychologists call our "metaperceptions"—the ideas we have about others' ideas about us.

The bottom line: It comes down to what you think about yourself

Your ideas about what others think of you hinge on your self-concept—your own beliefs about who you are. "You filter the cues that you get from others through your self-concept," explains Mark Leary, professor of psychology at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

Our self-concept is fundamentally shaped by one person in particular: Mama. How our mother (or primary caregiver) responded to our first cries and gestures heavily influences how we expect to be seen by others. "Children behave in ways that perpetuate what they have experienced," says Martha Farrell Erickson, senior fellow with the Children, Youth and Family Consortium at the University of Minnesota. "A child who had an unresponsive mother will act obnoxious or withdrawn so that people will want to keep their distance. Those with consistently responsive mothers are confident and connect well with their peers."

As an infant scans his mother's face he absorbs clues to who he is; as adults we continue to search for our reflections in others' eyes. While the parent-child bond is not necessarily destiny, it does take quite a bit to alter self-concepts forged in childhood, whether good or bad. People rely on others' impressions to nurture their views about themselves, says William Swann, professor of psychology at the University of Texas, Austin. His research shows that people with negative self-concepts goad others to evaluate them harshly, especially if they suspect the person likes them—they would rather be right than be admired.

The top line: You probably do know what people think of you

But it's likely you don't know any one person's assessment. "We have a fairly stable view of ourselves," says Bella DePaulo, visiting professor of psychology at the University of California at Santa Barbara. "We expect other people to see that same view immediately." And they do. On average there is consensus about how you come off. But you can't apply that knowledge to any one individual, for a variety of reasons.

For starters, each person has an idiosyncratic way of sizing up others that (like metaperceptions themselves) is governed by her own self-concept. A person you meet will assess you through her unique lens, which lends consistency to her views on others. Some people, for example, are "likers" who perceive nearly everyone as good-natured and smart.

Furthermore, if a particular person doesn't care for you, it won't always be apparent. "People are generally not direct in everyday interactions," says DePaulo. Classic work by psychologist Paul Ekman has shown that most people can't tell when others are faking expressions. Who knows how many interactions you've walked away from thinking you were a hit while your new friend was actually faking agreeability?

And there's just a whole lot going on when you meet someone. You're talking, listening and planning what you're going to say next, as well as adjusting your nonverbal behavior and unconsciously responding to the other person's. DePaulo calls it "cognitive busyness."

Because of all we have to contend with, she says, we are unable to effectively interpret someone else's reactions. "We take things at face value and don't really have the means to infer others' judgments." Until afterward, of course, when you mull over the interaction, mining your memory for clues.

Context is key

While our personalities (and self-concepts) are fairly consistent across time and place, some situations, by their very structure, can change or even altogether wipe out your personality. You might feel like the same old you wherever you are, but the setting and role you happen to be playing affect what people think of you. Suppose you describe yourself as lighthearted and talkative. Well, no one could possibly agree if they meet you at your brother's funeral.

What type of person can handle feedback…

Are you open to experience? Are you, say, perennially taking up new musical instruments or scouting out-of-the-way neighborhoods? If so, your curiosity will drive you to learn new things about the world and yourself. You'll be inclined to ask people how you're doing as you embark on new challenges, and you will gather a clearer idea of how you come off to others, says David Funder, professor of psychology at the University of California at Riverside.

People endowed with the trait of physical awareness have a keen sense of how they present themselves. If you are concerned with the observable parts of personality—voice, posture, clothes and walk—as an actor would be, says Funder, "you will control the impression you give, and your self-perception will be more accurate." If, for example, you slouch but don't know it, your droopy posture registers in the minds of those you meet and enters into how they see you—unbeknownst to you.

If you are someone who craves approval, you will tend to think you make a positive impression on other people. And generally, you will, says DePaulo.

People who have learned to regulate their emotions are in a much better position to know what others think of them, says Carroll Izard, professor of psychology at the University of Delaware: "They are able to detect emotions on others' faces and to feel empathy." If you are either overwhelmed with feelings or unable to express them at all, it becomes difficult to interpret someone else's response to you. Learning to give concrete expression to your feelings and to calm yourself in highly charged moments will give you a much better grip on your own and others' internal states.

Those with personalities that feed the accuracy of their metaperceptions are handsomely rewarded. "The more accurate you are about how others perceive you, the better you fare socially," says Leary. "Think of a person who thinks he's really funny but isn't. He interprets polite laughter as genuine laughter, but everyone is on to him and annoyed by him."

…And what kind of person rejects feedback

There are people who behave in ways that prevent them from getting direct feedback from others, which renders them less able to know how they come off. Maybe you're a boss who is prickly and hostile in the face of criticism. Or a student who bursts into tears over a bad evaluation. Either way, coworkers and teachers will start leaving you in the dark to fumble over your own missteps.

Such demeanor may even encourage others to lie to you, says DePaulo. You may project a fragility that makes others afraid they will break you by offering honest criticism.

Narcissism also blocks metaperception. Instead of wincing, as "normal" subjects do, when forced to see themselves onscreen, narcissists become even more self-biased, finds Oliver John, professor of psychology at the University of California at Berkeley. When he and his team videotaped people diagnosed as pathological narcissists, a group absorbed with themselves, their subjects loved watching the footage and uniformly thought they came off beautifully! The finding underscores how fiercely we defend our self-concepts, even if they reflect psychological instability. —Carlin Flora

How to Solicit a Character Critique (Yours!)

Muster your courage and set up an "exit interview" if you're left wondering why a relationship went south. In a spirit of fact-finding—that is, without hostility—contact your ex and ask for an honest and kind discussion of how things went awry. You're not looking to get your ex back (or get back at your ex) but to gather information to prevent lightning from striking twice. Ask questions ("What could I have done better?") and listen. Be sure you don't use the conversation to justify your old behavior.

Shyness: a double whammy

If you are socially anxious (otherwise known as shy), you likely fret that you don't come off well. Unfortunately, you're probably right. Shy people convey unflattering impressions of themselves, says DePaulo. But not for the reasons they think. People don't see them as lacking in smarts, wit or attractiveness but as haughty and detached. When you're anxious, you fail to ask others about themselves or put them at ease in any way, which can be seen as rude and self-centered.

In a way, many shy people are self-centered, points out Bernie Carducci, psychologist at Indiana University Southeast and author of Shyness: A Bold New Approach. They imagine that everyone is watching and evaluating their every move. They think they are the center of any social interaction, and because they can't stand that, they shut down (unlike an exhibitionist, who would relish it). Socially anxious people are so busy tracking what others think that they can't act spontaneously. Still, many people find them endearing, precisely because they don't hog attention.

The powerful and the beautiful

Neither group gets accurate feedback. "People are too dazzled or intimidated to react honestly to them," says Funder. Michael Levine, the head of a Hollywood public relations agency, has run up against many such people, who end up with a deluded sense of self thanks to a coterie of sycophants. If you are among the bold and the beautiful, he says, you must invite feedback by playing on the fact that people want desperately to be liked by you. "You must let them know that your approval is conditional upon their honesty with you."

Don't worry—you're not see-through

The traits others judge us on fall roughly into two categories—visible and invisible. Funder has found that others notice our visible traits more than we ourselves do (the eye, after all, can't see its own lashes, as the Chinese proverb goes). You would rate yourself higher on the characteristic of "daydreams" than others would—simply because they cannot easily discern whether or not you're a daydreamer. They'll tend to assume you're not.

The good news, however, is that on a scale of physical attractiveness, others always rate you about one point higher than you rate yourself. This applies to "charm," too—another characteristic you can't easily convey to yourself, one that others naturally have a better window onto. "Imagine trying to be charming while alone on a desert island," Funder observes.

One common concern is that internal states are evident for all to see. In a study where subjects did some public speaking and then rated their own performances, the anxious ones in the group gave themselves a low rating, thinking that their inner churning was apparent to all. But audiences reported that they did just fine.

"Invisible" traits aren't entirely invisible—at least not to close friends. But an anxious friend would still rate herself higher on worry than we would.

The invisible/visible trait divide helps explain why people agree more on your positive attributes than your negative ones, says Eric Turkheimer, professor of psychology at the University of Virginia. "First of all, people are less honest about their own negative traits," he says, "and many of these are 'stealth' traits. You'd have to know someone really well to have any thoughts on whether or not he 'feels empty inside,' for example."

Self-awareness: a blessing and a curse

There is one sure way to see yourself from others' perspective—on videotape (as I did post-toast). But remember, the image is still filtered through your self-concept—it's still you watching you. Paul Silvia, assistant professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, points to an experiment in which psychologically healthy adults watched tapes of themselves giving group presentations. They described it as quite sobering. They cued into their faults and judged themselves much more harshly than they would have had they relied on their own impressions of the experience. You evaluate yourself much more critically when you are self-aware, because you are focused on your failure to meet internal standards.

If I watch myself on tape, I'm not only viewing with my self-concept in mind, I'm comparing "me" to my "possible selves," the "me's" I wish to become. Here is where an unbridgeable gap opens up between people: I will never have a sense of anyone else's possible selves, nor they mine.

So, should we just rely on our memories of events, protective of self-esteem as they are, and eschew concrete documentation of ourselves? Not necessarily, says Silvia. But the dilemma reveals how self-awareness is a double-edged sword. Self-awareness furnishes a deep, rich self-concept—but it also can be paralyzing, warns Leary, author of The Curse of the Self: Self-Awareness, Egotism and the Quality of Human Life. "It leads you to overanalyze others' reactions to you and misinterpret them."

Many of the most unpleasant shades on our emotional palettes—embarrassment, shame, envy—exist solely in the interpersonal realm. We cannot feel them until we are self-aware enough to worry what others think about us. These emotions are supposed to motivate us to cut out potentially self-destructive behaviors. But, Leary points out, given the brain's natural bias toward false alarms, people feel overly embarrassed. Too much concern about what others think can only constrict behavior and stifle the spirit.

Do you really want to know how you come off?

Report cards and annual reviews give you information on your performance in school and at work. But you'll rarely be treated to a straightforward critique of your character—unless someone blurts one out in a heated argument or you solicit it directly. "You could always ask a family member or someone else who knows you are stuck with them to tell you honestly what they think of you," says Funder. Publicist Levine took this approach a bit further when he asked several ex-girlfriends to each list three positive and three negative aspects of being in a relationship with him. "There was some consistency in their answers," he says. "It was challenging to take it in, but really helpful."

"There's always a trade-off between how you want to feel and what you want to know," says DePaulo. If ignorance is bliss, maybe it's best to trust someone's instinct to protect you. "But there are times when you really need accurate feedback," she says, "such as when you are trying to decide if you would be good in a certain career."

Perhaps the delicate balance between feeling good about yourself and knowing exactly how you come off is best maintained not by all those elusive "others." Maybe it's maintained by your most significant ones, the people who will keep you in line but appreciate you for who you are, not just for the impressions you leave behind.