Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


4 Self-Portraits That Make Us Self-Conscious

These four self-portraits drive posturing, restlessness, and achievement.

Basi/Pixabay CC0 Public Domain
Source: Basi/Pixabay CC0 Public Domain

Pretty much every single one of us is deeply self-conscious.

We are self-conscious because we need to associate with other people in various ways, and we worry that, if they don’t like what we have to offer, they won’t want to associate with us the way we want to associate with them.

We want to know how much value we have in the eyes of others, and sometimes it’s not clear. So our minds fill with self-conscious questions like the following:

  • “Who am I?”
  • “Why can't I get myself to stick to my own plans?
  • "What do I want to be when I grow up?"
  • “Do I look OK?”
  • “Do I have anything to offer?”
  • “What do they think of me?”
  • “Do they think I’m stupid?”
  • “What kind of relationship do I have with this person?”
  • “What kind of relationship do I want to have?”
  • “Are they pulling back from me?”
  • “Do they want to break up with me?”
  • “Do they want to fire me?”
  • “What do they expect of me?”
  • “Did I disappoint them?”
  • “What do I expect of myself?”
  • “Can I meet their expectations? Or not?”
  • “Do I want to meet their expectations?"
  • “How can I get them to see what I have to offer?”
  • "What are my values?"
  • “Are my values compatible with their values?"
  • “Am I smiling enough?”,
  • “Am I giving enough eye contact?”,
  • “Am I giving too much eye contact?”,
  • “Am I talking too much?”
  • "Do I have spinach in my teeth?"
  • “Am I being too self-conscious?”

These kinds of self-conscious thoughts are an essential part of managing our relationships with others. But sometimes they can torment us. They can make us freeze up in the middle of a presentation or performance. They can make us come across as being too much “in our heads”. And they can lead to hours of brooding.

In our modern world our self-conscious thoughts torment us more than ever (you’ll see why shortly). But what if we understood all this internal chatter better? Could we control it? Could we make the chatter more productive? Could it even help us improve our relationships?

I believe the answers are yes, yes, and yes. And I’m going to give you an opportunity to judge for yourself.

This essay offers you a map for understanding much of your self-conscious thinking. Once you understand how the map works, you can use it to interpret your inner dialogue and navigate your social world.

Warning: the rest of this essay might very well change the way you see the world forever. If you don’t want that to happen, then stop reading now.

Four Portraits

The main idea is this: to navigate our social worlds we craft and compare four different portraits of ourselves in our minds. And much of our self-conscious thought is dedicated to fine-tuning these portraits and managing the differences between them. [1]

The four portraits correspond to these four questions:

  1. Who am I?
  2. What do I want to become?
  3. Who do others think I am?
  4. What do others expect me to become?

Let’s take a look at each of these portraits. And then we’ll consider the significance of the differences between them.

Portrait #1: First-Person Realistic (Who am I?)

The first portrait represents who you are right now from your own perspective. And this portrait is composed of many features, including:

  • your likes and dislikes
  • your memories
  • your values, norms, and beliefs
  • your good habits
  • your bad habits
  • your skills and areas of expertise
  • your relationships and social roles
  • your physical traits
  • your hobbies
  • your accomplishments and failures
  • your possessions
  • your debts to others, and their debts to you
Stephen Clulow/Flicker/Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 (modified)
Source: Stephen Clulow/Flicker/Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 (modified)

The list is open-ended, and can be a little different from person to person and culture to culture. But the above features form a pretty good common core.

In some ways we would expect this portrait to be fairly accurate. You are in a pretty good position to see who you are, because you get to see yourself in every situation, performing every role you perform as you go through your life. You also care who you are, so you will notice and puzzle over many little clues.

Yet you are not in a perfect position to know who you are. You will be blinded a bit by bias, inflating your good qualities and overlooking your bad qualities. And you can often learn new things about yourself from others, who will sometimes bring you down a notch, and will sometimes make you aware of good qualities you didn’t know you had.

You can also refine this view of yourself through observation. As you live your life and try new things you might notice that you’re not as disciplined as you thought you were, or that you actually like tomatoes now.

Portrait #2: First-Person Ideal (What do I want to become?)

The second portrait is what you want to become. It will share many features with your first-person realistic portrait, but it will be modified with:

  • better skills
  • more knowledge
  • a more impressive portfolio or resume
  • a better body
  • better habits
  • better social roles
  • more money
  • relationships with more interesting, or higher-status people
  • a better lifestyle
Stephen Clulow/Flicker/Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 (modified)
Source: Stephen Clulow/Flicker/Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 (modified)

Your first-person-ideal portrait is more attractive than the first-person realistic one. And, if you play your cards right, you might someday come to resemble your ideal.[2]

Why do you do this? Why do you create an ideal image of yourself?

Well, you need things. I don’t know what you need in particular, but I can report that some humans have been known to need things like food, shelter, friends, lovers, children, money, esteem, status, achievement, competence, autonomy, adventure, and chocolate. [3]

You also have an imagination, and, however well you are satisfying your needs right now, you can probably imagine satisfying them even better . . . if only you had better skills, better habits, more money, and better relationships.

Your ideal portrait is your map to a better future.

But where do the specific ideals come from? Why does one person want ten million dollars, and another simply wants to be able to pay the bills? Why does one person want to look like Marilyn Monroe, another like Audrey Hepburn? Why does one person want to be nicer, and another more ruthless?

Many of our ideals come from our parents, our teachers, our religious leaders, and the people on the telly. These people train us to hold certain ideals. They teach us that, in order to get people to like us, and in order to get good things in life, we need to be nicer, have self-control, keep a trim figure, get a good job, build a nest egg, or whatever.

Your ideal image will be further refined as you observe others who already have many of the things you want for your life. You’ll try to figure out which personal qualities led to their success, and you’ll aspire to create those qualities in yourself.

And sometimes you will craft your ideal image by experimenting with different kinds of self-presentation, noticing how others respond to them, and aspiring to do more of what gets good reactions and less of what gets bad reactions.

Portrait #3: Third-Person Realistic (Who do others think I am?)

In order to really drive ourselves crazy with self-conscious thoughts, it’s not enough to have the two first-person portraits of ourselves. We also need a couple third-person portraits.

Stephen Clulow/Flicker/Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 (modified)
Source: Stephen Clulow/Flicker/Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 (modified)

The third-person-realistic portrait is our best guess about who others think we are. And since not everyone has the same view of us, this portrait is more of a placeholder for many different third-person perspectives: “Who does she think I am?”, “Who does he think I am?”, “Who do people in general think I am?”, and so on.

Why do we care what others think of us? Well, we all need other people to fill various roles in our lives. We might hope a given person will serve as one of our friends, or as a doting child, or as a boss, or as a lover. And what we can reasonably hope for is at least partly determined by who they think we are.

How do we get the information we need in order to construct this portrait? We can ask the other person (or listen when they tell us). We can ask around (or listen when others tell us what that person thinks of us). We can observe how they act when they are around us, and make inferences from the emotional reactions they have to the things we say or do. And we can show them (or tell them) what we want them to think, and then look for signs that they believe us.

Portrait #4: Third-Person Ideal (What do others expect me to become?)

Finally, we have the third-person-ideal portrait. This portrait represents what other people want, need, or expect you to become (or remain, if you’re already awesome like that). Like the third-person-realistic portrait, this portrait stands in for many different third-person-perspectives.

Stephen Clulow/Flicker/Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 (modified)
Source: Stephen Clulow/Flicker/Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 (modified)

What others expect of you will depend on the kind of relationship you have with them. If you and they are political activists together, they will need you to have and maintain certain political commitments. If they are simply friendly acquaintances from the local coffee shop, they might need nothing from you but a polite smile and semi-interesting banter. If they are your spouse, they will likely need much more.

And part of the fun of being human comes from the high likelihood that the important people in your life will present you with conflicting expectations.

So how do we go about learning what a given person expects us to be or become?

We can start with the role we play (or want to play) in their lives. We will already have some sense of what the culture at large expects of people in that role. And we will probably assume at first that the other person will share these culturally typical expectations. For example, if we are (or aspire to be) their employee, we can guess right off the bat that they will expect us to be somewhat conscientious and agreeable, to have certain skills, and to use those skills to provide value to the firm.

But we will encounter some idiosyncratic expectations as well. The other person will have observed people playing these roles as they were growing up. As a result they might expect their romantic partners (for instance) to be like their father, their mother, or the protagonist from their favorite novel.

And their expectations will also be shaped by their personal experience with others who have played that role in their own lives. As a result they might have even lowered their expectations a bit.

Unfortunately, there seems to be no real shortcut for learning about these idiosyncratic expectations. We usually just stumble upon them as we interact with the other. They might tell us some of these expectations explicitly, and we might infer some of them based on how they react to things we do or say. And, while we will learn some of them before we enter the relationship, we will learn many only long after we are in it.

Managing the Gaps

Now that we’ve got an idea about what each portrait is, and how it is constructed, we can see a little more clearly what our self-conscious thoughts are doing. Much of that internal chatter comes from our attempts to refine the four portraits of ourselves, and manage the gaps between them.

To explore the gaps, we’ll make use of the following diagram:

Jim Stone
Source: Jim Stone

The four self-portraits are represented by four circles. The two realistic portraits are on the left, and the two idealistic portraits are on the right. The two first-person portraits are on the bottom, and the two third-person portraits are on the top. The arrows represent gaps between adjacent portraits.[4]

In theory all four portraits could be exactly the same. In that case all four circles would collapse together into a single portrait, and there would be no gaps. But that never happens. For good or ill, there are always gaps.

Sometimes the gaps will be large. Sometimes they will be small. Sometimes we want gaps. And sometimes we wish they weren’t so big. Sometimes we feel like we have what it takes to close the gaps, and sometimes we worry that we don’t.

Let’s take a closer look at each of these gaps.

Gap #1: The Perception Gap (“Who am I?” vs “Who do they think I am?”)

Who we are is one thing. Who others think we are is another. These gaps in perception are inevitable. We know many more facts about ourselves than we share with others. And, even if it were possible to share every detail, it would likely bore most people to tears.

Jim Stone
Source: Jim Stone

With every person you know there is a perceptual gap regarding who you are. And with different people, there will be different gaps. [5]

Sometimes we welcome gaps in perception. We value our privacy, and don’t want everyone to know everything about us. And we might have specific reasons to keep specific information from specific individuals. At times we might put on a brave face to inspire confidence in others. We might overstate our experience to pass a job interview. We might undersell our abilities to put another person at ease. Or we might “play dumb” to stay out of trouble.

Other times we want to bridge these gaps. We might disclose things to deepen a friendship. We might want someone to know our skills, so they’ll want to hire us. We might want to lighten the burden of maintaining a deception. We might want to get out in front of things before two acquaintances start comparing notes. We might want to be understood better, to keep people from jumping to the wrong conclusions. And we might just be tired of pretending all the time and want to let it all hang out for a change.

And sometimes we suspect others might know things about us we don’t know about ourselves. When we keep losing at poker, we wonder if we’re presenting a “tell”. If someone sticks with us after we’ve let them down, we might wonder what they see in us. If people at the office seem to be avoiding us, we might wonder if we stepped in something, if we are a topic of gossip, or if we are losing our job.

Gap #2: The Aspiration Gap (“Who am I?” vs “What do I want to become?”)

Who we are is one thing. What we want to become is another. If we want to improve our prospects in life, we must maintain some sort of gap between these two portraits. And, at any given time we choose to look, there will be a gap of some size. [6]

Jim Stone
Source: Jim Stone

At times we will widen the gap, daring to dream bigger dreams. Perhaps we are inspired by an expert in some field and want to become an expert in that field as well. Maybe we try a sport, discover that we love it, and find ourselves wanting to become better at it. Maybe we decide it’s finally time to quit smoking. Maybe we realize others are using and abusing us, and we want to be more self-sufficient so we can stand up for ourselves. Maybe we’re tired of living paycheck to paycheck and want to make more money. Maybe we feel like we’re in a rut and just want to shake things up a bit. Or maybe we find that we have accomplished so many of our old goals we need some new ones.

And sometimes we will try to shrink the gap. If we feel able we can move our actual self in the direction of our ideal self by engaging in intrinsically-motivated growth activities. We can develop new skills, learn new subjects, form new relationships, develop new habits, break bad habits, and create things more amazing than anything we’ve created before.

And, if we feel unable to grow into our ideal, we can move our ideal self closer to our actual self by scaling back our aspirations. If our goals are taking too long, we might choose less ambitious goals. If we repeatedly struggle to break a bad habit, we might choose to accept the habit as part of who we are. After our umpteenth round of yo-yo dieting we might finally accept our need for plus-sized clothing. And, at least once we hit 30, it’s time to admit to ourselves that we can’t be a doctor, AND a ballerina, AND a professional tennis player, AND a mother or father of six perfect children. There simply isn’t time for all that.

Gap #3: The Value Gap (“What do I want to become?” vs “What do they want me to become?”)

What we want to become is one thing. What others want us to become is often another.

Jim Stone
Source: Jim Stone

Your dad wants you to take over the family farm, but you dream of becoming a Broadway star. Your friend expects you to be a conservative, but you’re a progressive. Your partner wants you to spend more time at home, but you want to make more money.

Things are complicated further by the fact that we will have relationships with many different people who have conflicting expectations for us. Perhaps our spouse expects us to spend more time with the children, our boss expects us to spend more time at work, and we are hoping to find more time to write a novel.

In general these gaps are painful. They are a sign that the other person is at cross purposes with us. They are not good allies, at least for some purposes. And, as long as these gaps exixt, there might be some danger in having them occupy certain roles in our lives.

We will increase these gaps at times. If a person expects us to thwart our own animal interests too much, we will eventually push back. And if we want to shrink a gap with one person, we might have to widen a gap with another.

That said, in general, much of our self-conscious thought is dedicated to finding ways to reduce the impact of value gaps. The size of a value gap is one thing. The impact of a value gap is another. Impact is a function of both the size of the gap, and the importance of the relationship to our well-being. Large value gaps with strangers bother us very little, while small gaps with parents, children, and life partners can bother us greatly.

One way to reduce the impact of value gaps is to change our aspirations to match the expectations of important people in our lives. This is how we acquire many of our values in the first place. As children we internalize the values and expectations of the adults around us. By adulthood, though, most of us have more powerful personal aspirations, and must juggle the expectations of many different people. We can’t afford to be as straightforwardly accommodating.

Another way to reduce the impact of value gaps is to try to get the other person to change their expectations so that they match our own aspirations. It might be as simple as telling them, “Look, this is what I’m trying to accomplish, and I want you to be more supportive.” But sometimes taking such a direct approach risks losing the relationship. And, if we are not ready for that, we will have to try less direct approaches.

Yet another way to reduce the impact of value gaps in our lives is to demote people from important roles in our lives. This is easier said than done. We will be working against powerful attachment bonds and sometimes other constraints such as financial dependence or fear of retaliation. It’s little wonder people can spend years in self-conscious deliberation before making such moves.

In society at large the pain of value gaps can produce tribalism. We get tired of having conflict with others and withdraw into isolated bubbles of like-minded folks. We then make up stories about why we are good and they are bad, and avoid the pain of actually engaging in dialogue with “those people”. Many of the people who dreamed that the internet would lead to a flourishing of open-minded dialogue, have been quite surprised to observe that, for the most part, it has simply given us new ways to preach to the choir.

Gap #4: The Expectation Gap (“Who do they think I am?” vs “What do they want me to become?”)

Often there will be a gap between how another person perceives us and how they wish us to be if we are to play a certain role in their life. We see the coach shake her head after we commit the error. We score lower than expected on the midterm exam and wonder what the professor thinks. We try to flirt and the other person shows no interest. We show up twenty minutes late to a business meeting and are asked to explain why.

Jim Stone
Source: Jim Stone

When we become aware of expectation gaps like these, we we can feel intense guilt or shame. And our minds will flood with thoughts of self-conscious concern.

We can try to bridge these gaps through acts of self-presentation, trying to convince them that we are closer to meeting their expectations than they might realize. We can try to get them to lower their expectations. We can work hard to meet their expectations. We can apologize for our shortcomings and promise to try to do better. And we can avoid these people in the future, so we don’t have to deal with their judgments.

Which course should we choose? Let the rumination begin.

Context and Caveats

Before venturing some practical advice, I want to make some observations about this map. If you’re pressed for time, you can safely skip this section.

First, each portrait and each gap can be affected by all the others. They form a dynamic system (but far from a closed system, as we’ll soon note).

One of the main reasons we will widen a gap between two portraits is to keep a different gap from growing.

For instance, a person who loses the family religion might hide that fact for many years, creating a large perception gap, because they are not ready to deal with the value gaps and the expectation gaps that are sure to arise. So they stay in the closet until either the demands of maintaining the perception gap become unbearable, or they have created new relationships in their lives that allow them to take risks with the old relationships. The same is true for all sorts of closets.

Second, this map covers just part of a larger territory of social concern. In addition to all of our self-conscious concerns, we also have other-conscious concerns. In fact, self-conscious concern depends fundamentally on the existence of other-conscious concern. Why worry what others think of us, or how they are judging us, if they are not thinking about us or judging us? We are all self-conscious, because we all judge, praise and expect things of others.

We can create an analogous "map of other-conscious thought" around these four questions: 1) Who do I think they are? 2) Who do they think they are? 3) What do they want to become? 4) What do I expect them to be or become? There will be analogous gaps between those four portraits. And there will even be some gaps to note between the four self-conscious portraits and the four other-conscious portraits. Rather than present that diagram here, I’ll leave it as an exercise for the reader. [7]

Third, this map of self-conscious thought can provide context for some prominent psychological theories. You can recognize Freud’s ego, and superego here. The ego involves the bottom two circles and the arrow that connects them. The superego involves the top two circles and the arrow between them. The two side arrows represent the struggle between the ego and superego.[8]

You can also place the needs of Self-Determination Theory into the map. Autonomy is a matter of being free to work on closing the aspiration gap through self-motivated self-improvement and achievement without too much interference from others with whom we might have large value and expectation gaps. The need for competence comes from the need to narrow the aspiration and expectation gaps. And relatedness is pretty much the point of the whole thing.

We can also place the SDT endpoints of well-being, growth, and authenticity on the map. Authenticity is a matter of the size and nature of the perception gaps. Well-being is a matter of not feeling too much strain from the various gaps overall, and growth happens when we successively widen and close the aspiration gap (through achievement and self-improvement). [9]

What Now?

I will likely write more about this map in the future, and discuss specific ways it can help you manage your inner life and your relationships. Knowing what’s going on in your own head can help you develop better self-talk habits, and can lead to more efficient self-improvement, values clarification, and image management efforts. And knowing what’s going on in other people’s heads will allow you to have better relationships with them. It can help you figure out what they need. It can help you resolve conflict more efficiently and effectively. And it can allow you to be more persuasive.

For now, I simply ask that you print out the map and use it for a week to understand your own thoughts, and the interactions that go on around you. I think you’ll be surprised how much of life fits neatly onto the map.

If you do this, post your observations here in the comments section. I’ll be interested to hear back from you to see how your experience with the map stacks up against my own.


[1] It’s natural to think of each portrait as a set image stored away somewhere special and brought out for the purpose of self-conscious thinking. That construal is fine for our purposes. In reality, these self-portraits are most likely constructed on the fly as we think. And we will probably activate only as much of a given portrait as we need for a given situation. This is known as the spreading activation theory of memory retrieval.

[2] In reality we might construct many first person ideals, depending on how far out in the future we are looking, which domain of our lives we are considering, and so on. For the most part it won’t hurt to pretend there is just one for now.

[3] For an overview of “human needs theory”, see my “What’s Missing?“.

[4] Theoretically there could be diagonal arrows as well, but those comparisons don’t seem to be as common, as they require jumping both from first person to third (or vice versa) and from actual to ideal (or vice versa). We can still get from any circle to any other, but comparing diagonals, requires two jumps instead of one. A case could be made that this is how we actually wander from one portrait to a diagonal portrait. We don’t tend to cross both distinctions at once, but first cross one, and then the other.

[5] The perception gap is one of Philippe Rochat’s main concerns in his book Others in Mind. Rochat makes a good case that, in spite of these gaps in perception, our own image of ourselves is substantially created from the way we think others perceive us. This is especially so early in life.

[6] For a look at how “boredom” and “anxiety” can cause us to grow and shrink the aspiration gap in repeated succession, take a look at my essay: "How Can I Accelerate My Personal Growth?"

[7] At one point while writing this essay I tried to arrange the four self-portraits and the four other-portraits in a cube. It proved to be “too cute” for reality :) That said, such a cube might still make a useful toy in a therapist’s office.

[8] Though on this map we would want to keep in mind that for Freud the “ego-ideal” is the superego and not our first-person-ideal portrait. See Freud’s: The Ego and the Id

[9] My favorite article discussing Self-Determination theory is still Deci and Ryan’s “The What And Why of Goal Pursuits”. For a more accessible taste of the theory, see my: “Stop Setting Goals that Don’t Make You Happy.”

More from Jim Stone Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today