Wednesday, 16 December 2009

Distorted self

Our self-image is alarmingly unreliable. The way we see ourselves can be very different from how we actually are, and very different from how others see us.

What do you mean I'm beautiful? I'm just a dumpy housewife who's let herself go. A good organiser, me? I leave everything to the last minute and then trust to luck.

How illuminating it would be if we could step outside our own skins for a day and see ourselves as others see us. We might be in for a surprise or two. A lot of self-delusion and a lot of false modesty might be stripped away.

I think most of us tend either to over-estimate or under-estimate ourselves. We all know the two types - the vain, pompous individuals who're convinced they know it all and the shy, apologetic ones who imagine all they ever do is make mistakes.

I'd say I'm one of the under-estimators. I constantly play down my intelligence, my practical skills, my likeability, my financial resources, my emotional resilience and my enjoyment of life.

People are always contradicting my unassuming descriptions of myself, telling me I'm more capable than I make out. But whenever I compare myself with others, I invariably conclude that they tick all the boxes while I'm obviously lacking.

It doesn't seem possible to have a completely accurate picture of one's identity, everything gets slightly distorted by some preconceived notion of what we'd like to be, or what we feel comfortable with, or what excites us.

The most bizarre example must be the woman who's adamant she's revoltingly fat when in reality her size is completely normal. Or on the other hand, the man who thinks he's Adonis despite his beer belly, hairy nostrils and combover.

In fact our capacity for self-delusion is virtually infinite. You only have to look at some of those strutting politicians and talentless celebs. How our minds do merrily mislead us.


  1. Apparently I am an under seller of self, but from an early age I can remember being taught to be modest, not to brag or boast, and not to be vain. I think lots of us have mixed messages left over from our childhood.

  2. Nick, you have given me a platform to air my frustration. I think that I am an Adonis and God's gift to women. Women somehow do not seem to think like that. I also think that I am in the wrong country, as otherwise, I would have got the Nobel prize for literature. My readers however disagree by deserting me!

  3. I look like a cross between Scarlett Johansson and Marilyn Monroe. Or possibly not...?

  4. Very very interesting. I'm pretty sure I couldn't handle seeing myself as others do. I'm absolutely positive it would be a rude shock of some sort or another. Or is that possibly me undervaluing myself?

    Then again, I'm a weird combination of overly self-confident and annoyingly self-abnegating.

    I really like what Suburbia said, about the leftover mixed messages. So true.

  5. Suburbia - Oh yes, it all goes back to childhood, like so many things. My father was always ticking me off for being too cocky, showing off, trying to shock etc. Not much help in terms of building self-confidence.

    Ramana - Funny that, how nobody appreciates your extraordinary gifts. Some people are just so blind....

    Scarlet - I'm sure that's a perfect description. With a touch of Claudia Schiffer maybe. So when do we get a real-life pic?

    Leah - I'm sure you could handle it, it wouldn't be that shocking. And yes, that's undervaluing yourself. I think we all combine over and under estimation to some extent. I can be surprisingly confident in some areas, when I know I'm knowledgable about something.

  6. My parents would never indulge in compliments lest they lead to a "big head."

    Years later, having been diagnosed with terminal cancer, my mother admitted that that was one of many mistakes, a load of rubbish.

    While I would be shocked at how some see me, I'm one of those who have dedicated serious time and effort to untangling the messeges left over from childhood.

    I still tend to undervalue, but to a lesser extent.

    Beside parents, we've an entire society that promotes this craziness.

  7. hmmmm
    three times lately i have been told i am calm or calming.
    my mum is a bit of a stress head and it is pretty hard to live with so at some point i decided i wouldnt be like that and it seems to have worked. except i am not always calm inside.
    another thing is that people think i always say what i think. i dont. i have been told i am blunt as a housebrick which makes me wonder if i hurt people without meaning to....

  8. Oh I would love to be able to do that- to step outside my skin and see me as others do...not sure I would like what I see. perhaps I'll stick with the self- delusion, lol!

  9. e - I think undervaluing is very much related to that sort of reserved parenting where the child's talents and achievements were never openly appreciated. If anything, we're going the other way now and children are led to believe that everything they do is fantastic even if it's mediocre.

    Kylie - I also determined to be a calm person unlike my father who was foully bad-tempered. But I'm also not so calm under the surface. Blunt as a housebrick, eh? Can't say I'd noticed....

    Cinnamon - Yes, wouldn't it be fascinating to see ourselves from the outside? It might be startling, but it might also be quite reassuring.

  10. Fascinating, Nick. I can't look at film of myself unless of 30 years ago when I am so shocked at how lovely I was which didn't match at all the awful self image I had. I can't look at recent performance film as all I can see are flaws, maybe when I'm 90 I'll think I was lovely. LOL!
    Even the most beautiful amongst us have self esteem issues.

  11. Aging makes us particularly vulnerable to an unflattering self-image because we remember how we used to look, whereas those who didn't know us then only see us as we are now. Also, some of us were constantly diminished by our families so we wouldn't become "conceited," which was such a sin once, and all our lives we have obligingly diminished ourselves like good boys and girls.

    I think the only way to avoid being caught up in this self-defeating madness is to be so interested in others that we forget ourselves for awhile.

  12. www - I know that memory of youthful beauty is a big issue for women whose looks are considered so important. As a man, luckily my ageing appearance is of minor interest. The rampant obsession with unlined, unblemished features is sick, sick, sick.

    Heart - But hopefully it's also refreshing when someone isn't comparing you to your former self and giving you that extra baggage. Yes, the idiotic fear of your offspring becoming "conceited" used to be very common. The result all too often was a feeling of inadequacy.

  13. A real pic???? ...and spoil the illusion??? Some people have implied that I'm a big ginger man. This isn't true.

  14. I am comfortable in my skin and like my lines.... they show I SMILED!

  15. Scarlet - Okay, let the illusion and our fevered male imaginings continue....

    Grannymar - Exactly, lines are a sign of experience, wisdom and a life enjoyed.

  16. I've worked hard for my smile wrinkles, er lines that I have no desire to get rid of them. But they still surprise me in the mirror on occasion. Age has given me experience and enjoyment, not so sure about wisdom.

  17. Brighid - I'm sure you have plenty of accumulated wisdom, how could you not have? You've been round the block a few times, as they say.

  18. I'm cursed with the pragmatic bug and see myself exactly as I am, distresses me big time I can tell you. All I want for Christmas is the right shaped hole for this square peg!

  19. Baino - I doubt if you see yourself exactly as you are, our minds are full of distorting mirrors! Yes, I hope you get to find the right niche after all the job-hunting trauma.