The Mirage of Image

Dec 4, 2018
The Mirage of Image
I am not what I think I am.
I am not what you think I am.
I am what I think you think I am.

Charles Cooley's century-old quote is a provocative reminder that we develop our sense of self and identity through our interactions with others. A few years before Cooley penned the looking glass theory, W.E.B. Du Bois wrote about double-consciousness: "this sense of (the African American) always looking at one's self through the eyes of (white) others".* The looking glass theory has three steps that apply to all humans:

  1. We imagine how we appear to someone. Sometimes our imagination is correct, but it is frequently wrong as it is based on our assumptions.
  2. We imagine what judgments they make of us based on our appearance.
  3. We imagine how they feel about us, based on the judgments (we imagine are) made of us.

The result is that we often change our behavior based on how we feel people perceive us. If you find yourself thinking, "I don't care. I am who I am!" this may be your goal, but it's never entirely possible.

Perhaps a better goal is to ask these questions:
  • How can I show my interest, not judgment, in what someone is telling me?
  • What would it look like to have a real conversation with someone and not their image?
  • How can I indicate--verbally and nonverbally--my desire to see the other person through their own lens, not mine?
  • How can I put aside my feelings of being judged (or judging others) and focus on understanding or meeting others' needs?
  • What if your image, their image, and your image of their image of you is a mirage?

*Whether Du Bois's work informed Cooley's or vice versa isn't known, but the two were contemporaries. ~