The looking-glass effect is a sociological concept originally named by Charles H. Cooley. The theory states that people’s self-perception (or self-esteem) depends on what they think other people are thinking of them. To make that a bit less confusing, Cooley broke this down into three distinct steps: people tend to (1) imagine how they appear to others then (2) imagine how others would judge that imagined appearance, and ultimately (3) react accordingly to those imagined judgments. If you couldn’t tell yet, the keyword here is imagined.
Since many factors come into play when trying to guess how other people see us, other researchers have found that our self-perceptions, through the looking-glass effect, can actually be way more inaccurate than we think they are. Essentially, as much as we believe we are mind readers, we are not, and basing our entire personality off those imagined (and likely incorrect) judgments can do much more harm to our self-image than good.
The effect of thinking in this pattern has worsened with the overwhelming presence of social media. Now having a multitude of apps to display our virtual lives, we tend to choose how to portray ourselves based on what gets the most likes or comments rather than what we genuinely want to post and share. This opens up a whole new avenue of mirrors to see ourselves in and judge ourselves through.
So how do we stop ourselves from reacting to everyone else and instead of acting as our true selves? I think we cut the pattern off at the first step: imagining how we appear to others. This step is the beginning of our downfall because our brains will use the guise of other people to emphasize our own insecurities. For example, if you are worried that your friends think you’re not as smart as they are, that’s probably stemming from the fact that you don’t think you’re as smart as they are.
Because without you thinking that and believing it to be true, that thought of others believing that would never have popped up in your mind. This results from the spotlight effect, which states people tend to feel like the spotlight is on them when in reality no one is paying that much attention because they too are busy worrying about themselves, and egocentric bias, where people assume what they think is true for others as well. Framing the negative thoughts as coming from us internally rather than external opinions can seem intimidating and even more hurtful (since we can no longer blame others for how we think they are judging us) but it can also be empowering.
Once you start to realize that it is a self-judgment, you can also start to realize how to then undo it for yourself. You can work on saying affirmations aloud, asking others for reassurance, or write about it in your journal, etc. Remind yourself that only your own self-perception matters, no one else’s; and you can make it more accurate by basing it off of your words and your actions rather than playing mind games trying focusing on other people’s words and actions toward you because you can never control that. You are your own worst critic with the potential to be your best supporter. Accept yourself as you are now and feel that weight lift off your shoulders.