Philosophers have long pondered the question, “Who are we?”
Aristotle believed the answer lies in our habits: “We are what we repeatedly do.” René Descartes thought the answer is thinking: “cogito ergo sum” or “I think, therefore I am.” For German philosopher Martin Heidegger, who we are has much to do with how we interact with the world and others: “Everyone is the other, and no one is himself,” he wrote. And for Austrian-British philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, there is no logical answer because the question is flawed in the first place: “The only answer to the riddle of life is the disappearance of the question.”
Though influenced by these views, psychologists have tried to follow a more pragmatic approach to understanding the self, focusing more on the connection between our self-views and actual behaviors.
If we are indeed capable of judging ourselves with some degree of objectivity, then our self-views should align with other people’s views of us, because others are constant observers of what we do.
But as Heidi Halvorson compellingly demonstrates in her new book No One Understands You And What To Do About It, few people see us the way we see ourselves. In fact, there is a clear gap between our self-views and other people’s views on us, and the bigger this gap, the more dysfunctional our relationships with others will tend to be. What is perhaps most striking is that different people see us in pretty similar ways, which means that we, not others, are the outliers.
For example, in multi-source feedback–the most powerful method for evaluating people’s reputation at work–there is much more similarity than variability between different raters’s evaluations of the same person. And a synthesis of hundreds of scientific studies in this area shows that other people’s views are more closely related than our self-views to what we do and what we are likely to do in the future.
The best reflection of ourselves, then, can be found not inside our mind, but in the eyes of other people. And if you want to know who you really are, all you need to do is to ask other people.
So why is self-awareness so rare?
Our attempts to maintain positive self-views undermine our ability–or willingness–to accept negative feedback from others. From school kids who blame their poor grades on their teachers to employees who blame their poor performance on their bosses, there is no shortage of real-life examples highlighting the default human tendency to distort reality in their favor if it helps them feel good about themselves.
Although the truth often hurts, it’s the key to self-improvement, so commit to seeking negative feedback from people you respect. Ask, “What could I do better?” “What am I missing compared to the people you consider the best?” and “What are the worst things about myself?” and take the answers seriously.
People are not always able–or willing–to provide us with honest and critical feedback. As a matter of fact, in most cultures social etiquette rewards white lies and condemns people who are brutally honest as tough and somewhat antisocial. Ironically, however, it is precisely those straight-talking individuals who are most valuable in helping us overcome our self-deceptions and close the gap between our identity–how we see ourselves–and reputation (how others see us).
You can incentivize others to give you negative feedback by explaining to them that you won’t take it personally, that you respect and value their views, and that you are trying to get better. You can also ask them to combine their critical feedback with some positive comments by asking, “What do you think are my two biggest strengths and my two biggest opportunities for development?”
Much of popular psychology, not least the American self-help movement, undermines self-awareness, promoting self-esteem rather than self-knowledge and urging people to ignore negative thoughts, in particular about themselves. This toxic feel-good paradigm has fostered narcissistic self-views and legitimized people’s reluctance to accept that they may not be as great as they think they are.
To combat this, ignore any advice designed to make you feel better. In fact, if a psychological tip attempts to boost your self-esteem, it will probably increase the gap between your self-estimated and actual abilities.
Luckily, though, there has been a lot of emphasis recently on the benefits of higher self-awareness, particularly in the workplace. Since the late ’90s emotional intelligence, which refers to the ability to understand both ourselves and others, has become one of the most desirable competencies, especially in leaders.
And this makes sense: When leaders lack self-awareness, they are hard to coach and unable to build high-performing teams. And low self-awareness has not only been linked to poor leadership performance, but also to poor mental well-being and self-destructive behaviors, such as addictions.