What matters more: how you feel about yourself or how you look to others?
Our culture, such as it is, says that what really matters is how you feel about yourself. To be a member in good standing of the culture you must value your self-esteem, such as it is. And you must overcome, even to reject the tendency to care about how others see you.
One might even look at the larger philosophical issue: what matters more, the state of your soul or your face? Is it better to expel the contents of your soul or to keep up appearances?
You think that you are strong and assertive; your friend or lover thinks you are a boor. You think that you are compassionate and sensitive; your friend or lover thinks you are a wimp. You think that you have given the best lecture ever; your audience has either fallen asleep or walked out.
You might ask which is the real You: your feelings or the perception of other people.
Not to belabor the point needlessly, but, your truth lies in the eyes of the other. It’s really all about your face, the one that you never see directly.
And yet, our therapy culture has made a fetish out of your feelings. Why do so many therapists keep asking their patients how this or that makes them feel. Therapists want us to get in touch with our feelings. They want us to explore our emotions. And they advise us to express those emotions, openly, honestly and shamelessly.
In truth, such therapists are systematically blinding their patients to what really matters: how they look to other people.
If you think the world of yourself and other people think you are a jerk, the dissonance will bear down on you, will wear you down. At best, it will inspire you to change the way you behave. At worst, it will throw you into a quasi-delusional state where you believe that you are too good for other people.
Therapists used to advise their patients to express their anger. Your anger, they believed, was an emotional toxin that you needed to eliminate from your psychic system.
And many patients noted that when they expressed anger, regardless of how, when, where and to whom, they felt an initial feeling of relief.
But, the relief did not last. When they had the time to think about what they had done, and especially how they looked when fulminating with rage, they suffered a shock. They recognized that, rather than expressing a feeling, they had made themselves look like fools.
And then there is the problem of expressing your insecurities. Don’t most therapists believe that you will benefit by expressing your insecurities? Don’t they believe that such an expression will heal your soul and provide just the right amount of balm for your relationship?
It turns out that this is not the case. Samatha Joel reports on the relevant research:
For example, say I’m worried that I gave a boring lecture for my relationships class, and so I decide to disclose this to my good friend and fellow relationships researcherBonnie Le. Being the responsive friend she is, Bonnie would of course respond by saying reassuring things. But after doing this a few times, I might start to think, Wow, I’ve been acting pretty insecure around Bonnie lately. She probably thinks I’m an emotionally fragile individual who desperately needs approval and can’t handle criticism or rejection. Unfortunately, those concerns are going to make me doubt every nice thing Bonnie says to me from then on. I’ll think that she’s just walking on eggshells around me, trying to spare my ego, and not telling me what she really feels. Her encouraging words will be less likely to make me feel good about myself because I’ll dismiss them as being insincere. So, paradoxically, showing my friend that I feel insecure has just made the problem worse.
Showing a friend that you lack confidence will cause your friend to treat you as someone who lacks confidence. If the friend tries try to reassure you, thus to buck up your confidence, she will not be recognizing you as a confident person, but will be saying that you need help.
But if, perchance you improve your performance and go on to give a sterling lecture, your friend’s praise will feel slightly condescending, as though designed to bolster your flagging spirit.
… if I express my insecurities to Bonnie, I am likely to subsequently believe that Bonnie perceives me to be insecure regardless of her actual perceptions of me. Similarly, my belief that Bonnie perceives me as insecure will lead me to doubt Bonnie’s authenticity regardless of how authentic she actually is. And, in all of the studies, these effects emerged above and beyond self-esteem, suggesting that all of this occurs relatively independently from chronic insecurities.
The more you express your insecurities, the more insecure you feel. Doesn’t this suggest that you do well to keep certain feelings to yourself?
When you spill the contents of your soul, you are not merely expressing a feeling. You are portraying yourself in a certain way to another person. It’s hard enough to overcome your feelings of insecurity. Imagine how difficult it is to erase the impression from someone else’s mind.
Does this mean that you should never express insecurity to anyone? Not at all. It means that you should be extremely careful about the way you present yourself. Some people know you well enough to know that a feeling of insecurity is not who you are. Others do not know you well enough to dismiss a sign of weakness.
Ultimately, if you very often express insecurity, you will persuade more people that you are insecure. The more people see you that way, the more difficult it will be to build confidence or character.
People might talk a good game about feeling their feelings. But, note this. If they want to get ahead in the world they dress the part. They understand that one’s appearance says a great deal more about one’s character than a soulful expression of deep feelings.
The principle applies in the corporate world, in the way executives present themselves.
Daniel R. Ames and Abbie S. Wazlawek explain in the Wall Street Journal:
Not realizing how others see you leads to bad decisions and spoiled relationships. And when others sense that you’re clueless about your personality, it can undermine your general stature and credibility. Unfunny people who know they aren’t funny are one thing; unfunny people who think they’re hilarious are another entirely.
The authors recognize that our high self-esteem, fed by unearned praise, is our enemy:
We often make self-flattering assumptions, and we expect others will agree with us: “I think I’m a good, effective, talented person…and so others must see me that way, too.” Repeat something like that enough times and it can become a force field, deflecting the occasional true signal that does head your way.
In the end it’s all about finding the mean between the extremes. The notion should be familiar to those who have studied ethics. The problem is: how do you know when you are being too assertive and when you are not being assertive enough:
Our research suggests that people often fail to appreciate that others see them as pushing too hard or not pushing hard enough. We’ve also found that people who are overassertive are especially unlikely to hear direct feedback from colleagues—after all, who wants to tell a jerk that they’re a jerk?
How do you learn when and how you should express which feelings?
I believe that you can only learn it by paying attention to the kinds of reactions you are receiving. The more experience you have, the more you can read the responses of other people, the better you will get at calibrating your assertiveness.
Clearly, advice to the effect that you need to “lean in” tells you nothing about how to regulate your assertiveness.
The authors write:
Low receptivity can mean failing to seek others’ points of view, crowding others out of a conversation or giving nonverbal reactions that convey a sense of closed-mindedness or hostility. Almost every executive coach we’ve spoken with has told us a story about someone who could be characterized as “blind to their hearing impairment.”
They offer an excellent example, to the effect that what is in your heart or mind is not necessarily what your appearance, your facial expressions and body language is communicating:
Recently, one CEO confessed a critical blind spot to us. When confronted by colleagues with a contrary idea or a critical reaction, he would push back in his chair, cross his arms and roll his eyes. Over time, subordinates started censoring their challenging questions. Criticisms and new ideas circulated around the leader rather than to him. The reality was that he welcomed tough responses—but he had no clue about the chilling effect of his body language. His behavior, and his lack of awareness about it, were choking off important information, undermining his leadership and, as he said, “putting my credibility at risk.”
Funny thing, when there’s real money on the line, people are much more amenable to taking advice.