A scientific study published in 1999 examined how we are affected by listening to others’ opinions about us: First, Asian women were given a math test to do after reminders of the negative stereotype that women are bad at math. Later, Asian women were given a math test to do after reminders of the positive stereotype that Asians are good at math. The subjects performed significantly better when seeing themselves as “Asians, who are good at math” than as “women, who are bad at math.”
There’s you. And then there’s you-with-_____.
You with your boss. You being watched by your in-laws. You surrounded by your employees. You feeling nervous with your date. You with the context of your work situation.
While you-with-anything is still the real you, it can be very helpful to not look at yourself only through the context of whatever is currently going on, whoever you’re with. Try looking at just you by yourself. Apart from the other thing, person, or situation.
Why is this so helpful? We have a huge tendency to define ourselves by the people around us and what they think. We tend to become the average of the people closest to us. We want to fit in, to please people. We also constantly hear their voices, even when they’re not talking out loud. What your boss thinks of you. What your parents think of you. What your buddies think of you.
When I look at a big decision I just made, while examining myself primarily in the context of the two or three employees it affects, maybe the big decision looks like a win. But when I do the mental exercise of separating myself and examining the decision in the context of simply who I have always wanted to be, what I really believe and value–maybe I find the decision wasn’t a win for me after all. Maybe it was just a people-pleasing win for somebody else.
Or vice versa. Maybe what you’re constantly feeling small about, because of how you know it looks to your parents, or what your boss thinks of you now–maybe that thing you’re regretting, feeling down about, kicking yourself over every day… maybe that’s exactly what you truly wanted and you need to give yourself some credit, encourage yourself, celebrate your growth.
If you don’t give yourself the credit of judging yourself for yourself, and instead constantly see yourself through the lens of another or in a context inseparable from others, you will say things you don’t really mean, choose things you don’t really want, and become a person you don’t actually believe in.
Of course there’s a limit to all this–if you completely stop considering what others think, you miss out on a lot of valuable feedback and you can start giving people very wrong impressions. You can stop working well as a team and you can hurt people. Being aware of others and how they feel is very important.
But there’s got to be a balance: “How will my employee take this?” must always be accompanied by, “How do I really see this?” And vice versa.
There’s a reason I encourage you mostly to focus on the independent part, though–seeing yourself distinct from the people and situations currently surrounding you. It’s because what we’ve experienced and learned throughout life has pounded an insecurity into us, leaving us constantly, endlessly agonizing over what others think, how they see us and our choices.
That’s the norm in society: Defining your life, your self assessment, and your worth through the lenses of others.
Try being fair to yourself. Give yourself some credit. What do you really think and want? Forget your boss’s opinion for just a minute. Or your parents’ expectations. What do you really, truly, deep down in your heart, believe and want out of yourself? That is immensely more important to your happiness and peace in life than what you know your co-worker is telling his friends about you.
“I am a woman, so I cannot be good at math.”
“I am an Asian, so I can be great at math.”
Or maybe… “I am me, and I love math.”