Looking Glass Self Theory

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How do you know what restaurants are good and which are bad? When you sit down at those restaurants, how do you know what customs are appropriate and what behaviors are not? How do you know whether the people in that restaurant like you or not? The answer to all of these questions, for many people, is the same. We look at other people to determine the decisions that we make and how we view ourselves. At least, that’s what the idea of the “looking glass self” suggests. 

This page is all about the looking glass self: who first introduced this idea, how it compares to other theories in social psychology, and whether this way of assessing ourselves is healthy. You may find that using the opinions of others doesn’t form an accurate picture of yourself. 

What Is the Looking Glass Self? 

The Looking-glass Self is an idea in sociology that suggests we form an opinion of ourselves based on how we think people see us. In other words, if we were to look at ourselves in a mirror, our reflection would show us the person our peers think we are. 

This means that how we see ourselves certainly changes depending on the people we surround ourselves with. Social media has also significantly changed how we assess ourselves based on the assessments of others.

Who Introduced the Idea of the Looking Glass Self? 

Charles Horton Cooley introduced the idea of the “looking-glass self” in 1902. Cooley conducted many studies to understand this process and published his ideas in the book Human Nature and the Social Order. He describes three steps to developing the looking-glass self. 

What Are the Three Stages of the Looking Glass Self? 

According to Cooley, a person goes through three stages as they develop their sense of self: 

  • People envision how other people view them
  • They think about how other people must judge them based on their views
  • They think about how other people form an opinion of the person based on those judgments 

You might notice yourself doing this without even realizing it! Have you ever looked at yourself in the mirror and thought, “these people are going to hate me” or “they’re not going to like what I’m wearing”? You’ve already gone through all three steps of the looking-glass self! 

Examples of The Looking Glass Self 

Let’s break this down into a few examples. 

Fancy Wedding With Strangers 

You get invited to a very fancy wedding held by your partner’s cousin. No one at the wedding will know you except your partner. The guests are mostly in a different income bracket than you, and your cousin has warned you that they may not appreciate your tattoos. As you look in the mirror, you envision yourself walking into the wedding with your tattoos and your piercings. The people at the wedding will judge you, you think to yourself. They will think you’re poor or you’re dirty or you’re deviant. This isn’t a good feeling and you start to get nervous about the event. You wonder whether you should alter your appearance to look more “acceptable” to a larger group of people.

Sleepover With Friends 

On the other hand, you know your good friends will accept you no matter what you wear or how you come dressed to events. Before a sleepover, you decide to wear a funny, comfortable shirt and put your hair in a messy bun. You know that your friends will get a kick out of the shirt and won’t judge you for looking sloppier than you would at work. This is a great feeling. You know that what matters to your friends is your sense of humor and the kindness that you’ve offered them over the years. What a great way to feel before a sleepover! 

Code-Switching As You Go Throughout the Day 

Of course, no one only interacts with one person or group of people a day. This can lead not only to a person feeling confused about their identity but also changing their behavior to fit in with different groups. Have you ever heard of “code-switching?” It’s the idea that a person may change the way they speak or the way they behave because they know they might get judged otherwise. Code-switching is prevalent among minorities who feel like they have to “act white” or “act straight” to be accepted by different groups in society. .

Here’s an example of a man who code-switches throughout the day, from the blackmen subreddit: 

“I mean for the most part, it's second nature and I don't really notice it. But the time it's really taxing is when people from two different worlds meet.

For example, my work friends meet my irl friends. I act one way at work and a completely different way with my irl friends. Trying to find a balance between the two versions of myself can be exhausting.

Another instance for me doesn't have to do with being black, but with being gay. I code switch when I go to a hyper-masculine environment, like a barbershop, especially a black barbershop. I turn up the AAVE and turn down any overt mannerisms that can be seen as feminine.

Like I get why code switching was/is necessary, but it does get tiring every so often.” 

This man code-switches because he has gone through the three stages of the looking-glass self and decided that behaving a certain way in front of certain groups of people will increase or decrease his chances of acceptance. Yes, this can be exhausting, but it’s worth it if he feels accepted at the end of the day. 

How Does the Looking Glass Self Affect Self-Esteem? 

Code-switching and assessing yourself based on other people’s judgments can be exhausting. No one wants to view themselves through the eyes of another person only to come to the conclusion that they are unfavorable or unacceptable. 

According to Cooley’s theory, we use the judgments of others to judge ourselves. After all, we learn acceptable behaviors from other people our entire lives! (It’s our parents who taught us how to behave, our friends at school who taught us how to share, and our teachers who taught us how to work hard.) 

If we surround ourselves with people who constantly hype us up and let us know that they love us, we are likely to feel positive about ourselves. We see what they see: a wonderful person with a good heart, good intentions, or good looks. 

But what happens when people - either some or all people - may judge us for who we are or how we look? At best, with conflicting opinions, we feel confused about who we are and how we’re meant to feel about ourselves. At worst, we see how people judge other people like us and turn that on ourselves. 

Cooley says nothing in his theory about the validity of a person’s judgments. And frankly, people can be very skewed in their judgments of others! That’s why it’s important to consider who you surround yourself with when you see yourself through the eyes of others. 

How Changing Your Community Can Change Your View of Yourself 

Let’s say you grow up in a small town with highly conservative views. You’re a man, but you have what some consider feminine mannerisms and realize that you’re attracted to men. The people in that small town are offended by that. They tell you that you walk wrong, talk wrong, and that your attraction to men is wrong. According to the looking-glass self, you probably feel pretty insecure about yourself. You don't want to go anywhere in your small town, because you anticipate everyone judging you for who you are.

There are ways to change how you feel about yourself: break free from the judgments of others, or surround yourself with people that accept you for who you are. The first option is exhausting: as you envision yourself being judged by others, or if you face criticism to your face, you have to remind yourself that your self-worth isn’t determined by other people. Or, you can find people that accept you. When you look at your “looking-glass self’ and see how these people see you, you see a wonderful person who is doing everything right. 

Which group of people is “correct” in their assessment of you? It depends on who you ask. Which group of people is going to make you feel better about yourself? According to Cooley’s theory, the answer is obvious.

Reference this article:

Practical Psychology. (2022, November). Looking Glass Self Theory. Retrieved from https://practicalpie.com/looking-glass-self-theory/.

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