Looking Glass Self Essay

The "looking-glass self" is a concept drawn originally from the work of George Herbert Mead,  encapsulating the idea that our self-image - the mental idea we have of who and how we are - is shaped by our interactions with others. This has three steps:

  1. We imagine how we appear to another person.
  2. We imagine what judgements that person makes of us based on our appearance and the way we present ourselves.
  3. We imagine how that person feels about us, on the basis of the judgements they've made.

It's common to see people interpret this theory as one that encapsulates the ubiquitous, rampant insecurity of the modern human condition: in an age characterised by the proliferation of social media, a thousand shoddy opinion pieces have been written in an attempt to use the looking-glass self - or what they imagine it to be - to bemoan a generation lost to narcissism and obsession with self-presentation.

This misses most of the important nuance of Cooley's ideas. On face, this concept might look like one in which the individual is passive: we're constantly beholden to the judgements of others, shaped by their impressions of us. But this couldn't be further from the truth if it were wearing a "Make America Great Again" baseball cap.

The important thing to clarify is that Cooley doesn't see this process as a one-way internalisation of others' perceptions. Instead, we play an active role in trying to shape how others perceive, judge and feel about us. In fact, Cooley specifically focusses on our participation in forming our self-image. He stresses three things:

First, the active role the individual plays in interpreting the perceived responses of others. That means that we don't know - cannot know - how we actually appear to other people. All we can know is how we imagine we appear. If you go out to a karaoke baron a Friday night, you'll encounter a surfeit of people who think they appear tuneful, articulate and soulful, even if how they actually appear to you is as the physical embodiment of nails dragging down a chalkboard. Our perceptions of others' judgements can be highly inaccurate.

This applies to the second and third steps, too: we can't know how others judge us or how they feel about us. Instead, we depend on our imagination: either thinking about how they might react when we're looking in the mirror, or observing their responses and attempting to infer from those to their inner ruminations.

What this means is that our self-image is shaped by others, but only through the mediation of our own mind.

Second, Cooley stresses the individual's selective application of the looking glass self. The reason this concept doesn't predict or explain constant, crippling insecurity on the part of every single person in society, like some kind of pound-shop Black Mirror episode, is because we aren't constantly engaging with it. There are some circumstances in which we care more about others' perceptions of us than others. If I'm moving anonymously through a city I've never visited before, I might be less self-conscious than I would be on a date with someone I'm infatuated with. We have the capacity to care more about some things than others, and our self-image is no exception to this.

Third and finally, Cooley says we use the looking-glass self to control and manipulate the responses and evaluation of others. Because we are aware that others are watching us, reacting to us, and judging us, he says, we are able to use that knowledge to shape the impressions we try to give off.

This means, for example, that a person might boast to their friends about the sheer volume of alcohol they consumed last weekend, recounting in painstaking (and boring) details every shot, bottle and glass, because they think that doing so will impress their peers and win them respect and street cred (or whatever the kids are calling "street cred" since the end of the 90s). They would be less likely to tell their boss about this event in any great detail, and they might even go out of their way to hide it - upping the privacy settings on their social media profiles, untagging themselves from incriminating photos, and taking pains to appear a functional human being on Monday morning.

In imagining how others will respond to our actions and presentation, we allow ourselves to manage the kind of self-image we attempt to project - but crucially, as Cooley highlights, there is no way to truly know what others think of us.

The Looking Glass Self: How Our Self-image is Shaped by Society

By Joachim Vogt Isaksen

Do you sometimes experience that the mere presence of other people leads to feelings of discomfort and tension? When not knowing exactly what other people think of you it may lead to self-doubt and feelings of insecurity. According to the American sociologist Charles Horton Cooley (1864-1929), the degree of personal insecurity you display in social situations is determined by what you believe other people think of you. 

Cooley´s concept of the looking glass self, states that a person’s self grows out of a person´s social interactions with others. The view of ourselves comes from the contemplation of personal qualities and impressions of how others perceive us. Actually, how we see ourselves does not come from who we really are, but rather from how we believe others see us.

The main point is that people shape their self-concepts based on their understanding of how others perceive them. We form our self-image as the reflections of the response and evaluations of others in our environment. As children we were treated in a variety of ways. If parents, relatives and other important people look at a child as smart, they will tend to raise him with certain types of expectations. As a consequence the child will eventually believe that he is a smart person. This is a process that continues when we grow up. For instanse, if you believe that your closest friends look at you as some kind of superhero, you are likely to project that self-image, regardless of whether this has anything to do with reality.

The concept of the looking glass-self theory constitutes the cornerstone of the sociological theory of socialization. The idea is that people in our close environment serve as the “mirrors” that reflect images of ourselves. According to Cooley, this process has three steps. First, we imagine how we appear to another person. Sometimes this imagination is correct, but may also be wrong since it is merely based on our assumptions. Second, we imagine what judgments people make of us based on our appearance. Lastly, we imagine how the person feels about us, based on the judgments made of us. The ultimate result is that we often change our behavior based on how we feel people perceive us.


Building a strong self-image

“I imagine your mind, and especially what your mind thinks about my mind, and what your mind thinks about what my mind thinks about your mind.”Charles Horton Cooley.

So how can we, or anyone else, know who we really are? Can you be sure of the “real you”, separated from all the stuff in the outside social world? You have probably experienced that you have had a strong sense of another person´s dislike for you, only to later find out that this was not the case, and that this person really liked you. Actually, the “real social world” as we perceive it, is often not only wrong, but may even serve as an illusion.

All people want to be liked and be appreciated for talents or personality. But if we have a weak self-image, if we believe that the opinion of others are more important than our own, we can end up living our lives in accordance to other peoples´ expectations. Sometimes, others evaluations mean more to us than our own. This is quite a distressing thought, since it implies that others´ opinion of you can run your life.

A person’s construction of an “imagined self-image” is done unintentionally. We are not consciously aware that we often try to conform to the image that we imagine other people expect from us. If a person develops a negative self-image the self-esteem will tend to be low.  Low self esteem and poor self-image has long been associated with a whole range of psychological problems, and it is necessary to counter the passive individual that depends heavily on the social world for building self-image. Hence, we should develop a self-image that is more based on our own evaluations rather than how we believe others look at us.

The concept of the looking glass self offers insight not only into our own thinking, but also to how we form our identity based on how others see us. As long as we are interacting with others we are vulnerable for changing our own self-image, a process that will continue throughout our lives.

Further reading

Cooley, Charles Horton 1998. On Self and Social Organization. University Of Chicago Press. 1 edition.


Cover photo by Angelo Amboldi, Mirror photo by Jurveton, dress photo by Bill Strain

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