“Then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.” ~ Philippians 2:2-4
Who am I and why and why am I here?
How many times have you asked yourself that question whether it is in the throes of awkwardness at a social event or at pivotal point of change in your life? How did you arrive at that concept of yourself? Do you feel limited in your pursuits by the way others perceive you? Let me take the question one step further. Is the identity that you claim, based on who you really are and want to be or what you believe others believe you to be?
Just before my 40th birthday, I found myself at a stage in life that left me unsettled and unsatisfied. I was not comfortable in my own skin so to speak. I felt stuck. Immobilized by a lack of direction and fear of the unknown I stayed well within my comfort zone. When opportunity or change came a knocking I let self-doubt answer and usually slam the door. Self-doubt was controlling the trajectory of my life and being one who likes to think I am in control, I was not happy to come to this realization!
I began to challenge my self-doubts with “Why Not’s” when opportunities came my way. Soon, my Why Not principle was opening doors to much more dramatic changes in my life.
I wish I could tell you that my Why Not Principle changed my life for good. Unfortunately, I had to deal with something much stronger than a simple 6-letter principle for living and I am going to guess that many of you face the same obstacle. That obstacle is our natural tendency to assume. Assumptions are the lens through which we view the world and given our natural egocentric tendencies to believe we are always right, we tend not to question the assumptions we form about world around us. As I will explain further, assumptions that I made fueled the self doubts that were holding me back from living life to its fullest.
We make assumptions all of the time. Assumptions about the weather, about the people who live in a certain neighborhood and drive Porsche’s or Ford F-150’s. We make assumptions about political candidates and their supporters. About behaviors, about how people react to us and thus how we react to them. We determine whom we want to spend our time with and energy on based on our assumptions.
Assumptions can be based on our experiences or simply be a belief that is formed and reinforced without challenge over time. It is in our inherit nature to assume. Several weeks ago at church, I assumed that a a far more attractive and and seemingly more together than I woman sitting in front of me would want nothing to do with me as she was far more attractive and seemed to have it much better together than I because of my own jaded experiences in the past with others “like her”, plus I was certain she had looked down her nose at me! I received my comeuppance recently with great humility, when she greeted me warmly and asked me to join her for coffee after church. My erroneous assumption about her was based on my experiences that told me she would never associate with me. The problem with assumptions is they are rarely fact based but are taken as such because challenging them requires work. I wish I had been secure enough in my own right to be the one who warmly greeted her first. I learned my lesson that day, to look beyond my own self and be willing to put myself out there in the interest of others.
If we hear a snide remark in passing about our appearance or something we said, or if our hopes and dreams garner little fanfare and support we tend to assume others will have the same reaction to us in the future. The same goes for positive messages of public adoration we hear – we assume everyone will adore us just for being who we are. If we internalize the assumed meaning of messages from the public’s reaction to us as fact, those messages become a part of our belief system going forward.
How often have you limited your involvement in life because of what people might think? You decide not to attend a party because you know everyone there will be much more affluent than you are. You avoid going out for a leadership position because you assume there is someone much more capable than you to do the job or you are afraid people will only see your faults. How do those decisions to disengage make you feel?
If you feel defined by how others see you, if you view your personal qualities based on the impression you leave on others, you derive your identity through a concept defined in 1902 by American sociologist Charles Horton Cooley as the “Looking Glass Self”.
There are three components of Cooley’s concept: First, we imagine how we appear to another person. The image we see may be correct but is often skewed since it is based merely on our assumptions. Second, we imagine how others judge us based on our appearance. Finally, we imagine how others feel about us, based on the judgments made of us. Cooley theorized that ultimately, we change our behavior based on how we feel people perceive us.
Cooley summed up these feelings in succinct fashion: “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.”
We all want to be liked and appreciated for who we are but if we value others opinions of us more than we value our own ideals, we end up living lives that aren’t really our own. The unfortunate thing is, the Looking Glass Self is not intentionally conceived. We do not consciously try to conform to the image or expectations others have of us. We subconsciously assume our identity through our experiences and outcomes and if we don’t have a strong self image to begin with, the assumed images of ourselves from outside influences fill the vacuum and naturally stake their claim on our identity.
Case in point, I am thinner than I would like to be and thinner than what most people consider ideal. (Is that another assumption?) Contrary to popular belief, while some would agree you can never be too rich, not many would want to be “too thin.” I have received my fair share of sideways glances and heard comments in passing such as “What’s wrong with her?” or “Hey, eat something!” I internalized those messages and started believing that people only see how thin I am. The only factual aspect of my assumption is that I am thin. People are going to make judgments based on what they see and that is what they see. However, is that really all they see? My assumptions of what other people think became a stumbling block for me because I began to only see myself as that thin person and not the whole of the person inside of me. Overtime I failed to see and even know who I was beyond being the thin person at which everyone gawked. This paralyzing notion stymied any progress on goals I wanted to achieve in all areas of my life. Fortunately I was guided to question my thought process by friends who did believe in me. I realized I had to start rethinking my thinking.
I challenge you to look in the mirror and ask yourself Who am I really? Are you comfortable with your answer or is your answer based on your assumptions of who you are supposed to be? You might be saying, hey I am who I am!
But, what if you are not? What if your assumed identity is simply more convenient and comfortable for you to hold on to because to do otherwise would put you in an uncomfortable position or force you o change? To put it another way, are your assumptions about what other people think of you a more accurate reflection of what you really think about yourself?
“Your assumptions are your windows on the world. Scrub them off every once in a while, or the light won’t come in.” ~ Isaac Asimov
If we internalize the assumptions others have made about us they become ingrained in how we perceive ourselves. We limit our aspirations because we believe we are what we think others think we are. My Why Not approach to life was only as strong as my belief in myself. Take it from me, you won’t be able to take on the Why Not opportunities if you can’t get past your own self doubt. Open the door your assumption-fueled self-doubt has kept shut and let the light of reality shine in. Don’t be a victim of false assumptions, those you form of others and those you have about yourself. Rethink your thinking.