Sociology selfimage1

Published on May 27th, 2013


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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