This is not how I want to see myself. Or how I wish others to see me! Yet coping with these embarrassments has shown me something about myself.
How clearly do we see ourselves? Does it matter if we have a distorted idea of our character and abilities? And if it does, how can we gain a more accurate view of ourselves?
Research suggests that many of us hold foolish notions about ourselves. One study showed that 65% of Americans believed they were above average in intelligence. Another found that 94% of professors rated themselves above average relative to their peers. I need hardly say that these are statistical impossibilities! This is known as illusionary superiority. And it is natural to many of us, not only Americans and professors. We see ourselves through rose-tinted spectacles. Though there are variations. Asian cultures that emphasise self-improvement over self-esteem are less prone to this phenomenon. And women are a little less susceptible than men. Psychologist David Dunning has studied illusionary superiority for decades. He points out that we can see other peoples’ strengths and weaknesses, yet are too polite to say anything. Without this essential feedback, we go on cherishing our illusions. Dunning recommends a solution: that we try inviting constructive criticism from others. And learn to take it to heart. This makes sense to me. So, I decided to give it a try.
With a little trepidation, I asked several trusted people for feedback. I received three comments, two of which referred to my speech. One person pointed out that I could be judgemental on a certain issue and that people pick up on this. Had it crossed my mind that this might be detrimental to my friendships? (“Um, No.”) My partner pointed out occasions when I would talk at him. (Ouch). I was also queried on whether I take responsibility in a practical area, or simply leave it to others.
I anticipated that receiving constructive criticism would be ‘useful’. It was. Each comment gave me a new perspective. But it was more than useful - it was refreshing. It is satisfying to take the lid off something that has been hidden. I felt less alone and more connected. And it has opened a doorway into further honest communication. It may be a coincidence, but I have since had a much more revealing conversation with one of those people. If this inspires you to ask for constructive criticism from someone you trust, I recommend it.
It can also be possible to look at oneself with a little more clarity. This is not easy as it involves recognising feelings of shame. These are feelings we tend to shy away from. Our illusionary superiority is unwilling to acknowledge them. So, I have been trying to notice how I handle the times when I get things wrong. When I fall short of the competent, thoughtful person I like to think I am. Those moments when my own rose-tinted spectacles slip.
For over a year, I have been dealing with the impacts of long Covid. A major symptom is brain fog; an expressive term that I need not explain! It can strike without warning. Being unable to use a self-checkout I had used umpteen times before. Or having an obvious 'senior moment' while supervising a bright, upcoming mindfulness teacher. This is not how I want to see myself or how I wish others to see me! Yet recognising these embarrassments has shown me something about myself. That there is nothing special about me. That I’m no different to anyone else coping with this kind of issue. I had not even realised that I thought I was special, until the rose-tinted idea of myself was challenged.
Being obliged to acknowledge my less appealing aspects is not new. Practicing mindfulness involves acknowledging all feelings and thoughts, including the less edifying ones. Watching the machinations of this all-too-human mind brings unwelcome information. I find that I am as prone to pettiness and egotism as the next person. I can be defensive and try to justify my less wholesome aspects. Recognising my faults can be disappointing and on occasion, depressing. But it also helps me to understand myself better. A little compassion helps. And I am learning to take my self-image a little less seriously. Sometimes, I can laugh and forgive myself. This in turn helps me be a little more tolerant of others, who of us is perfect? There has never been a time when I did not get things wrong. But through the years, I have become less likely to berate myself for being useless or a failure. This was a strong habit when I was younger and the source of a lot of suffering. Practicing mindfulness, along with life experience, helps me keep things in perspective.
Life holds up a mirror and we may not like what we see. This can be difficult but it can also be invigorating. It might be a critical comment from someone else. Or the expression on their face, what they are not saying. It might be a moment when I know I have fallen short of my own values. At the same time, the idea that I am perfect, or that I should be, is laughable. Yet the delusion persists, mostly under the radar. This is a work in progress.
“Oh, would some Power the gift give us
To see ourselves as others see us!
It would from many a blunder free us,
And foolish notion” Robert Burns (English version)