Do You Have Any Idea What Other People Think of You?

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Photo: Caiaimage/Martin Barraud/Getty Images

A thought experiment: What do your partner’s friends really think about you?

Tasha Eurich — an organizational psychologist and author of a new book, Insight, an overview of her research on self-awareness — recently, and unexpectedly, got a chance to find out. She was out with some good friends, all of whom she originally met through her husband, when one of those friends pulled up a chair for a drunken heart-to-heart. “And she looks at me and she goes, Tasha, I am just so glad Dave brought you into our lives,” Eurich recalls. “And before I could say, Oh, Theresa, I feel the same way, she continued, and she said, And, man, have you come a long way since we first met you.”

What was that supposed to mean? Her instinct was to let it go and change the subject. “But this was when I was deep within the process of writing this book,” she said. “So I had this moment of — okay, I don’t really want to go down this road, but I probably am professionally obligated to ask her what she means. And so I did.” She probed a little, and, “sparing you some of the gory details, when she and I first met, I was 26, and I had just graduated with my Ph.D. — and I thought I was hot shit. Apparently, I thought I was a little bit hotter shit than I actually was.” Her friend was embarrassed and apologetic — “She kept saying over and over, Oh, but you’re so much better now, you’re so much better now!” — but Eurich’s main reaction to this news was curiosity, mixed with a little regret. Why had no one told her until now what a nightmare she’d been back then?

“Even though it’s a funny story, and everybody cringes when they hear it, it’s such a powerful example of the idea that if we wait for those moments to come to us we might learn a certain amount about ourselves,” she said. “But what happens if we actually take ownership of seeking that out on our own terms?” In her book, which is out this month, Eurich makes the case for purposefully seeking to increase our understanding of how others view us, even when it’s painful. I recently spoke to Eurich about her book; a lightly edited version of our conversation follows.

Do you find that people tend to assume that they are more self-aware than they really are?
Here’s a crazy statistic. My research shows that 95 percent of people think that they’re self-aware. But the real figure is closer to 10 to 15 percent. I always joke that on a good day, 85 percent of us are lying to ourselves about whether we’re lying to ourselves.

That is distressing.
Isn’t it?

How did you come up with the 10 to 15 percent figure?
We’ve surveyed thousands of people all around the world, who’ve taken our self-awareness scale. [Editor’s note: You can find a shorter version of the scale here.] It’s statements like, “I know what I want out of life” or “I can see themes in how I tend to behave,” and asking people “Do you agree? Do you strongly agree?” So you fill it out, and someone who knows you fills it out. And the 10 to 15 percent — I give a range, because I’m not completely ready to conclude that that’s an exact percentage, but that’s what our research has tended to show.

From my own research as a person who exists in the world, that seems about right.
I know. That’s why people laugh when I tell them that — they’re like, Yup. And then the inevitable question is — am I one of those 85 percent? And that’s the question that so many people are scared to ask. But if they’d only ask, they would unlock so much potential, and they would have so much more control over their destiny.

I realize your entire book is about how to become more self-aware, so I’m not going to ask you to distill all of that here in this interview. So let me ask you this: What’s the first step to become more self-aware — to seeing yourself the way others see you?
The journey to self-awareness is one that lasts a lifetime — it requires courage, energy, and commitment to see ourselves more clearly. And though the process is complex, it always starts with a simple (but not easy) decision: to question our assumptions about ourselves, to take charge and proactively examine how we’re seen, and to pair our quest for the truth with a positive mind-set and self-acceptance. In a nutshell, we start by making the decision to become braver but wiser.

But how much stock should we really be putting in other people’s opinions of us? The way my friend sees me, for example, is still just one way of looking at me, and who’s to say it’s the right way?
So, there are two types of self-awareness. There’s something I call internal self-awareness, which is understanding inwardly who am I, what makes me tick, what do I want to do in my life. And there’s another kind called external self-awareness, which is knowing how people see me. And what’s fascinating about those two things is that they are completely unrelated. You can be high in both, you can be low in both, and you can be high in one and not in the other.

Somebody who’s high in internal self-awareness and low on external self-awareness is saying, I know who I am. I don’t care what anybody thinks of me, because I am really in touch with myself — and I’m the only person that matters. And then on the other side of it is someone who is so interested in how they’re seen by others that they don’t necessarily do the work and make the choices that are in their own best interest.

It’s a balancing act between these two types. Sometimes people say things like, Other people’s opinions of me be damned! It doesn’t matter what people think of me! They’re welcome to feel that way, but the second part of their statement isn’t really true — it actually does matter what people think of you. If you want to be successful in your career, if you want to have strong and lasting relationships, if you want to have a happy and fulfilling life, a lot of that is dependent on you understanding how you’re perceived.

Do I think all that matters is what other people think of me? No way. But at the same time, we have to take into consideration both of those pieces of information. People who are the most self-aware are those who are really clear on who they are, but are also willing to question the assumptions they’re making based on what other people are saying.

So on the one hand, it does weird me out a little to think someone else might know me better than I know me. But I also know there is some evidence to suggest that the way other people see us may indeed be more accurate than the way we see ourselves, at least in some contexts. Right?
It’s true. Our own internal opinions about ourselves do matter, but there is research showing that the way other people see us is more objective than the way we see ourselves. And other people can also predict our future behavior better than we can. The example I always give is — think of a time when you met one of your best friends’ brand new significant others, and you talk to that person for five minutes, and you say, This relationship is doomed. And then you’re right.

There are just so many things about ourselves that we truly can’t see. Also, other people are just less inclined to see us with rose-colored glasses — they see our behavior more objectively just by being in a different position to view us.

It’s not necessarily that we’re wrong, or ignorant about ourselves. It’s just that sometimes other people can see things more honestly. And that’s why I just think – my gosh, if you’re not getting feedback from people, who knows what you’re going to conclude about yourself? We owe it to ourselves to be objective.

I do feel like I have to ask, though: Is there any argument against self-awareness? People who are deluded about the way others are perceiving them may be wrong, but are they maybe also happier and more confident that way?
It’s funny — when I first started working on this, and I was reaching out to one of my researchers on the team we assembled, and one of the first things he said was, Do I even want to be more self-aware? Can’t I just be delusional my whole life?

We ended up taking that seriously as a research question. And what the data has really clearly shown us is that it is always better to know — to see ourselves clearly, to see how other people see us. There’s a lot of research that says when you look at yourself with rose-colored glasses, your relationships are weaker, you’re more poorly thought of than your colleagues, you’re less likely to be promoted.

Right, and the other thing to point out here is that it’s not like it’s always going to be painful, to know what other people think of you.
That’s the thing about self-awareness that people don’t always see. It can be very pleasant and very gratifying and it can strengthen your relationships. I would never advise someone to choose blissful ignorance.

Do You Have Any Idea What Other People Think of You?