Awareness – Self Awareness – Public Self Image

Friday, November 21st, 2008 at 8:00 am.
by pre.

Deeply social species evolve some kind of theory of mind. A way of telling what other individuals are thinking. If that train of thought, or evolutionary pressure, is followed long enough then that creature begins to wonder “what does that other mind over there think of me?”

This, then, is your public self image. While your private self image, discussed last week, leads you to draw conclusions about yourself, your public self image reflects how others see you.

The desire to be seen in a good light, to have others think positively of you, is pretty much a universal human phenomenon. Your awareness of others in your environment, and your concern at how they may judge you, excites in you what is known as Evaluation Apprehension or the audience effect. A state of arousal which can effect your abilities in measurable ways.

For example, sports stars tend to do better when under the scrutiny of competition due to an effect known as Social Facilitation. Meanwhile less practised or more complicated tasks can be hindered by the knowledge that others are watching. It can lead to a collapse of confidence, shyness, you may ‘choke’ and even fail comparatively easy tasks completely.

Manipulating The Audience Effect

The power of the imagination has often been suggested to overcome this audience effect on stage and in job interviews: “Imagine The Audience Naked” they say, but clearly a naked audience is just as likely to increase anxiety as a fully clothed one. Rather than imagining an audience naked, we’d suggest imagining them gone. Empty chairs. Nobody’s there but you, doing your thing, dancing like nobody is watching.

Similarly, if you’re attempting something routine, simple or well practised, it may be useful to imagine that there’s an audience there when there is none, to get at small dose of the positive benefits of the audience effect. To help yourself concentrate.

This, however, is just the tip of the iceberg. Yes, the audience effect will sometimes alter your ability and confidence, but your public self image isn’t just about how well you perform some given complicated task. It’s not just about how well you play a sport or give a presentation. Your public self image projectss the whole of your character into other people’s minds.

Public Self Image

Ask yourself now, how do others see you? Pick a specific ‘other’ to ask the question about. Not a close friend or family member, but a neighbour, a co-worker, a local shop-keeper or the milkman. Do you think their opinion of you is accurate? How do you think they formed that image?

The truth is that their image of you probably is unreasonably correct given how little evidence they’ve actually paid attention to. They haven’t known you long enough or studied you carefully enough to have much real idea of the workings of your mind, and yet of course they do have some idea. If we asked, we’d get an answer. Where does that information come from?

Their image of you is formed more through communication than observation. They haven’t observed you closely enough to know if you’re smart, but they can tell at a glance if you act smart. They have scant evidence of your shyness or flamboyance but they do know what you’ve communicated to them through body language, verbal implications and symbolic gesture or clothing.

Your public self image is formed in other people’s minds, and yet you create it through the way you behave: Your gestures and stance, words and expressions, clothes and gait and implications. Most of this is done unconsciously, merely reflecting what you actually think of yourself. Which is, of course, why it’s such a useful system and why public image is often so unreasonably accurate.

This can lead to a virtuous circle, where your confidence and skill are projected into the minds of others who then treat you as though you have confidence and skill, boosting both. Of course it can also turn into a terrible downward spiral. Your shyness and self loathing can be assumed to be lack of skill, so that others assume you’ll fail, increasing the chances that you’ll do so.

The Mix

Your private and pubic self image aren’t really separate things. They influence each other greatly and in both directions. It’s been said that “if you call a man a thief then he will steal.” Public opinion — the projection of other’s impressions onto us — can influence our public self image — the way we think others see us — and from there change our private self image as we come to believe they are right. Yet it also works both ways: The way you present yourself, which is in general deeply dependent on your beliefs about yourself, becomes the way others mostly see you.

The Meditation

We want to create that positive-feedback virtuous circle. So you’ll be asked to concentrate on the positive, and on noticing others noticing that. As you listen, you’ll be asked to recall in vivid detail some time when you were executing a desirable trait. To imagine some trait that you want to be part of your public self image. You’ll be asked to take note of the way you were acting at that time. Your gait, your expression, your mannerisms and behaviour etc. You’ll be asked to pay attention to the changes in the opinions and impressions of the people there to observe that.

Then you’ll imagine yourself acting that way more often in future, concentrating on the detail of the action, with suggestions that you will indeed be improving your self image by doing so. In this way you’ll be learning how better to project your public self image into other people’s minds.