Can you See Yourself as Others Do?

In this post I will describe self-destructive things I have seen in other people, not to build myself up, but because I know I have these blind spots and you probably do too, and these stories may help us better understand each other. We all seem to have difficulty seeing our own weaknesses and destructive habits.

One of the most damaging weaknesses of the human species is our inability to see ourselves from another person’s subjective viewpoint, which makes it difficult to understand what is really going on.

All you can do is imagine how others see you. And as you imagine how others see you, it is easy for your imagination to develop damaging delusions. This apparent inability to see one’s self is a major contributor to a host of social ills. Let me give you some examples:

If you’ve ever dealt with a Type A alcoholic you know they have amazing powers of delusion (or denial). An alcoholic can lose his job, his money, his family, his friends, and his health, and still not be able to see that the problem is his own creation, while everyone around watches in utter horror and sadness as he destroys himself and everyone in his path. Everyone watching the alcoholic sees that he is harming himself, but the alcoholic sees others harming him. This can hold true for any addiction – gambling, sex, drugs, food, shopping – you name it. This immense power of delusion and denial is passed on in alcoholic families and manifests itself in family members that have never even had a drink.

The above is an extreme example, but I believe – to some degree – all of us suffer from the inability to see ourselves as we appear to others. We tend to dig in and defend our poor decisions, our self-imposed labels, our controversial opinions, and our nasty habits even when they are clearly causing us and others harm. Most of us feel that other people cause all the harm. But remember, other people feel the same way. Someone’s actions are causing it, right? So as long as we keep passing the buck nothing will change.

Earlier this week I was talking with an old friend who was recently fired from his job.

His story :
A co-worker challenged his authority and he had no choice but to defend himself or lose respect within the organization. Everyone took the co-workers side, conspiring against him and treating him unfairly until he was finally let go. He had no part in causing it; other people were to blame.

What I saw:
His slide started months ago when there was a conflict and he refused to back down and concede that the other person may be right. Since no one took his side, he began to believe everyone was gunning for him and he became defensive about everything. He lost all support from his co-workers and management. Eventually it was impossible to work with him and he was let go. He wasn’t fired because he was incompetent, he was the most qualified, responsible, and productive employee in the organization. He was fired because he became poisonous to the organization.

How he caused the problem…
When the conflict occurred, he drew a line – a black and white division. He then asked, are you with me or against me? Other people didn’t see it in black and white and no one joined him. Since he created an us vs. them conflict, he began to believe the people who didn’t join him, were against him, and developed a persecution complex. Based on his belief, he acted differently, becoming defensive, imagining slights, and he began to compare himself with everyone else. He noticed that people were treating him differently than they used to, which further entrenched his persecution complex. Eventually he became so defensive that he was impossible to work with and management let him go.

It isn’t just individual people that do this to themselves… families, departments, companies, and whole nations can dig themselves into a hole with black and white thinking.

I know another man whose spouse said, “I don’t understand why no one will talk to my husband anymore. He keeps losing his friends. Even his family seems to be avoiding him. I just don’t understand it.”

Both Christine and I know why. Everyone who knows this man knows why, except him and the people who are really close to him. They can’t see him the way everyone else does. He lectures everyone about controversial issues, painting them black and white, and then labels anyone who disagrees as an idiot. Who wants to listen to that for hours on end? Only an idiot.

But I know his viewpoint; I’m prone to the same behavior. I’m kinda doing it right now. He’s just trying to save us from our own stupid selves. If we understood, if he could reach us, if we’d accept his righteous indignation, then we’d see the light. He’s only trying to help.

But since he can’t see himself, he doesn’t understand that after a couple of hours of lecture, most people just want to run away and hide. No one likes to be lectured for hours about how screwed up the world is. It makes them feel depressed. Since no one wants to tell him what the problems is – his style, tone, subject matter, and opinions make people want to vomit, so people avoid him and he doesn’t understand why. He can’t see what he is doing to himself.

I used to work with a woman everyone avoided. She was always creating an “us vs. them” scenario.

Whenever someone tried to help her, she took it as an accusation of incompetence. She seemed to think that someone else’s intervention, good idea, or helpful hint threatened her, and she retaliated with accusations of persecution, unfairness, and conspiracy, so people quit helping. They began to avoid her. As she dug in deeper, she became more isolated which reinforced her fears that everyone was arrayed against her. So she tried to build allies, but no one wanted to go to war. They just wanted to get the job done. She found no allies for her ‘side’ and her area of influence withered while the rest of the company improved. Since she couldn’t see herself, she never understood that she was causing the problem. No one could tell her that she was the problem, because that would have only resulted in greater conflict and further defensiveness. Since the company leadership was unwilling to deal with her obstructionism, the rock stars left the company, and it never became the great company it could have become.

I know another person who has burned through six serious relationships, three of them marriages, and he doesn’t understand why he is so unlucky. But from the outside looking in it is obvious why he loses his relationships. He sets each one up exactly the same way and it unravels exactly the same way. I can see it and he can’t. But I certainly won’t tell him. Even if he asks, it is dangerous ground. It is dangerous to say – you’re doing this to yourself. You keep dating similar women and you have the same delusional expectations from them. The only way to change this pattern is to change yourself.

It seems so easy to see this in other people. You can watch them make foolish decision after foolish decision until they eventually crash and burn.

But how do we use our high powered perception of others and turn it inward, so we can see ourselves as we are and make substantial improvements to our lives? It seems like a much better use of our mental faculties, because I can’t change anyone of these folks I just described. I can only change myself. So how can I see myself? How am I sabotaging myself, my goals, my relationships, my family, my health, my environment? Where am I being unreasonable with others? Where have I thrown down the gauntlet and created a black and white conflict?

I’ll explore this more in upcoming posts. If you are interested please Subscribe to this feed.

25 thoughts on “Can you See Yourself as Others Do?”

  1. When I was 20, I was lucky enough to have a good friend call me out on being this one-dimensional annoying didactic feminist. I’m glad he told me, and I’m glad I was able to hear it.

    I’ve been the relationship guy. I see what I did now, so it won’t happen again. The question is now how to have any sort of relationship at all now that I see what I do.

    Great post.

  2. I think the crucial point is not seeing yourself as others see you — which we both know is practically impossible — but to possess the ability to doubt yourself. Are you right? Maybe? Not sure? Absolutely positive? These people you describe (and don’t I know a few of them myself!) are incapable of allowing themselves to be wrong; the cost to their psyche is too high. You are right about the black/white nature of it: wrong or right, us or them, me or you. To accept responsibility for yourself is a scary thing to do. Especially the ones who dig themselves into a trench, they keep digging even when all chance of success is gone. To stop would concede defeat…in their eyes. They cannot step back from their works and look at the damage objectively, because too much of their pride or self identity is wrapped up in it.

    On a more personal note, this was something I had to learn the hard way. Finally I realized the most important part of this puzzle: how people treat you is generally more a reflection of who you are than who they are. There are exceptions (the arrogant, the damaged, etc.) but generally this is true. Your examples above show that clearly.

    So for me the way I “see myself” is to look at how I am being treated, and accept that part of that treatment may come out of my own behaviors. I’m sure I’m still blind in areas. but ithis method has helped over the years.

    I noticed for a while that co-workers and friends often treated me as if I were a kid, someone with no work experience at all who needed to be coached and lectured and directed. Drove me nutz. I’m nearly 40! I’ve had jobs for the majority of my adult life! Why was everyone being so condescending all of a sudden? Then I stepped back and realized that over the past couple of years I had made a couple of immature decisions, that I still lived what many people call an “immature” lifestyle (going out to nightclubs, etc.) and worked with in industries I had never worked in before. In short, I was presenting myself as immature and naive. I stopped mentioning my past failures, changed my behavior and what I told people about my “after hours”, etc. and soon I was getting respect. Not from everyone. But a lot of folks. It works.

  3. Self-reflection, is by far, the least sought out train of thought, and the most needed. If we were to spend more time analyzing who and what we are, not only would we be better defined as individuals but we would be able to sustain healthier relationships. People are incapable of “seeing” themselves. The fear of knowing ourselves can be paralyzing, after all who needs reality-it sucks. There are people who seek something in and from others yet are unable to put in simple words what it is they seek. It’s because they themselves don’t know what it is they seek, yet the expect the other person to provide it.
    To “know” yourself is an incredible command.

  4. Very interesting stuff. This is a big problem in society IMHO, I like to think it’s part of the whole issue of accountability. Or lack thereof.

    It’s tough to admit but I do recognize myself in some of your scenarios. I’m a realist and not afraid of admitting my mistakes but some areas are just tougher than others.

    Part of dealing with a problem is admitting there is one. And that can sometimes be difficult.


  5. You are absolutely correct. We only have control over ourselves. It does no good to play the blame game, even if it is someone elses fault you usually can’t tell them that. Our focus then should be on our reactions and how we handle ourselves.

    Keep up the good work! My curiousity is peaked, it will be interesting to see where you further exploration will take you.

  6. We often need to fail (usually repeatedly) to look back and suddenly have realizations. Unfortunately, for some people, even though they keep failing at certain things, they still don’t inspect themselves. Maybe it’d help if we all have our own reality shows (that’s not scripted).

    I look forward to future posts.

  7. Very good post! Ive been thinking about that for a while and never really laid the whole puzzle. But now the final piece has been laid. The way of watching yourself is to know whats right and wrong. And since you easily know more of another person then its easy to get a picture of what that person thinks of you.

    I find it easy to buy analyzing my life myself see what Im doing right and wrong. I think before I act. But not always, Im not only thinking, it a fine balance. Sometimes you must let your intuition make you act, but you should always act reasonable, and if in retrospect it was wrong – then you learned something.

    You cant have all knowledge, but you have around 95% left of the brain to fill with knowledge 😛

    Thanks again for a great blog!

  8. Steve, this is so true. KimBooSan made a good point, that it’s not so much about seeing yourself how others see you, but using the feedback that you’re getting to look within and take responsibility for your part. It’s a very difficult thing to do because you realize that you are flawed, that the world isn’t black and white.

    On the other hand, only looking at what people see presents a problem, as their perceptions are just that, perceptions. They are shaped by their thought patterns and experiences.

    It’s a tough line to walk.

    In Spirit,

  9. A couple things came to mind while reading through this:
    – an oft-quoted line from Robbie Burns:

    O would some Power the gift to give us
    To see ourselves as others see us!

    I also thought of my favourite definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over, expecting a better result each time.

    You haven’t mentioned the role of personality disorders in the way people act the way they do. You have touched on a lot of narcissistic personality disorder traits in the people you’ve described.

    I’m subscribing to your feed and looking forward to more.
    ian in hamburg

  10. Excellent post Steve.
    I will be interested in following the many discoveries on your path to self awareness.

  11. Now this one hits home!

    I have a friend who is the same way. He believes everyone in the past has hurt him when it’s really him that’s causing it all.

    I’ve tried to show him this, but I fear it’s too late.


  12. “We don’t see things as they are; we see things as we are”.
    Anais Nin was spot on when she made the above observation.
    1. I need to listen more than I speak.
    2. I need to talk with people, not at them.
    3. In order for me to be able to genuinely connect with people, I need to know how they see the world (or at least try).
    4. I will learn more about someone by watching than I will by listening to them
    (93% of communication is non-verbal).
    5. Many people will tell me what they think I want to hear.
    6. I can’t impose my values, beliefs or opinions on people.
    7. I can have the best motives and intentions… and still hurt and offend people.

  13. I already know that I’m most own worst critic. Deep inside, I know I’m a great guy, liked by most, loved by many. Due to persecution similar to that your wife went through in public schools, it pretty much stays deep down because the surface Ed is actually somewhat insecure.

    As far as changing the bad habits and destructive behaviours that I have–unfortunately laziness is chief among them which makes it difficult to cure any of the other issues. Fortunately, none of my issues are very severe.

    Another good entry, Steve.

  14. actually that was really a great post steve and i was really amazed, but u know what i think that if we reverse that all round, i mean not viewing ourselves from people point of view BUT making them view us from our own perspective , and so begin to force people to treat us the way we wanna it to be, making them learn how they should respect me for who i am and treat me like a princess, just as i can see myself and as i act ofcourse, and after that you may see how much will do what you wanna them to do for you and how much crossed that line, and begin to ask why at that instance but at that time its supposed to be peoples fault, orelse maybe you didnt convince yourself that you are really a precious , important and respected humanbeing , to convince them about it that much ?! anyway i would really appreciate it if you would see my point and reply me back, iam a new writer, and thats all from my mind, not based on any theories !

  15. Many times people are good at pointing out others’ shortcomings, but fail to identify their own. Before I correct people, I often try to share something that I needed correction on also. But some people would rather play the victim of how you wrongly saw ‘through them’ and instead, share their bitterness with their children and parents. Sometimes, I can look at three different generations of a family and see how each appears to hang on to bitterness in response to correction.

    I pray for them and for all of us who need to see our mistakes, confess them, and grow from them. Now that’s something worthwhile to PASS ON to our children!

  16. After listening to some characters on tv, I thought of myself perhaps in the same realm. So I asked myself a question:

    Is what I say ABOUT others how listeners see me?

    Scary. So Google presented your site first and I enjoyed your scenarios.
    I do believe now that what I say about others (mostly cynical, judgmental and negative) is how others see me and therefore (duh!) want to avoid me. I sure hope I don’t do it on purpose to keep people away and trust it’s more a poor self-esteem image that I can work on.

  17. This is great post indeed, made me think;which is a rarity these days. What interests me is the lady who posted a comment on why she can’t make othrs think like interesting proposition.

    Ah yes, that’s where hypnotism and mesmerism come along, say hello and say “Yes, that is right, because I know this is true.”

    All along our decisions make our personal dramas unfold; into a story in which we are victims, or we are winners. Where are the people who understand consequence and responsibility?

    we make them., I am sure.

  18. I think not being able to see yourself as others do can work in the other direction, too. Usually it’s people seeing themselves as always right, or better than they are, but sometimes it’s someone seeing themselves more negatively than others see them. Rather than being destructive to those around you, this can be more or less destructive to the self.

    For instance, my current boyfriend is sometimes a bit overweight. He’s had to fight it his whole life. It’s part of his genetic makeup and has gotten a little worse the past year or so since he was holding down a demanding job and watching his father die of cancer. It was a very difficult year for him, but he believes that people see him as undisciplined because of his weight. I think the reality is that most people actually see him much more positively than he thinks. He always keeps his commitments and he’s quite competent and compassionate, even under pretty extreme stress. He simply had to choose some priorities to focus on since he couldn’t do it all.

    People he works with and friends respect him more than almost anyone. His work created a position that didn’t exist until he came along. They made it just for him since they were so impressed.

    Of course, I’m biased because I love the guy, but he’s by far the most beautiful person I’ve ever gone out with. I’ve dated physically hotter people, but none were anywhere near in character and other positive qualities. I wouldn’t trade him for the hottest physical specimen I’ve ever seen. If he can lose some weight again, I’d be happy simply because I want him to be around and healthy for as long as he can be. Otherwise, no one I know (that actually knows him) ever actually judges him because of his weight.

    I’ve tried telling him, but it doesn’t seem to sink in. Sometimes I just wish I could magically show him exactly what I and others around him really see, since it’s pretty overwhelmingly positive. He deserves to let it go since it’s a minor flaw in comparison to everything else he has going.

  19. My BF always says that I’m perfect. The funny thing is that I think I am. I am well-educated, sophisticated, beautiful… Okay, I can’t cook, but who cares? I am ambitious, critical, and I’ve got a decent body. But I don’t obsess about clothes and makeup because I know I don’t need it to make me beautiful. I am in University right now doing an MA and plan to someday be a professor!

    However, I’m starting to worry.. can thinking you’re TOO perfect also be an imperfection? Sometimes, I think I am too good for my own BF.. I’ve always had incredibly high standards. I really want to re-evaluate myself.. I need some help.

  20. I think I understand your question so I
    will put my thoughts out there for you. I had some same feelings
    about myself for years. I am tall, good looking, educated and successful. The way you describe yourself sounds so familiar. The problem with what your boyfriend is telling you and your own thoughts is you can isolate yourself due to your self imposed high standards for yourself and most likely others. Nobody is perfect and everybody has problem
    and shortcomings. If all you hear from your boyfriend is how perfect you are your relationship is based on him telling you what you want to hear. In the long run that will not last for there will be things that you don’t like about each other and then telling or acting like the other person is perfect becomes an act or not real and thus you are in an idealistic yet shallow relationship that becomes about appearances. It is great to encourage and love each other but also be real. A real relationship will have both love and encouragement and some friction and disagreement. The beauty of the last part is if you can make it through the second part your relationship will become deeper and stronger which in turn enable you to help each other when the storms of life hit…and they will. Love and be real. It takes courage but can lead to the deepest most meaningful
    relationships you will ever know.

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