By Leslie Becker-Phelps, PhD
People frequently go to great lengths to learn more about themselves and how they can improve as people. They go to see motivational speakers, buy books, and read articles such as this blog. And while all of these things may be helpful, one of the best sources of greater personal insight is right there beside you – in your family and friends.
There are, of course, ways that you know yourself that others cannot know. You alone know your history from your perspective, your thoughts and feelings, and your private behaviors. This likely leaves you feeling that others cannot know you as well as you know yourself.
However, consider how you can sometimes see in others what they do not see in themselves. For instance, they may think they are a caring person, not realizing how they hurt others with thoughtless speech or actions. Or, they may not perceive problems inherent in their radical view of politics or religion – ones that are so clear to you. If you really think about how others cannot see these blind spots (which is why we call them blind spots), then it might leave you with the uncomfortable realization that you, too, have blind spots that others can see. It is in these areas that your loved ones may know you better than you know yourself.
Research has supported the idea that others see things in us that we don’t see. They can even see things in our personalities that we are not as aware of. That said, they also have their own biases in judging us. One common bias known in psychology is the fundamental attribution error. This is the tendency for others to think that we have acted in a particular way mostly because of our traits or personality, minimizing the effect of a given situation. For instance, upon seeing you yell at your brother, a friend might think that you have a short fuse. You, however, might think your brother is more at fault because he antagonized you. Whose perception is biased? Or, in what ways are you both biased? These are worthy questions to consider and may open you up to new insights.
So, listen to what others say about you – particularly those who you think know you well or are good judges of character. Pay attention to what they say directly or how they respond to you (an indirect way of sharing their perceptions). Be open to these reactions. You might receive this information spontaneously, or you might ask for direct, honest feedback. Another strategy is to imagine yourself in the shoes of others as you evaluate yourself. These are all good ways to learn more about you.
Then compare your experience of yourself to others’ reactions to you (or how you imagine they might react). Remember, you know things about yourself that they cannot know… but they have a different and potentially valid perspective as well. By bringing their perspective together with yours, you have the best opportunity to have a complete picture of you.
If you have ever been open to this process, you are aware of how difficult it can be. It can help you improve yourself and your relationships, but it can also be anxiety-provoking. Given that it is a process (not just something you immediately do or don’t do), it can be helpful to think about how it has, or is, working for you. What parts are most difficult? Has it helped you? Caused you pain? Are you better off for opening yourself up to such feedback and insights?
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