Recently, I’ve been forced to accept a hard truth about myself.
I’m way more outgoing, knowledgeable, interesting, fun, confident, courageous, and eloquent than I used to think.
You may think that I’m joking right now. How is this a “hard truth”? All these adjectives are everything one would want to be, right?
But that doesn’t mean it’s easy to accept that I can be all those things.
Why? Because they aren’t coherent with the self-story I’ve been nursing in my mind for years. The story about being a perpetually self-conscious, shy, awkward girl, who’s never good enough to be more than barely tolerated by others.
It’s harsh, I know, but that’s how I saw myself for the bigger part of my life. Moreover, I believed that this was a more or less complete picture of myself. Seeing my shyness and insecurities so clearly was proof to me that I was highly self-aware.
Recently, I took a course in Authentic Relating, and I’ve been actively seeking other people’s perspectives of me. I’m shocked to discover that many folks don’t see me the way I see myself at all. I repeatedly hear others tell me I have the qualities I gave up on developing a long time ago — like, being well-spoken, vulnerable, open to trying new things, or skillfully asking for what I need.
I decided to give the benefit of the doubt to those outside perspectives about me. As I said, it’s not easy — but it’s necessary.
Why? Because it shows me this powerful truth:
Other people can help you develop an aspect of self-awareness you can’t develop on your own. That’s why you need to outsource some of your self-knowledge if you want to have an accurate perspective of how you show up in your life.
The Two Sides of Self-Awareness
Tasha Eurich is an organizational psychologist who’s been researching self-awareness for many years. In her work, she found a lot of interesting things about how we develop self-knowledge. For example, it turns out that about 85-90% of people overestimate their self-awareness!
Many factors contribute to this. For example, people in high executive positions tend to have a distorted image of themselves due to their power and expertise. However, what stood out to me in Eurich’s research was that there are two sides to self-awareness — and most of us are only concerned about one of them.
I’m talking about what Eurich coined as “internal” and “external self-awareness.” The internal one is what we intuitively think of when we hear the term. It’s the ability to skillfully monitor the landscape of your own experience — your thoughts, feelings, behaviors, beliefs. It’s the way you see and interpret yourself.
External self-awareness, however, is something fewer people pay attention to. Eurich says it’s the awareness of how other people perceive you, how you come across. Sara Ness, the founder of Authentic Revolution, also talks about this as your Way of Being — the elements of body language, tone of voice, and language that may be unintentional — but that play a big part in how you come across to others.
Now — your first thought may be that the way other people see you doesn’t say much about who you are. What matters is who you know yourself to be deep down, right? Even if your self-perception doesn’t manifest on the outside, you’re probably fond of seeing it as “the truth about yourself.”
That was my line of thinking when I first learned about external self-awareness. But then, I thought again — and questions started popping up in my mind.
Why would I insist that my beliefs about myself were truer than what other people saw — especially if my self-beliefs didn’t manifest in my behavior? Wasn’t it equally valid to treat the way I showed up (deliberately or not) as expressions of my true self?
And how could I define “the truth” about myself anyway?
External Self-Awareness Can Give You What the Internal One Won’t
I was brought up in an individualistic culture which taught me to define myself by separating from others. What mattered for my identity were my desires, my feelings, my ideas about myself. My uniqueness as a human being was defined by all the ways I perceived myself as different from others.
I think we’ve absorbed this way of thinking so much that we rarely question it. But what if how we come across to others says just as much about who we are as our own ideas about ourselves?
Humans are inherently social creatures, after all. We all share a deep desire to belong, be loved, and benefit others. Few people function well when they’re completely alone. Being together seems to be a more pronounced characteristic of humanity than our individuality.
If we agree on that, then why would we insist that the way we appear to other people doesn’t hold at least some truth about us?
In many psychological theories, as well as spiritual teachings, there’s this concept that people in our lives mirror us. The way they respond — physically, mentally, emotionally, or energetically — to our Way of Being says something about us. It shows us what kind of impact we have on others by simply being ourselves.
This doesn’t mean you have to take the way other people see you as the whole truth about yourself. For example, just because you annoy your co-worker doesn’t mean you’re annoying in general. Or, just because someone sees you as an expert on a certain topic doesn’t mean you know everything about it.
Knowing someone else’s perspective of you won’t grant you “objective” self-knowledge — but it’s invaluable anyway. It adds a new dimension to how you see yourself. On your own, you may never think of yourself as someone who could annoy anyone, or who’s knowledgeable enough to be trusted with their expertise. If your self-story doesn’t include those elements (just like my story didn’t allow me to see myself as confident and well-spoken), you’re stuck in a particular and rigid self-perception.
Other people’s impressions of you can open previously locked doors to a more flexible self-image. You may recognize that what seems annoying to some people comes across as exciting to others. In this way, your self-awareness is taken to a whole new level.
You no longer think of yourself as someone who has just one Way of Being. You realize that how you show up evolves based on your circumstances, the people you’re with, the context, and the role you’re put into. This can allow you to live your life way more freely — because you start seeing that your self-identity doesn’t have to be nearly as rigid as it used to be.
Why External Self-Awareness Was a Game-Changer for Me
To reinforce how external self-awareness can benefit you, I’ll share a few more insights from my story.
For a couple of years now, I’ve been thinking of upgrading my freelance services. I spent thousands of hours writing about mindfulness, self-awareness, and relationships, and a fair amount of time practicing what I preach. Naturally, a desire arises in me to start sharing what I know not just through writing, but also through working with people directly — coaching, mentoring or consulting.
For this, I needed specific skills that I kept convincing myself I didn’t (and couldn’t) have — such as an articulate way of talking about psychological concepts, asking the right questions, facilitating activities, etc. I saw myself as too shy, incompetent, uneloquent to do all these things. Even though I dreamt about working with people, my self-image was holding me back in a way I didn’t know how to overcome.
Recently, the feedback from others allowed me to see that, in many ways, I’m cut out to speak to others about their inner journeys and support them. Sure, there’s a ton of things I still have to learn. But this doesn’t change the fact that I already have a lot to offer.
I discovered this through explicit feedback requests (e.g., asking my friends to name my strengths), but also through observing how people responded when I talked or led an activity. Shockingly to me, it appeared that some people enjoyed what I had to offer!
With this simple realization, the impossible dream of leading mindfulness workshops and self-awareness activities is starting to seem feasible. Even more than that — it feels like the right thing to do. A lot of people already can see me in that role. The only obstacle I need to overcome is my self-doubt.
It looks like all I have to do is believe others’ feedback more than I believe my belittling self-story.
How to Outsource Your Self-Knowledge
I mentioned my story above to help you imagine how you could benefit from growing your external self-awareness, too. There are three primary ways I’ve been experimenting with that help me do that.
I’m sharing them below, with a note when to apply which, based on how you’re feeling. It takes a lot of courage to open yourself up to the perspective other people have on you. Depending on how bold you feel on any given day, you can use a corresponding technique to find out how other people may perceive you.
Most probably, you’ll receive a mix of positive and negative input about yourself. Both can enrich your perspective. However, remember not to treat anything you hear as “the truth” about yourself — only a new dimension of your self-awareness.
1. When you feel bold
Whenever you feel open enough to hear how the other person perceives you, asking for direct feedback is the most straightforward way to develop external self-awareness.
To increase the chances that the feedback will be honest and valuable, here are a few things to consider:
- Phrasing your question. If you want to receive precise feedback, you need to ask a precise question. For example, consider the difference between “How do you think my presentation went?” and “What did you think about that argument I made for trying out a new sales strategy?” The more precisely you formulate your feedback request, the more likely you are to get the information you’re looking for.
- Timing. Don’t ask for feedback when the other person is in a rush, fired up emotionally, or focused on something else. Try to catch them when they have some time and attention to spare. If you’re not sure if the moment is right, you can simply ask: “Hey, I’d like to get some feedback from you regarding X. Is now a good time to talk about it?”
- Form of communication. Asking for feedback in a conversation is just one option. You can also request it via email (it may be easier for some people to be honest in this way), via an anonymous questionnaire, or over a voice message. Take a moment to consider which communication channel seems most appropriate for the questions you want to ask. Remember that the more comfortable the other person will feel, the more likely they are to give you accurate feedback.
- Reassuring the other person. Asking and receiving feedback takes courage — but so does providing it. The other person may hold back from being fully honest if they fear that what they say may hurt your relationship. While requesting their opinion, you can reassure them that you’re fully open to hearing what they think and that you won’t be offended no matter what they say.
2. When you feel less bold
There are times when asking for direct verbal feedback feels too vulnerable or out of place. That’s fine — you can still open yourself up to receive indirect feedback by paying attention to non-verbal cues people send out in response to your presence.
Let’s come back to the example of giving a presentation. Even without explicitly asking about how you came across, you can figure out a lot just by observing your audience. Are they looking at you, or looking away? Are they taking notes? Asking questions? What do they talk about while leaving the room right after you finished speaking?
You can train yourself to pay attention to how people respond to you in just about any situation. Simply ask yourself in your mind throughout the interaction:
What does this person’s Way of Being say about my impact on them right now?
This can be particularly helpful if you’ve seen this person in a lot of contexts. For example, you can observe how your partner’s behavior changes when they’re just with you, as opposed to when you’re with a group of friends. What might those changes be saying about how they perceive you?
Try to focus more on the non-verbal cues, such as the body language or tone of voice — rather than on the content of what they say. Remember that what you observe isn’t necessarily “the truth” — it’s just another form of feedback.
3. When you don’t feel bold at all
Finally, there’s a question you can ask yourself to reflect on social or relational situations in hindsight. Maybe you weren’t observant enough to notice how other people responded to you throughout the experience. Or, they just didn’t display many useful cues.
However, you can still reflect on it afterward to get an idea of others’ possible perceptions of you.
Please note — this is an exercise where you work with your own projections. It doesn’t tell you what others actually think of you. However, it’s still valuable for increasing your external self-awareness because it provides an alternative to your self-story. It allows you to grasp other possible angles to see yourself.
Here’s the question you can ask yourself for this:
How would you see yourself if you were in the shoes of the other person (people)?
I recently used it after a stressful Zoom call when I started beating myself up for being awkward, shy, and quiet throughout the meeting. Multiple times, I felt that I wanted to say something — and then, I didn’t. This led me to once again see myself as someone who can’t express themselves in a group because of the lack of confidence.
But then, I decided to turn the perspective around. I asked myself: How would I see myself if I was in the shoes of the other people in the call?
I immediately realized that some people might very possibly have seen me as outspoken, confident, and fun. Why? Because when I imagined the call from the perspective of others, I noticed that I talked more in that call than almost anyone else in the group! I imagined that some people may have even seen me as arrogant and inconsiderate because when I already had the voice, I spoke for a long time.
When I tried to see myself through the eyes of others, I noticed all the times when I did talk — instead of only focusing on the moments when I held back. This offered me a completely different image of myself in that situation.
Now — in this exercise, it didn’t matter how other people actually saw me. Just realizing the possible ways in which I could have been perceived was eye-opening. I realized that my perspective of myself isn’t the only one — and, in many cases, it may not be the most accurate!
External Self-Awareness Can Open New Doors of Self-Perception
There are a few things to keep in mind when seeking to understand how other people see you:
- The feedback you’ll receive is always subjective and not “the truth” about you. Whether it’s positive or negative, you do best not to identify yourself with it.
- You don’t have to change your behavior based on other people’s perceptions of you. Just having the information is already valuable on its own. You can take your time to digest it, reflect, and only then decide whether or not you want to act on it.
- If you receive a similar type of surprising feedback from many different people, pay attention. It’s possible that the way you show up in the world (external self-awareness) isn’t fully congruent with how you see yourself (internal self-awareness). Observe this until you decide in what way (and if at all) you want to align these two.
- Be aware that, sometimes, what the other person sees in you may have more to do with them than with you. For example, you may trigger a difficult memory for someone, and this may make them feel uncomfortable next to you. This is still valuable information — you now know how this particular person tends to respond to your presence. Thanks to this, you can better understand the interactions between the two of you.
I hope that expanding your external self-awareness will open your eyes in a similar way it opened mine.
Often, other people can show you that you’re so much more than you perceive yourself to be. To discover it, keep your eyes and ears open to both direct and indirect feedback.
It can be enlightening.