To slightly paraphrase psychologist William James (1890), “Woman has as many social selves as there are individuals who recognize her and carry an image of her in their mind.” Does that mean that our social selves differ from our “real” selves? If so, how different are they?
We tend to think that when it comes to ourselves, we are experts, that we know how we will respond to a topic or react to a situation. We also believe we have some sort of “inner eye” that lets us observe our public behavior. Yet, our self-talk–that internal conversation that we carry on with ourselves–may be peppered with phrases like the following:
•What was I thinking?
•I don’t know what made me do that.
•I’m not myself today.
•I really surprised myself.
•I don’t know why I said that. I didn’t mean it.
•I didn’t really think I could do it, but I did.
These statements indicate that we may not know ourselves as well as we think. What we also fail to realize is that others may know aspects of us that we don’t know about ourselves. They don’t know our private thoughts, but colleagues, friends, and family members know us by how we are in public. They know our social selves, when our environment demands that we behave in a certain way. This is evidenced by other phrases that we sometimes hear:
•She doesn’t realize how she comes across.
•If you just knew her better, you would see that she’s not really like that.
•I was surprised by her outburst. She is usually so quiet (or nice or rational).
•I have never heard her use profanity. That was a shocker.
•That isn’t the person I know.
How important is congruency between our private self and our public self? We recognize that some things should be kept private, especially in the workplace. Topics like finances, religion, and relationships come to mind. On the other hand, you can be so socially guarded that no one feels comfortable around you. As a result, colleagues may describe you as shy, secretive, or even socially inept.
One other factor to take into consideration is that your opinion of yourself may not be the same as that of your boss. This may be most apparent during your annual evaluation. For example, your boss describes you as a good employee, but not as someone who goes that extra mile. You feel that you are always picking up the slack and bailing others out of difficult situations. When a discrepancy like this exists, it’s a good idea to ask for more clarity so that you can work on reconciling her opinion of you with your opinion of yourself.
You can never completely know another person. The real question, though, is how well can you know yourself?