The way that you see yourself is not exactly as the world sees you… and that should be comforting. The truth is that self-perception is generally skewed more negatively than how you are objectively seen.
The problem is not always that you suffer from low self-esteem. Most people generally do not see themselves in actuality, and a cocktail of unconscious biases are responsible.
Let’s start at the top:
1. Your self-image gets worse the less you actually see yourself.
If you’re someone who almost never likes any photos of themselves, and can relate just a little too much to the twinge of anxiety whenever you get a “tag” notification online, you’ll know what I mean when I say it’s hard to really dislike how you look, especially in photos.
However, you’ll probably also recognize that you almost never judge photos of other people as harshly, even if you can objectively recognize that one image may be more flattering than another. (At the same time, others don’t think you look as bad as you think you do.) You’ll also probably recognize that, in retrospect, a lot of photos you hated when you were younger really weren’t all that bad.
This is because of the mere exposure effect, which is the idea that the more you see something, the more tolerant you become of it. You’re used to seeing your image reflected to you in a mirror, and a camera doesn’t do that. In the end, you’re viewing a slightly different version of yourself that, though more accurate, is foreign to your eyes, making your bias tell you that it’s worse because it’s unfamiliar. It really isn’t. You just aren’t used to it.
Social media compounds this because it allows you to pick and choose what you share and feature, and what remains on your profiles. When you’re consistently exposed to what you believe to be perfect or at least good enough photos of yourself, one that isn’t as perfect is going to be more jarring, because you aren’t familiar with what you really look like.
This isn’t to say that you’re uglier than you think, and you need to accept it. It’s that you falsely believe that the way you look in reality is worse than how you perceive yourself, so you begin to develop an insecurity that you’re less attractive than you hoped.
If you don’t believe me, try looking at “bad” photos of yourself semi-regularly. Make one your phone background if you must. Over time, you’re going to feel less strongly about them, and it’s because you’re getting used to them. You might even find you like some of them, given enough exposure. Through the experiment, you’ll realize that they weren’t ever really that bad, it was just in your head.
But, okay, if not liking how you look isn’t really your problem, then let’s consider this:
2. Intelligent, self-aware people are more prone to a negativity bias.
Negativity bias explains your willingness to believe “bad” things about yourself more than you believe good. It’s the reason you dwell on one criticism despite receiving lots of praise, or why you will be more inclined to catastrophize a situation than trust there could be a positive outcome.
In other words, the fact that you are worried about whether or not you’re a decent, relatively attractive person with something to offer the world likely means that you’re doing better than you think you are.
People who are less self-aware don’t typically have as great of a negativity bias. Think about it this way: if you don’t stop to consider how other people respond to you, and whether or not you are liked, you’re more likely to be abrasive, rude, and assume other people are the problem in any given situation.
3. Cultural standards for achievement and success are completely skewed and unrealistic.
Decades ago, the standard for having “succeeded” in life was pretty much to have a space to live, and keep food on the table. If you were able to do this while also having a family, you had pretty much made it in life.
Such simplicity does not exist anymore. The digital age also ushered in a completely unrealistic concept of what your lifestyle should be. This was combined with the tail end of the positivity movement, and millennials being raised with the idea that they could “be anything they want.”
Now, the standard for having your life together is unattainable. People think that to be successful, you have to cook like a chef, dress like a blogger, maintain your high school weight, succeed in the top 10% of whatever industry you’re in, and maintain a seamless feed of exciting photos, documenting your trips and relationships.
If social media did not exist, and all you had to compare yourself to was your immediate social circle and nothing else, your insecurities would be gone, if not significantly reduced.
4. Being “average” is seen as bad, though it is, logically, what most of us are at most things.
Most healthy people have their psychological traits evenly distributed, which means that, most people are “average” in intelligence, creativity, and so on. However, most people will cite that they believe they are above average in at least one of these areas, which is a statistical impossibility.
The reality is that you’re probably more “normal” than you’d ever like to think. You’re attractive enough, but you’re not a supermodel. You’ve been good with money, you’ve wasted it. You’re better than some people at your work, but you’re probably not the greatest of all time, nor will almost anybody ever be.
The problem is that being called “average” is an insult because people confuse it for meaning “without uniqueness.” You can be average, and yet wholly and completely yourself. It does not wash away any of your traits and characteristics, strengths and weaknesses that make you who you are.
Averageness also doesn’t lend itself to a strong self-concept. Our egos are inspired by trying to be greater and better than. In fact, very often, we compensate for insecurities by trying to express authority or dominance, and so the idea that we are average robs us of that comfort.
5. The digital age has intensified the “spotlight effect” in an unprecedented way.
You are thinking about you more than anybody else is ever thinking about you, period. You are evaluating your life in a way that almost nobody else ever will. The problem is that you probably also assume that everybody is noticing the ways in which you aren’t perfect, when in reality, most people are consumed with thinking about themselves, exactly as you are.
This is called the spotlight effect, and it’s only compounded thanks to social media. When you start to falsely believe that everybody you have ever known is taking a profound and prolonged interest in your life, you’re going to start to behave as though you’re a celebrity under constant scrutiny and documentation. (You’re not.)
6. The way you imagine others see you is actually a projection of how you see yourself.
This is the hardest one to accept, but the most important to understand: you don’t know, can’t know, and probably will never know what other people are thinking about you and your life… you can only assume what they might think about you.
Given that your self-esteem is likely largely built on how you imagine you’re perceived, remember that the way you think other people see you is really a projection of how you see you. The way you think you are being evaluated is your mind’s secret away of evaluating yourself.