When the movie The Greatest Showman hit theaters several years ago, it was a smashing success. Audiences loved the music, the dancing, and the inspiring storyline, but what really seemed to touch viewers and linger in their hearts long after the film ended was the image of the bearded lady singing “This Is Me.” She admitted to being bruised and broken and of feeling different from others, but she took ownership and pride in who she was, and this message resonated with many.
The bearded lady’s display of so much confidence in herself is something many people long for, but finding that sort of self-love in spite of others’ opinions can be hard. The constant flow of outside information in our lives today can lead to confusion and uncertainty about who we are. With that comes a desire to hide our true self from others for fear that we won’t measure up.
Take a minute to think back through your day today and how many sources of information have come your way. You’ve probably looked at your phone (maybe many times). You might have read the news, looked at social media, talked to colleagues, family, or friends, or watched tv. We are faced with a lot of information, ideas, and opinions coming at us each day. What we may not realize is how much this input from outside sources influences us.
In some ways, input from others is great. It helps us learn about the world and about ourselves. When you were little, you probably learned a lot about yourself by watching people and how they reacted to you.1 When a parent smiled after you did something, you learned that you’d made a good choice. When another kid got angry because you took his crayons, you learned it was a bad choice. This is a normal process of development.
But when we become adults, the sources of outside information increase and if we continue to take feedback from every source of input, it gets confusing, especially if these sources define who we are. Knowing who you are and feeling comfortable with being that person allows you to open yourself up to connecting deeply with others2 which makes it important to shut down some of the outside noise that’s trying to tell you who you are or who you should be.
Allowing Others to Define You
Let’s take a look at some examples of how we receive outside input and how it affects us and our relationships.
Do you ever find that you are comparing yourself with others? Maybe you think to yourself “He can run a half marathon? I struggle to even run a mile!” Or maybe it’s comparing your grade on a test with another’s or the color of your lawn to your neighbor’s. Social comparison happens so frequently in our lives that we often don’t even realize we are doing it.3
Sometimes the comparison isn’t even directly with another person, but with the expectations of others or those things we think we “should” be doing. We think things like “I’m a mom, so I ‘should’ be a good cook and I ‘shouldn’t’ yell at my kids.” Somehow, we’ve all got these ideas in our mind about what we should be doing or how we should be living, and we inevitably fall short.
Sometimes the challenge comes when we define ourselves by our relationships with others. It’s wonderful to be a husband or a wife, a brother or a sister, or a friend, but there are times when those relationships become so defining in our lives that it boxes us in. Sometimes a relationship can feel like a limitation if you don’t feel free to have an identity outside that relationship.
Relying on others’ expectations for us or defining ourselves by society’s standards can actually weaken our identity and limit our authenticity.4 Rather than being clear and consistent in our identity, we waffle back and forth with our opinions or likes. We might hide who we are from others for fear that we don’t measure up. But hiding who you are makes it hard for others to connect with you. People who allow more comparison, more trying to live up to other’s standards, or who feel more defined by their relationships feel less intimacy with others and less satisfaction in their romantic and sexual relationships.5
It can be helpful to remember, as declared by The Family: A Proclamation to the World, that you have a “divine nature and destiny,” as well as “an eternal identity and purpose.” God knows exactly who you are and has a clear idea of your talents and gifts and wants you to share yourself with others in connecting ways—through marriage, parenting, family, and friendships.
In order to truly feel comfortable reaching out to and loving others, we must first feel comfortable allowing others to see us for who we are—our strengths, our flaws, and everything in between. This will come more readily as we learn to shut out some of the sources of information that we sometimes allow to define us and instead, define for ourselves who we want to be. When we base this less on opinions or input from the world around us can deepen our relationships, increase our happiness, and build lasting and fulfilling connection in our lives.
Written by Amber A. Price, edited by Stephen F. Duncan, professor in the School of Family Life, Brigham Young University. May 3, 2021.
- Cooley, C. H. (1902). Human nature and the social order. Scribner's.
- Tajmirriyahi, M., & Ickes, W. (2020). Self-concept clarity as a predictor of self-disclosure in romantic relationships. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 37(6), 1873-1891. doi:10.1177/0265407520911131
- Buunk, A. P., & Gibbons, F. X. (2007). Social comparison: The end of a theory and the emergence of a field. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 102(1), 3-21. doi:10.1016/j.obhdp.2006.09.007
- Wood, A. M., Linley, P. A., Maltby, J., Baliousis, M., & Joseph, S. (2008). The authentic personality: A theoretical and empirical conceptualization and the development of the Authenticity Scale. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 55(3), 385.
- Price, A. A., Leavitt, C. E. , Larsen Gibby A., & Holmes, E. K. (2021). How does external referencing define sense of self and link to relational well-being? Manuscript in preparation.