The Imposter and the Looking Glass

by b.valley

I’ve never formally studied sociology, but I spent part of a summer traveling in Brazil with a sociologist, and picked up a few ideas along the way.  One of these ideas that has stuck with me is the “looking-glass self.” The main idea of the looking-glass self is relatively simple. In three central pieces: (1) we imagine how we appear to others, (2) we imagine and react to what we feel their judgement of that appearance must be, and (3) we develop our self through the judgments of others. I think we often realize that we easily perceive ourselves based on the opinions of others. But this concept introduces a layer that seems to edge closer to reality: we imagine these perceptions. Because of the fact that we rarely know how most people perceive us (if they are paying attention to us at all), we end up imagining both our appearance in the eyes of others as well as their judgement of such.

The role of imagination in the creation of our self-identity is striking. While our ideas of how others perceive and judge us are based on truth, and sometimes perhaps fairly accurate, they are not entirely true. The idea of imagination tells us that there is some gap between our constructed ideas and reality. We often live in a fictional world where people think and feel all kinds of things about us that they actually never have. And we make real-world decisions based on this fictional world, continually hoping that if we act or speak or move in the right way, it will enhance others’ judgements of us. Judgements that we rarely ever actually know.

A few days ago I encountered a chapter from a book by Brennan Manning that brought the looking-glass self to mind. Manning was an American priest, author, and speaker, known for his book The Ragamuffin Gospel. The chapter I read is called “The Imposter,” from Manning’s book Abba’s Child. Its central claim is this: we often live as an imposter of our true self. This imposter lives in fear of the rejection and disapproval of others, constantly working to maintain one’s image. As Manning writes: “The imposter is a liar.” When we live as the imposter, we pour our energy into managing what we think others perceive of us. We live fully into the looking-glass self in the worst kind of way. We live in fear that someone—particularly a someone whose opinion we highly value—might see in us something unappealing or unimpressive. We live as someone that we were never meant to be.

I found Manning’s words uncomfortable, not because I thought them untrue, but because with each sentence I increasingly felt that he was talking about me.

The other night—after having read Manning’s chapter on the imposter—I find myself scrolling through whatever snippets of others’ lives a Facebook algorithm has decided that I should be interested in. There’s really nothing interesting, but perhaps if I keep scrolling, something will be worth my time. I see that someone has changed their cover photo. It makes them look adventurous. It’s good to look adventurous. So I think: “Maybe I should change my cover photo. Perhaps that will make me appear more adventurous.” I begin to think about what picture might be best. And then Manning’s words come to mind, and I am astonished by my own thought process. While it doesn’t seem unreasonable to put some thought into which photo I might put on a social media site (because I certainly hope we think before putting anything on the internet), the fact that I base my actions largely on what others will think of me is appalling to me. I had sat and pondered how well others would perceive me based on one photo. This showed me to be, in both motivation and thought, an imposter.

I’m certain that I’m not the only one guilty of this kind of thinking. While Facebook and other social media outlets are not the only places (or even the main places) that we can act as a self-absorbed imposter, the process is perhaps clearer there than elsewhere. We will sit down to post a thought or photo, write a comment, or do whatever else, with the express intention of improving our image. And then we wait for the instant feedback, the likes and comments, particularly from those people we value most. Not only do we act in order to enhance our image in the eyes of others, but we care far more about what some people think than others. All of us have people in our lives whose opinion matters little to us, because we ourselves have assigned it low value. We live for the approval of those whom we ourselves approve. The same can be true outside of social media, from the way we dress to the way we talk to whom we sit next to on the bus. Dressing and talking and sitting on the bus aren’t the problem. It’s our constant motivation to be impressive, even in the smallest of things.

We don’t always operate this way, online or off, but we must not excuse ourselves too easily. Even when mixed with healthy motivations of relationship, community, and connection, the imposter so easily and often creeps in. And whenever we act out of hope that another will think highly of us, we also act out of fear that they won’t. Living for the approval of others becomes inevitably connected with living in fear of their disapproval. The imposter will tell us that we don’t actually live this way, that we’re not really all that concerned with others’ image of us. Yet this only brings self-deceit on another level: we easily pride ourselves on the fact that people think we don’t care about the judgements of others, that we have a healthy self-esteem. And the imposter sneaks back in, as we work to maintain this image of not being all that concerned with our image. The imposter is cunning.

It’s often easy to continue living in this way, as an imposter of our true self, constantly seeking the imagined approval of an imagined image. Yet there are some moments when living as the imposter is actually quite difficult. For me, these moments are most often marked by laughter. When we laugh so hard that our eyes fill with tears and we can hardly breathe, there isn’t much energy left to imagine the judgements of others. We find ourselves lost in joy. We don’t seek to analyze the moment; we simply revel in the experience of being alive. And the imposter is nowhere to be found.

The imposter flees in these moments of laughter, in times of honesty, in relationships of true depth and intimacy. The imposter flees when we consider others before ourselves, seeking the good in them, even when it takes work to find it. The imposter flees when we approach the world not as a minefield of judgement, but as a grand adventure waiting to be had. The imposter flees when we forgive and when we seek forgiveness. The imposter flees when we are lost in a good story. The imposter flees when we find ourselves really living.

And ultimately, the imposter flees when we understand who we truly are, and live in light of this identity. If the imposter thrives on imagining what others think of us, our true self thrives on knowing who we are. And who are we? Our true identity is still defined by another’s judgement, as posited by the looking-glass self. But not the judgements of our imagination. We are defined by the most true judgement of all, which requires no imagination on our part: the love of God. Manning says it well: “Define yourself radically as one beloved by God. This is the true self. Every other identity is illusion.”