The Looking-Glass Self

The Looking-Glass Self

by Rachel Allison

It was Sociology 111 where I was introduced to  “the looking-glass self.”

It was a concept created by Charles Horton Cooley in 1902.  He claimed,

“We see ourselves through the eyes of other people, even to the extent that we incorporate their views of us into our own self-concept.”

My friend James illustrated Mr. Cooley’s theory for me.  James had a younger brother who, he claimed, was the “nerdiest of all nerds. He didn’t have many friends. He was a total klutz on the ball field.  He didn’t have the self confidence to amount to anything.”  But there was one person who saw his potential.  Every night for as long as James could remember, their mother would go into his brother’s bedroom and sit on the bed and visit with him for twenty or thirty minutes, identifying the positive traits that she could see in him.

As James recounted this story, I imagined a young boy voicing his frustrations and a loving mother encouraging him and trying to inspire in him an identity that would help him see his self-worth.  James then recounted the transformation that took place over the years.  Amazingly, his brother became all that his mother so patiently and lovingly encouraged him to be.  In my mind’s eye, I can still see the image of that mother sitting on her son’s bed, and in my heart, I can still conjure up the admiration I felt for her devotion.

Six years later, I was given my own opportunity to try “the looking-glass self” concept.  My youngest child, a boy, was unlike any of my other children.  He was rarely happy or content.  He hated traveling in a car. He didn’t like baths.  He refused to lie still for a diaper change.  He seemed to take  issue with every positive thing I tried to do for him.  When he was awake, I knew exactly where he was because he was either screaming or crying. There were times when I just had to walk away from this demanding, cantankerous baby.  James’ mother’s example became my constant companion.  Every day as I was feeding him or holding him or trying to help him, I told him what a sweet, wonderful little boy he was and how much I loved him.  I prayed that he would not feel my frustration.  When his father was at home, he patiently reinforced my parenting.  Our other children, seeing how hard we were working with this little boy, became even more patient with his outbursts.

This attitude continued until he began to talk.  Once he could communicate, his screaming and crying lessened considerably.  At that point I wouldn’t say that he was agreeable, but certainly less frustrating.

All this transpired twenty-five years ago. May I say that this young boy turned out to be the light of our lives,  an outstanding young man in every way?  Would he have turned out the same if I had chosen to refer to him as “our little trouble maker” or “our cry baby” or something even worse? Something within me says “no.”

Thank you, Mr. Cooley for your insight.  Thank you Lord for strengthening me through those difficult years.  And thank you, son, for becoming all that I knew you had the potential to become.

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