I teach sociology. Remember that class freshman year? That 8:00 guaranteed-to-get-you-up-in-the-morning class? The one you only showed up for on exam days? That’s the one.

Lecture topic today, self-concept. Self-concept consists of the words I use to describe, well, me. Example, most evenings when I turn the lights out, I decide I am a pretty good person, honest, try hard, and appreciate most of what happened in my day. This self talk has not changed much over the years.

I introduced my eleven o’clock class to Charles H. Cooley. He wrote a lot about how we acquire a sense of who we are, our self-concept.  He agreed with his contemporaries that separating us from the rest of the animal kingdom is the fact that we can act toward ourselves the same way we act toward others.  I learned this in my early twenties. Easy to memorize at exam time, but the reality of what that fact implied came years later. Cooley meant that each of us has the real potential to speak only words of positive self-praise, support, encouragement, and love to ourselves. This revelation was followed by a monumental blow to my own self-concept. If I was such a pretty good person, why did I spend hours every week talking to myself in less than supportive, encouraging, loving, or even friendly ways?

Cooley offered clarity. Using the analogy of a mirror, he outlined the ‘Looking-Glass Self.’ The premise is straightforward: we develop our self-concept by seeing ourselves as others do. A simple three step process is involved and most of the time we are unaware it is happening.I listed the steps on the board to personalize the process for every student.

  • I imagine how I appear to others,
  • I imagine how others judge my appearance,
  • I develop feelings about myself based on those perceived judgments.

Class discussion followed. I posed questions and solicited opinions with examples to support their responses.  Is this an objective or subjective process? Could a stranger make you feel badly toward yourself? Can you change your concept of self, depending on where you are, or who you are with throughout the day?

When the volume in the room softened, I noticed several minutes remained before class ended.  A novel question entered my mind and exited my mouth.

“If you agree we use this process to form a self-concept, and that some people use those around them as their social mirror more than others, can you tell me why I do not use you as my social mirror?”

Silent stares. A couple hands raised high.

“I think it’s because you are up there as the teacher and don’t care what we think.”

Not the reason, but pointing out differences in status as an influence on the dynamics of interaction, good going!

“Because we aren’t your peers you don’t consider our opinions worth anything, certainly nothing to get hurt feelings over.”

I assured them I valued their opinions or I would not ask for them. I did acknowledge I would interpret nonverbal feedback from peers differently than from students.

A final answer, from Spence. He sat in the first row on my left, just in front of the computer console. No doubt he heard me whisper expletives at malfunctioning technology once or twice, he was that close. Spence never drew much attention. His head never rested on the desktop. He never used his cell phone during class time. In fact, he never spoke to me during class. Ever. This is April.

His hand went up. I noticed. Everyone noticed.

“Spence, do you have another idea why I don’t use you all as my social mirror?”

His eyes fixed on my own, then drifted and stared at the board behind me.

“Well, I think if you were to do that you would look into the mirror and begin to see the face of the woman you used to be. Not one with wrinkles around your eyes, and wrinkles around your face. You would picture yourself as a beautiful young woman ready to take on the world.  And you would remember all the things you used to be able to do like push ups, and running marathons, and making a difference.  And you would stare into the mirror and wonder when all of this happened, and just wonder at it all.”

Air swallowing pause. “So no, you wouldn’t want to use us as your mirror.”

Class was over, maybe life was over, undecided. But this is why I teach.