Introspection vs Extrospection

The construction of a concept of self, and our perception of that self is a complicated and confusing issue, at least for me. Some of the world’s philosophies say that at our core, we have no innate self, only an accumulation of stories, thoughts, feelings, perceptions, experiences, etc. I tend to agree with that, but I’m going to ignore that aspect of things for now, or at least refer to ‘self’ as what a person is like in a pragmatic sense, from their own perspective or from the perspective of others.

The title “Introspection vs Extrospection” just means looking inward vs looking outward, but I wanted it to be concise and maybe sound a little fancy. I started thinking about this again because Teacher’s Day is coming in Taiwan, and a few of my students have written cards for me. They wrote things like:

“You are so optimistic. I want to be like you and I’m happy to be your student.”

“This is my last year in your class, I hope we can have more happy memories. I’m happy to have a teacher as wonderful as you are.”

“You are so kind.”

“You are the best teacher. I’m happy to be your student.”

I’m sure all kinds of teachers receive cards like these, but it really got me to start thinking about how big of a difference there is between my own self-perception and the way others perceive me. In most cases these two sides are not very similar.

I don’t want to sit here and type out a detailed account of my own self-concept, but I’d like to raise a few examples.

My students seem to think I’m a positive and optimistic person. I can understand why they think I am that way based on how I act at school. The interesting thing is that I act authentically in class; I don’t put on a show just because my students are kids. I think it’s the fact that they ARE kids that brings out this aspect of myself; I think kids are fun, so I have fun in class with them. A boring class for students is also boring for me. If I were to think about who I think myself to be and assign adjectives to myself, I don’t think positive, kind, or optimistic would be at the top of the list, even though I may be this way when interacting with others.

This leads me think about the idea of a ‘relative self’ or selves. I think much of our personality is a matter of context; if I’m talking to my good friend, I will undoubtedly feel and think differently than if I’m talking to a person that I find boring and irritating. You could say these are different aspects of the same self, but when I think about it, it’s almost like entirely different selves based on the context or situation. Not only would my thoughts and feelings be different, but the other person’s interpretation of who I am would also be entirely different. A single person may be many different people in the minds of others (and themselves).

I distinctly remember one time I was talking to one of my friends in Hawaii, and I described myself as a ‘misanthrope’ or something like that, or mentioned something about not having that many friends and having difficulty meeting people I want to spend time with. She then hit me with something along the lines of, “You had the largest social circle out of everyone I knew in Hawaii.” At first I thought she was bullshitting me, but after a few minutes of thinking about it, I realized that I did (and do), in fact, know many people that I genuinely like and consider my friends, and spent a lot of time around people and socializing. The difference is that when that conversation occurred I had just moved to Taiwan and spent a lot of time alone, affecting my mood. This was actually the first time that I started to consider how drastically different my self-concept is from the way others see me; evidently when I spend time by myself I make up some idea of who I am based on my mood or emotions at the time, but then I magically forget about this when I’m interacting with people, like a ‘new me’ emerges from the interaction.

Another interesting angle to take is that even when we introspect and come up with some idea of who we are, this idea is (usually) based on an imagined ‘other’ or ‘others.’ Any adjectives we assign to ourselves are based on concepts of traits which are formed through our experiences, or based on imagined or past interactions with others. Words and definitions also carry historical, social, and individual meanings. This makes me think that it is impossible to have a real ‘self-concept’ that is independent of other people or other people’s opinions, and also difficult to communicate precise meaning to others through language.

This leads me to the question: Which is more reliable – your self-perception or other people’s perceptions of you?

There is no answer to this. There is no way to understand the entirety of anything even if you look from all angles, let alone just one. Neither of them is accurate, and both are accurate.

My own initial opinion is that (at least in my case) other people’s perceptions of me are more reliable, since they are based on my actions, not all the bullshit running through my head on any given day. If I can find a pattern among many people’s perceptions, I would think that may be more reliable than a single person’s perception (my own). Are thoughts or actions more important? Do we give a person who considered joining the military the same respect as someone who actually did it? Do I deserve to feel good about myself for thinking about helping the needy, but not actually doing it? Do we throw people in jail for thinking about stealing something? Thought without action is basically meaningless, but most of my own self-concept is based on thought rather than action.

However, I also tend to agree with the statement:

What is right is not always popular and what is popular is not always right.

Albert Einstein

I think the majority often values superficial, meaningless stuff in life. This is something I try to keep in mind when I find myself influenced too much by others or craving any sort of popularity or attention. I tend to be a bit of a contrarian and like to disagree for the sake of discussion, and do the opposite of what’s popular (because I usually find it more fulfilling). If I take this approach when valuing my self-perception vs others’ perceptions of me, then perhaps this gives more value to self-perception.

I’m sure we all know someone who thinks they are a creative genius, a profound thinker, extremely skilled, or something like this, while no one else agrees with them. In contrast, some people may be perceived by others to be all of those things while they themselves think they are nothing special. Which is true? Are any of these perspectives true?

Ultimately, it all comes down to the angle and mental framework we choose when looking at it.

As with anything, all sides should be considered, but I think there is no answer to this question. However, I find that thinking about this question can lead to productive self-insight, and has the potential to improve our lives in some way.

Feel free to share your opinions, and thanks for reading!

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