Saturday, January 30, 2010

Reflected Identity

Reflected Identity lives where the past and other people’s opinions meet. Other people remember events in your past and they remind you of them, sometimes constantly. It’s one thing for the executive above to admit to poor follow up. But if his boss or wife or customers tell him the same thing, it reinforces the picture he already has of himself. You might know this as feedback. Feedback from others is how we shape our Reflected Identity.
As a professional who relies on feedback as a tool for helping people change for the better, I would never disparage its value. But I will mention that not all feedback is offered in good faith or in the most forgiving spirit.
It could be the spouse who keeps dredging up your one or two failures as a mate. It could be the colleague who never misses an opportunity to remind you of one of your workplace disasters. It could be the boss whose only impression of you is some less-than-brilliant statement you made in a meeting, which he repeats like a leitmotif whenever your name comes up. (I gave feedback to one manager who repeatedly derided one of his top lieutenants’ work habits, all because the subordinate refused to schedule an early morning phone call with the boss over a holiday weekend. I regarded this as an admirable display of work-life balance, but the manager saw it as evidence of the man’s 9-to-5 mentality and, therefore, a lack of commitment.) While some of our feedback may be quite fair, some of it may be part of the towel-snapping give and take of a lively corporate environment, where humor and piquant one-liners play key roles. But in an environment where we tend to become what other people say we are, the wrong kind of feedback can become self-limiting and pernicious.
People who keep reflecting your worst moments back to you—with the implication that these moments are the real you—are no different than the friend who sees that you’re on a diet trying to lose weight and yet insists, “C’mon, you can loosen up for one day. Have a second helping of this.” They’re trying to suck you back to a past self, someone you used to be, not who you are or want to become.
Yes, there’s value in paying attention to your Reflected Identity - but healthy skepticism is called for here as well. At its worst your Reflected Identity may be based on little more than hearsay and gossip. It may enhance your reputation or it may tarnish it. But either way, it’s not necessarily a true reflection of who you are.
Even if your Reflected Identity is accurate, it doesn’t have to be predictive. We can all change!

Life is good.


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