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Executive coaching tip - Do your friends support your ideal or authentic self?

07 Oct 2013

When we meet someone for the first time we put up our friend radar to see if they’re going to reinforce our ideal self and validate all the hard work we’ve put into maintaining our facade. If they make us feel comfortable and at ease with ourselves then we add them to our extended friends or associates pile.  When we look to deepen the relationship beyond the associate tag – past the work and social personas – we start to reveal our self image, with all its warty imperfections, and we call them friends. As Elbert Hubbart says: “Your friend is the man who knows all about you, and still likes you.” Sadly, for some people, those with low self belief who’ve become nothing but their ideal self, their friendships remain at the glossy but shallow ideal self level. For fear of undermining themselves, they won’t express their true feelings or concerns to others, and by bottling them up they end up taking their frustrations out on the furniture or other people like your family.

When we lose interest in friends or they lose interest in us, one or both have changed the way they want to be seen or see themselves. It may be that you or your friend has changed your ideal self, and you’ve moved up in the world and now aspire to being an international rock star and not a county-level karaoke singer. It’s the same when we take an immediate dislike to someone – at some level they challenged or undermined the values and beliefs our current ideal self is built upon. The real test of friendship comes when a friend starts to explore and uncover their authentic self because very often those people change out of all recognition.  When we’re with people we’re trying to impress, and they in turn make us feel insecure and defensive then the likelihood is we’re being our ideal self and others in turn feel threatened and they compete with us.  When we’re our authentic self and those around you accept you for this person then those are the people with can call true friends.  

Exercise: How are your friends supporting your ideal self and self image? Take the ‘Friends’ Quiz
Becoming conscious of the way in which your friends are shaping your ideal self and self image is key to peeling away the layers hiding our authentic self. It can mean reassessing friendships so that you’re not surrounding yourself with people who simply reinforce your ideal self or worse, a negative self image.  

Below are set of opposing statement. Give yourself a score out of ten where you are with your friends on the sliding scale:

I try to impress friends                      1   2   3   4   5   6   7   8   9  10                  I’m relaxed & at ease with them
I worry about their opinions            1   2   3   4   5   6   7   8   9  10                  I feel I can say anything
I compete with them                         1   2   3   4   5   6   7   8   9  10                  I celebrate in their success
I feel that you have to join in           1   2   3   4   5   6   7   8   9  10                  I decide what’s best for me


The higher the score the better. But what matter is how you can improve on your score. Ask yourself: what do I need to feel more at ease with my friends? And are they friends you could do without or want to spend more time with?

Our ‘looking glass self’
In Charles Horton Cooley’s ‘looking glass self’ theory, like a self-fulfilling prophecy, we’re in part influenced to view ourselves through others’ perceptions. What we think and how we behave is governed in part by the expectations of others to act out the roles they’ve assigned us. But while the ideal self is what we might deem a positive image that we aspire towards, the perceptions we believe others have of us can be negative and undermine our self image and self belief.

To add a further layer of complexity we can add another persona: the playboy Bruce Wayne of Wayne Enterprises.  He gets drunk, surrounds himself with nubile swimwear models, and drives fast cars as he believes the role of a billionaire bachelor should do. He hates himself for it but does it nonetheless. In our own social circles, we label people then applaud the ‘clown’ in the group when he gets drunk and fools around, or seek the advice of a ‘wise’ friend who responds with pearls of wisdom however good or bad. We must identify the roles we play out for others, and decide for ourselves whether they play a useful purpose that builds our self-belief and are aligned with our authentic self.  And we should realise that the signs and messages people send back to you about your own behaviour is tainted by their own conscious and unconscious beliefs, prejudices, value systems and social etiquette, all of which stops people from showing what they really think of you. In other words, you can’t ever rely on others to show you who you really are because they too are looking through their own set of glasses. The only person you can trust to show you who you are is yourself. You must have the courage to take our own journey of self discovery, listen to what you find out about yourself then find the self confidence and personal responsibility to do what feels right. 

A famous experiment
A famous experiment in the 1960s by two American sociologists, Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson, showed the true power of the self-fulfilling prophecy. They randomly chose 20% of primary school children from 18 classrooms and told the teachers they were 'intellectual bloomers.'  The teachers were told these children would show remarkable gains during the year. The teachers responded by encouraging these intellectual bloomers; their body language and facial expressions communicated they were special. The relationship changed between teacher and child, and the teachers started to find the bloomers more 'appealing, more affectionate and better adjusted'.  The acid-test were exam marks: the randomly chosen bloomers who'd been singled out, consciously and subconsciously, by teachers for special attention showed marked improvement in their results.        

Exercise: The roles you play

  1. What ‘roles’ do you think others assign to you at work? Are these positive or negative?
  2. How do you think others see you socially? Are these positive or negative?
  3. How are you compounding the negative perceptions or ‘roles’ others have of you by behaving a certain way – by playing certain ‘roles’?
  4. What do you need to do to break free from these roles?
  5. What roles would give you most integrity and contentment?

Lequin Leadership Development provide executive and career coaching to leaders worldwide in many of the world's leading businesses.

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