Does What They Think About You Hold You Back?

Huffington Post

May 15, 2010

by Marshall Goldsmith

How do you define who you are? If you think about the various components of how you define yourself, where did they originate? If you’re like most people, your identity is formed to a large extent by what you remember from your past and by what other people think about you and tell you about yourself.

Where the past and other people’s opinions meet what I call your “reflected” identity. Other people remember events in your past and may remind of you of them, sometimes too often. 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 the value of it; however, I feel obligated to note that not all feedback is offered in good faith or in the most forgiving spirit!

For example, perhaps your spouse constantly reminds you of your one or two failures as a mate. Or perhaps it’s a colleague who never misses an opportunity to remind you of one of your more serious workplace mishaps. It could be the boss whose only impression of you is some less-than-brilliant statement you made in a meeting, which he repeats to anyone who will listen whenever your name comes up. (Year ago, I gave feedback to one manager who repeatedly derided one of his top lieutenant’s 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.)

The fact is that while some feedback is quite fair, some of it is part of the ribbing and back-slapping that is supposed to be taken as part of a lively corporate environment where quick speech, one-liners, and “humor” are meant to be fun. Sometimes these little jokes and stabs at one another are not fun and in an environment where we tend to become what other people say we are, the wrong kind of feedback can be self-limiting and destructive.

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 cake.” They’re trying to suck you back to a past self, someone you used to be, not who you are or want to become.

It’s likely that we’ve all found some value in paying attention to our reflected identity, but it’s important to keep a healthy skepticism about as well. At its worst, your reflected identity can be based on little more than hearsay and gossip and may tarnish your reputation. At its best it may enhance your reputation–and help you succeed. But either way, it’s not necessarily a true reflection of who you are. So, even if your reflected identity is accurate, remember it doesn’t have to be predictive. We can all change!