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"People don't understand me": How to Evaluate Your Self Competence

Do you feel like you know who you are? Like really know who you are? How do you want others to see you? Are you behaving in accordance with this ideal? Many of us spend our whole lives trying to figure out the answers to these questions.

Figuring out who we want to be, enacting behaviors to portray that kind of person, and having others evaluate us in a way that is similar to our own perceptions of ourselves is important to healthy human development. In fact, research (Baumgardner, 1990; Campbell, 1990) has shown that a strong sense of self is positiviely related to greater psychological well-being. Further, individuals who figure this process out tend to be better able at presenting themselves to others, which can aid in better relationship partner selection and relationship development.

We grow up watching other people receive positive and negative reactions for their own behaviors, listening to our elders tell us how we should and should not behave, engaging with others about personality preferences, and communicating our interpretations about the world with others; all of which help us learn about the kind of person we want to be. We take all of this information in to create a self-concept for ourselves.

I remember being very little and watching my dad tell stories to his friends. He was so good at giving the right amount of details, using a tone that was appropriate for the kind of story he was telling, keeping everyone's attention with little jokes through out the story, adding enough suspense at just the right moment, and his timing... well, it was impeccable. I idolized his ability to tell stories. I loved the idea that people not only listened to him intently when he would talk, but they often times praised him for being the "life of the party" or requested that he tell stories over and over again or to new people, "tell Dave about that story you told me last week." I watched him and I learned. I starting trying out my own story-telling abilities with my friends. I waited for their reactions. And over time, people started reacting to me the way that I always saw people react to my dad. Being a storyteller became part of my self-concept. I valued the ability to be a storyteller, I wanted others to view me that way, I watched good storytellers in action, I tried to copy their skills, and then I practiced until it became part of who I am. In fact, I would venture to say that many people would describe me as a storyteller. This is self competence, which is the ability to have others view you the way you want to be viewed.

Okay, let's back up a little bit. We have two terms at work here. First, self-concept is each person's subjective view of himself or herself. It's how we see ourselves as people. Self competence is one's ability to know who you want to be, enact behaviors that are in line with those desires, and have other people evaluate you in the same way that you view yourself. Self competence is on a continuum. You could have really high self competence or really low self competence, but most people fall somewhere in the middle. For instance, you might know who you want to be, but you might fall short at executing your plan. If people don't view you in the same way that you view yourself, then something is getting lost in translation. It could be that you have some aspects of your desired self-concept that you are not fully capable of fulfilling, you have shifted your behaviors away from past self-concept ideals, or you're not very skilled at expressing aspects of you desired self-concept. Whatever the reason, if others do not view you the way you want to be viewed, you have low self competence. And, you should probably engage in some self reflection in an attempt to mend this problem.

Here's a list of questions you can ask yourself to start the self-concept self reflection process.
1. What do you like about yourself? What are you proud of? What do you admire?
2. What are you self-conscious about? What do you not like about yourself?
3. When you think about yourself, your ideal self, what do you include in that description? How do you want to be viewed? Who do you want to be?

As previously mentioned, your self-concept is heavily influenced by several factors including family, gender, culture, and attachment (Vallacher, Nowak, Froehlich, & Rockloff, 2002). Furthermore, we tend to be shaped by the labels that others give us. For example, if kids label you as the "class clown" in elementary school and you like that label, you are more likely to make an effort to fulfill that label than if no one ever called you a class clown. If you have a negative emotion about the label, you might begin behaving in the complete opposite way in order to combat the label that you wish to avoid.

As mentioned, knowing who we want to be and being able to express our self-concept to others effectively can aid in our well-being, enhance our relationships, benefit us in the workforce, and enable us to protect the person we want to be more readily. Think about it: if you want to be a trustworthy person, you enact what you think are trustworthy behaviors, and other people look at you as someone they can trust, you could benefit in several ways. From having closer relationships with friends, to promotions at work, to better psychological well-being, to even more money (people tend to want to do business more with people they trust). In addition, trustworthy people are generally also viewed as authentic, genuine, kind, compassionate, and humble; all of which are extremely positive perceptions. Thus, developing a self-concept throughout your life, owning it, and behaving in ways that others see you the same way that you see yourself is highly beneficial.

How can you figure out if you have high self competence? You could ask people how they would describe you and see if their perceptions are in line with your own. Or if you want to have a little fun, you could have a few or your friends or family members complete the exercise below (ask them to write down the first thing that comes to mind). The objective of exercise is to discover aspects of your self-concept that are consistent or at least apparent both to yourself and other people. Oh, and YOU need to do the exercise about yourself as well.

Three words that best describe my personality are __________, __________, & __________.

I view the world as __________________________.
I believe ___________________________________.
I like ______________________________________.
I have fun when _____________________________.
I am ______________________________________.
My greatest strength is ________________________.
I'm most happy when _________________________.
I'm most embarrassed when ____________________.
I'm most proud of  ____________________________.
When it comes to expressing myself, I ____________.
When it comes to conflict, I tend to _______________.
If I had a life motto, it would be __________________.
If I won the lottery, I would probably ______________.

After you have completed the list about yourself and you've had your friends/family complete the list, you'll want to compare your answers. Identify those self-concept statements that appear on all or most of the lists. What similarities or discrepancies surprised you the most? What does this tell you about your self-concept? Are you competent at communicating your self-concept?

If have 36 minutes, check out this great video by the one and only Brené Brown. If you don't have the time right now, bookmark this article/video so that you can come back. You won't want to miss her message. Promise.

  • Baumgardner, A. H. (1990). To know oneself is to like oneself: Self-certainty and self-affect. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 58(6), 1062-1072.
  • Campbell, J. D. (1990). Self-esteem and clarity of the self-concept. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 59(3), 538-549.
  • Vallacher, R. R., Nowak, A. J., Froehlich, M., & Rockloff, M. (2002). The dynamics of self evaluation. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 6, 370-379.

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