If you were blind and deaf, and could never see or hear how other people acted or reacted around you, would you still feel the same about yourself?

Likely, you wouldn’t. You would probably feel a whole lot better about yourself.

When it comes to how we perceive ourselves, a researcher named Michael Argyle believed there are four major influences. These are:

  1. the reactions of others
  2. comparison with others
  3. social roles
  4. indentification with others

In the following pages, you’ll learn about the first of these factors: how the reactions of others can influence our thoughts, behaviours and feelings about ourselves. Essentially, it’s how our experiences, whether real or imagined, shape our personality.

In this blog you’ll discover:

  • how people can influence how we feel about ourselves
  • how the reactions of others can create either positive or negative feedback loops
  • how our caretakers and significant elders affect how we feel about ourselves

Remember, as you read and learn, try and put yourself into the concepts. What do they make you think about—and why?

Are we victims?

Now more than ever, we are victim to the reactions of others. Our self-perceptions are based on the number of likes we get, or the number of followers we have. In fact, one of my young clients told me she deletes any post that receives less than a hundred likes in fifteen minutes. Fifteen minutes!

Have you ever been in a situation, let’s say at work or school or in a relationship, and it comes to your attention that what you’re saying or proposing is wrong, because you get a lot of weird looks or no-one says anything back to you? In this situation, what do you do? You keep digging that hole deeper and deeper and try to bullsh*t your way into proving you’re right.

I remember once, a long time ago, I was seeing this guy. I was reading a book passage out loud to him because I thought he would think, ‘Wow, she’s not only smart but she reads too’, and the word ‘chasm’ came up. It was the first time I had come across the word so I pronounced it with a soft c, so it sounded like tschasem rather than its proper pronunciation of kazem.

What did he do? Rather than gently correcting me, he laughed and made fun of me. So what did I do? I made up a story, saying, ‘Well that’s how we say it in Canada’. Why? Because—I’ll admit it—I love to be right. Because being right feels damn good. It’s like the ultimate blow-dry for our ego. And being wrong? Well, it sucks. It makes us feel ashamed, stupid and dumb. By deflecting the blame off of me and onto something else, I protected my ego, my self-esteem.

Regardless of how confident you are, we all care about people’s reactions. That’s nothing new. It’s a tale as old as time, and this next tale is a good one.

The ugly duckling and the swan

In a 1938 book, Dr Edwin Ray Guthrie, a behavioural psychologist, told a story which remains relevant today. He describes a study in which male students started giving more attention to a shy female classmate. The goal was to see if it made her feel more attractive and desirable.

At first, the woman thought they were playing a prank on her, but slowly and surely, she started to change her behaviour, eventually enjoying the attention, and even changing the way she dressed and did her hair.

The male students then secretly visited her other classes to see if this behaviour continued in their absence. Most surprisingly, the change in her personality was not just with them. She continued to act like a woman who was attractive and confident. Even more surprisingly, men in those classes, who were completely unaware of the experiment, also treated her like an attractive and desirable woman.

You see, the more attention she got, the more effort she would put into her appearance, and the nicer she looked, the more attention she got. It was a continuous and positive feedback loop.

Eventually, the original group of men forgot they were in an experiment and started competing for the attention of the ugly duckling who had turned into a swan. It was a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy.

Pygmalion in the classroom

Another great example of the self-fulfilling prophecy is a famous 1968 study called ‘Pygmalion in the classroom’. The name is based on a story out of Greek mythology. Pygmalion was an artist who carved such a beautiful statue of a woman that he fell in love with her. The concept therefore describes how our internal expectations can influence external factors.

In this study, researchers told teachers that specific students would be late bloomers in their academic achievements, based on results from a specialised IQ test. By ‘late bloomers’ they meant that these students showed ‘unusual potential for intellectual growth’ and would bloom academically later in the year. In reality, the IQ test was made up, and the students were chosen at random.

The results of the experiment demonstrated that, although the teachers’ beliefs about their students were based on fabricated information, the high expectations of the teachers may have served as a self-fulfilling prophecy for the students. Put simply, because the teachers expected that certain children would eventually show greater intellectual development, those children did indeed show greater intellectual development.

The labelling bias

How does this apply to us? Well, when we’re treated in a certain way—for example, if we’re complimented, admired or if people listen to us attentively—we feel good about ourselves, and will likely repeat the behaviours that led us to receive those niceties. Like the ugly duckling who started paying more attention to her appearance.

But what if we’re treated poorly, such as being told we’re clumsy, stupid or fat? Will we interpret those impressions as truth? Absolutely. Even though we didn’t initially think these things, eventually we’ll use these terms to describe ourselves, whether they’re true or not.

Take this example. When we consider people of lower socioeconomic status, do we also think of them as less intelligent, lazy drug users? And what about people in business? Are they therefore intelligent, hardworking and healthy?   

Take some time now to think about whether someone’s attention ever made you feel better about yourself. Why do you think the attention felt good?
The words we use to describe a person aren’t just random words—they can determine what we think of a person, and how we treat that person. This is called labelling bias, which happens when we label people a certain way, and this then makes us treat them in biased ways.

Secondly, reflect on how the reaction of another person might have influenced how you describe yourself. For example, did someone ever call you a name in school that stuck with you for the rest of your life?

The influence of our parents (and caregivers)

As we learned, we incorporate the opinions, attitudes and reactions of others and absorb them into our own concept of self. As you have probably already guessed, our parents and significant adults will greatly influence our self-esteem, simply because they are the people who we are most often around.

Let’s look at a study by Stanley Coopersmith back in 1967. He believed that a child will value themselves only as much as significant adults and parents value them.

In this study, he followed hundreds of boys while they grew up. The boys were categorised as being either low, neutral or high in self-esteem. Those that were low in self-esteem were sad, fearful, isolated, self-conscious, underachievers and sensitive to criticism. In contrast, boys high in self-esteem were confident, resilient, academically successful and popular.

So what influenced the differences between the low and high groups? Parenting. In this study, the influence of the mother was critical, but the findings still apply to the father, or secondary parent as well.

More specifically, the parents of the low self-esteem boys treated their children inconsistently.

Imagine if you’re a kid. You spill some milk. One time your parents lose the plot, and the next time they barely say a word. Inconsistent treatment and reactivity will likely lead the child into questioning his own behaviour.

They also performed low check-in effort and affection. Let’s say you’re at school and someone tells you you’re a fat, ugly pig. You come home sad and deflated. Rather than check up on you and give you a hug, your parents just tell you to start your homework and ignore the sad look on your face. In this case, would you be more or less likely to believe that you’re a fat, ugly pig? More likely, of course.

In contrast, parents of the high self-esteem group displayed more warmth and affection. They also asserted their authority, had clearly defined limits, but at the same time showed respect and allowed their children to talk openly about their side of the story.

Take some time to decide whether or not you can relate to any of this. Can you see how your parents may have influenced how you feel about yourself? Remember, this isn’t to point fingers and blame anyone, it’s to try and put pieces of the puzzle together so you can understand your story more clearly.

Reactions vs responses

‘Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.’

I love this quote by Viktor Frankl because it describes so well what we’ll be talking about next: we have the power to control how we react or respond to the reactions of others.

Let’s now get into the difference between reactions and responses.

A while ago, a girlfriend of mine got a rash on her ankle after going on a camping trip. It wasn’t getting any better so she went to her doctor. The doctor prescribed some topical ointment and off she went to the pharmacy to pick it up. She went home, applied the cream just like the pharmacist had told her and sat down to get updated on her favourite show. By the end of the initial intro, only a few minutes later, her ankle felt like it was on fire. It was red and throbbing.

What was happening, you ask? She had a reaction to the treatment, which is essentially something that is instant and automatic, and typically adverse.

What did she do? She went back to the pharmacist and got a different kind of topical cream. Using this one, there was no reaction, and eventually the rash responded to the treatment. She got better.

So as you can see, there is a huge difference between a reaction and a response. Let’s look at the differences between the two.

Quick, instant Slow, measured
Emotional Thoughtful
Aggressive Assertive
Increases conflict Decreases conflict
Promotes more reactions Promotes resolution
Final summary and action points

Here are your key take-home messages:

These are only a few examples of studies that show how people can influence us, but you can imagine how many more exist! To summarise, the long and the short of it is:

  • People can influence how we feel about ourselves.
  • The reactions of others can create either positive or negative feedback loops.
  • How we were parented, or treated by significant elders, will affect how we feel about
  • The result from these interactions can eventually determine how we describe ourselves, even though we didn’t think these things in the first

Actionable advice:

Considering everything we’ve learned, it should come as no surprise why we spend so much money on our appearance! We want to look attractive so people will like us, and we worry if they don’t.

What I’d like you to do now is think about how any of your experiences have influenced your confidence. For example, when you think about the best times of your life compared to your darkest times, what role did the people around you play?

Secondly, how can you use what you’ve learned to improve your resilience to external reactions moving forward?

Lastly, although it’s not easy to do, one quick and easy tip is to:

  1. stop
  2. breathe
  3. think

This lessens your emotional reactions to a situation and allows more time to think through your response.

At the end of the day, remember this: we’re own our worst critics, so worry less about what other people think.

Dr. Katherine x

p.s. Continue reading about Argyle’s factors in part 2/4 of this blog – How to compare less and live more.


  1. Argyle M. Social Encounters: Contributions to social interaction. 1st ed. Pis cataway, NJ: AldineTransaction; 2008.
  2. Guthrie ER. The psychology of human conflict: The clash of motives within the individual. New York: Harper Brothers; 1938.
  3. Rosenthal R, Babad EY. Pygmalion in the gymnasium. Educ Leadersh 1985;43(1):36-39.
  4. Fox JD, Stinnett TA. The effects of labelling bias on prognostic outlook for children as a function of diagnostic label and profession. Psychology In The Schools 1996;33(2):143-152.
  5. Coopersmith S. The antecedents of self-esteem. San Francisco: W.H. Free man; 1967.