Let’s do a quick experiment. Take out your phone, turn on your self-facing camera and look at yourself on the screen. Don’t take a picture. Just look at yourself.
You look pretty damn good, right? Now take a photo.
It’s weird. You’re in the same light, it’s the same angle, you’re going for that same soft, slightly skeptical smile. But you don’t look the same, do you? It’s not nearly as flattering as before you tapped that button to take the picture. WTF?
Here's the deal: It’s the mirror image you see before pressing that button. Once the picture is taken, the camera flips your features. Your mirror image is the one you know best. It’s the face you see every day, the one you grew up with. It’s the you that you prefer seeing.
The mere-exposure effect is to blame. It’s a psychological phenomenon in which you prefer something simply because you are more familiar with it. So, we think our mirror image looks better because that’s the face we know best.
Yet everyone else sees us differently. They see the image the mirror can’t show us. It’s why you’ll hate yourself in a photo while your friend thinks you look great. They’re seeing the you they are most familiar with.
And in that way, you could say that we do not know ourselves. We think we are someone, or at least that we look like someone, who is slightly different than the real us. And that’s not the only way we are delusional.
Here’s another psychological term for you: self-enhancement bias.
It’s the tendency for each of us to believe we are better than we actually are. When something goes right, we credit ourselves. When something goes wrong, we blame it on everything and everyone but ourselves.
The self-enhancement bias says we distort our view of ourselves and believe that our traits, abilities and potential are greater than that of the average person – which can’t be true for all of us, according to math.
It goes hand in hand with yet another bias that suggests we are unrealistically optimistic by nature. We think we are safer drivers than everyone else. We think we’re easier to work with or better communicators or less susceptible to disease or even death than others. We think everything is going to work out just fine for ourselves. Research even goes so far as to show we think we’re more attractive than we actually are.
"Life is a mirror and will reflect back to the thinker what he thinks into it" - Ernest Holmes
Take this one study, where researchers edited photos of people’s faces, making them more or less attractive than reality, then asked those people to pick out their face from a lineup of other photos. People were more likely to recognize the enhanced version of their face as their own. How crazy is that?
In another study of 25,000 people ages 18–75, researchers found that most people rated themselves a seven on a one to ten scale of attractiveness.
So basically, we think we’re the shit.
While it sounds like the self-enhancement bias makes us a bunch of conceited jerks, most people think it’s a good thing. Without it, how would we persevere during hard times or even get out of bed in the morning? If we didn’t think there was something special or different inside of us, why would we even try?
Many believe these biases motivate us and provide the hope we need to keep moving forward with our lives. Some even say it makes us more creative and more likely to succeed. That our delusions actually do us good.
Others say our distorted view of ourselves is dangerous. We think we’re invincible so we are reckless. We think we’re more talented so we are insufferable. By viewing ourselves as better, we are setting ourselves up for failure.
But the truth is, this isn’t the only feeling that exists inside of us.
Of course, we also think we’re the worst.
At the same time we think we are secretly better than everyone else, we are also painfully aware of our shortcomings. We know everything about ourselves: Our struggles, our mistakes, every negative thing anyone has ever said about us. We are the record-keeper of our failures, and there are many.
So while there’s something in us that tells us we’re greater than the average person, there is also our fear that it’s not true. The two feelings somehow coexist. In fact, maybe we are so often disappointed with ourselves because we believe we’re not living up to our potential. Who knows, I’m not about to do a study on it.
All I know is that I recognize the self-enhancement bias in myself when I wake up in the morning thinking, “Today, I’m going to make something great.” And at the same time, I feel anxiety. Insecurity. I worry that I’m not good enough.
We are complex beings. Who’s to say we can’t feel both feelings at the same time? Not me, because I do.
So what do we do about it?
Whatever we are looking for, we will find. If we look for good, we will find good. If we look for the negative, we will find the negative. Both options are available to us. And while I don’t want to be ignorant or conceited, I do want to live a life full of good.
“People generally see what they look for and hear what they listen for." - To Kill a Mockingbird
That’s why I choose to accept the person I see in the mirror. The features might be a little off. I may be less talented, less attractive and less invincible than my brain and mirror leads me to believe. I might have a slightly skewed view of myself compared to what other people see. But I’m OK with that.
There’s something inside of us that leads us to believe we are great. I encourage you to embrace that something. That doesn’t mean we ignore the bad. It simply means we look for the good in ourselves and keep working toward those positive qualities.