dr.K's tiips

The “Borrowed dignity syndrome”

(what would the others think?)

 Relinquishing your self definition to others. The case of “Lara”

We care deeply about what the others think of us. In fact, many of our activities are intended to affect the perceptions of those around us. While one of our most basic freedoms is to define ourselves to ourselves, many relinquish this freedom. Instead, we let the others define us and, by doing so, we give the power to others, even total strangers, to shape the way we see ourselves. This self-imposed vulnerability interferes with our emotional self -reliance and is a major contributor to the sense of insecurity so prevalent in the human experience. Insecurity is the outcome of reliance on the others for the sense of self esteem (no wonder we associate insecurity with little self esteem). Self-esteem is literally how we value ourselves. Your sense of self-esteem, when dependent on others’ opinions, is not in your possession.  It is merely borrowed from the others and as such cannot be seen as self.  Borrowing your self-esteem is very precarious: one day, when you do not meet the terms of the “lease” it can be taken away from you. Even the most complacent narcissists, know in their heart of hearts how fragile their position is. Ultimately the absence of a solid, independent sense of who we are renders us insecure and scared of life.

Lara came to therapy complaining of “paranoia”. “I feel very self conscious; everywhere I go I feel that people are looking at me and judging me”; she feels people think she is ugly and a “loser”. In reality, Lara, a 24-year-old graduate of prestigious masters program, is pretty and personable and does not posses any trait that can attract negative attention.  She recently accepted a job offer at a prominent institution but feels so overwhelmed she in not sure that she can actually start working there. Being so hard on herself, her family and friends try reassuring her that what she feels is just her imagination. Lara is not persuaded “They are just trying to make me feel good, but I know better”. Over the years L. has restricted her social interaction, finds it hard to walk into a crowded place and despite experiences to the contrary, has a very low self-image.

Trying to understand how she views herself; it quickly becomes apparent that Lara does not know “who she really is”. When asked to describe herself, she finds it extremely difficult. She states – with little conviction – some external facts while looking uncomfortable and seeking assurance and approval. Not having a good sense of herself, Lara is very vulnerable to how other people see her. She constantly scans the others for their reactions whether real or imagined (Most probably imagined, as she is most vulnerable to random strangers on the street, who are unlikely to form any opinion either good or bad.)

If you ask “How come you are so willing to accept imagined opinions from total strangers and not the positive feedback from people who know you well?”  Lara would agree: “It is weird, why do I care so much about random strangers who do not know me at all?”

Actually this is not so weird: strangers can only see the exterior, i.e., your appearance. Conversely, family and friends know you on a deeper level: your history, your personality. In reality your appearance receives little attention from people who know you well, as they are used to the way you look. When you do not know yourself you tend to view yourself like a stranger would; you see only your exterior. No wonder we give so much credence to the opinion of strangers: Being strangers to ourselves we identify with their “point of view”. Much like strangers we connect with the superficial aspects of our existence – for example our looks –rather than the deeper layers that are “unfamiliar” to us.

The price for not defining ourselves to ourselves is a shallow self -perception, that of a stranger. Constructing your self definition around the way you appear to others renders you vulnerable and insecure. (A whole industry is based on this vulnerability: since in the Western culture good looks is equated with youthful looks, those invested in their looks are forever doomed to fight a losing battle against the ravages of time, and are susceptible to any method that offers “age reversal”.

The work with Lara is focused on helping her develop a solid definition of herself.   She can benefit tremendously from uncovering her authentic and consistent self-definition: This may sound straightforward, but actually it is one of the most difficult endeavors in psychiatry as we are usually terrified of facing our authentic self. However, refusing to face ourselves is akin to a child covering his eyes so the scary thing would “go away”.  Whether we look or not, our own self is always here with us, and ignoring it would not make it go away. The sooner we face ourselves, authentically and courageously, the better is our chance to live at peace with ourselves. No wonder Lara needs much support as she struggles to overcome her fear: “what if I hate whom I really am? “.

In my years of work I often encountered the inner “bogey man” phenomenon.  My patients being scared of discovering a fearsome – hitherto unknown-  inner secret. Yet, you are very unlikely to find something in your inner world you never knew about. In actuality you do know who you are, warts and all – you just do not want to look there.  Perhaps at some point in your past it was useful to distract yourself from yourself and forgo introspection. By now, alienation from yourself has become the problem even if it once was your “solution”. True: while facing your authentic self you may not like everything you see: however, you are unlikely to discover a dark secret about yourself you were truly unaware of.

Acquainting you with yourself is only the beginning of the process.  Imagine returning to your childhood room: The posters you once loved seem quaint and outdated, your bed is too small, the chairs too low: it is still your room but does not meet your needs any longer. You need to reassess and examine your notions about your life: Slaughter some “sacred cows”, connect with inner instincts rather than borrowed notions. Most importantly, you need to get rid of unnecessary “garbage” you hoarded inside and were never able to sift through. Almost like “interior redesign” of your inner world.  Once Lara was able to face herself, the work became increasingly rewarding for her. As she began to realize that her inner world is in fact a fascinating place, and highly worthy of her attention, her sense of self got better formed and her dependency on external definitions became greatly diminished.    Lara dared for the first time in her life, to define herself for herself. !


Do you suffer from the “Borrowed dignity Syndrome? Questions to ask yourself:

1. Do I often feel that I do not know who I really am?

2. Do I constantly seek approval from the others?

3. Do I often wonder what kind of impression I make on the others?

4. Do I try to be what I think the others want me to be?

5. Am I very preoccupied by my looks, my image, and my presentation?

6. Am I very sensitive to criticism?

7. Do I get very angry and/or depressed when I feel disrespected?

8. Can I be described as having a “thin skin”?

If you answered yes to five or more of the questions you may suffer from the “Borrowed Dignity” syndrome.

Steps to reclaim your sense of identity and fully own it:

1. “A Penny for your Thoughts”: Ask yourself how you know what the others (especially strangers) think about you. The more you consider it the clearer it should become to you that unless you are a mind reader (which no one is, not even an experienced psychiatrist…) you cannot know what another person thinks. We often can tell how another person feels even if he says nothing. There are many non verbal cues we use to convey our feelings.  Being sensitive to others’ emotional or nonverbal cues is a survival mechanism that helps us navigate successfully among our fellow humans. In fact, a hallmark of the autism spectrum – such as Asperger’s Disorder – is inability to “read” others’ emotions.  But we cannot know what the others think.  When we say we read someone’s mind, we mean his or her feelings. At times we can decipher very crude thoughts from reading one’s cues:  Frowning usually means “I do not like it” and smiling broadly mean “I like it”. But this is the tip of the iceberg when we ponder the myriad of thoughts that can swirl behind a smile or a frown (not to mention that we are highly adept in masking our feelings behind a fake expression: a politician’s smile can mean no more than a professional tic).

2. Consider:  most of your conscious thoughts are centered around yourself:  Unless you are obsessed with someone, you do not spend that much time thinking even about people close to you not to mention total strangers. It is not a mark of self-centeredness:  you can be compassionate and generous and still think primarily about yourself.  We need to think about ourselves since we operate this complex machine in space and time: imagine a pilot or a driver focusing mostly about other planes or vehicles: you would not want to be driven or piloted by them. In that context, preoccupying yourself about what the others are thinking about you is a waste of your energy. I am not suggesting you should not care; it’s that they simply do not think about you – they think about themselves!

3. Consider:  How much time do you devote into thinking about random strangers on the street? When you see someone unusual, strikingly beautiful, or shockingly eccentric how long does their image stay with you? Unless they do something extraordinary to you or your child (which is thankfully very rare) you don’t remember them even a day later.  If that is the case with striking stranger, regular ones may not even register in your short time memory. That is exactly the way others see you. It may be humbling ( or even distressing) to think that the rest do not really care about you. But it is the truth nonetheless. Human behavior is governed by predictability. We operate according to expected norms in order not to keep the rest guessing about our next move.  That is why most of us are trying to attract the least attention as we are passing by random strangers. In other words, the others are not really thinking or judging you one way or the other. Being hypersensitive to what the others think about you is really the outcome of not knowing who you are and seeking this knowledge from the others.  In truth they are not thinking about you at all and even if they were there is no way for you to know what they think.  It is you, attributing to them those thoughts, and not their own.   By allowing others to define you for yourself all you do is project your insecurities upon them.  Unless you define yourself to yourself you would continue projecting your insecurities unto the casual observer- thereby getting an imaginary “proof” to your perceived deficiencies.

4. Decide to break out of this negative feedback loop:  be truly self-conscious: i.e., think about yourself. Define for your self who you are in any number of areas. You may not like what you find which is probably one of the reasons you chose not to do it in the first place.  But at least, it would be an authentic assessment of yourself. Frankly, allowing the others to define you was definitely not conducive  to your self image.  The more you own your sense of self, the less susceptible you would be to the others’ “impressions” of you.

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