The Looking Glass Self: Why Your Teenager is a Failure

Gabriele is a 17-year-old aspiring writer from Jacksonville, FL.  She loves the wit of Charles Dickens, the smell of sharpened pencils, and the charm of coffee shops. She lives her life by a Benjamin Franklin quote: “If you would not be forgotten as soon as you are dead, either write the things worth reading or do the things worth writing.”

looking glass self, self image, failure, judgement, words, Charles Cooley, encouragement, motivation, teenagers, sociologyTeacher: And now we will discuss the famous sociologist Charles Cooley.

Me:

Teacher: His theory of the “looking glass self” happens to be his most famous concept in which we will go into more detail in the next twenty minutes.

Me:

Teacher: Wah wah wah wah wah wah….

If you were anything like me when you were a teenager, you didn’t pay an ounce of attention to your sociology class. The idea of dead people who never even lived to see the wonders of Google proclaiming to the world why I act a certain way seemed awfully wooly and indubitably boring. Unfortunately, I had to study Mr. Cooley and his contributions to the sociological realm and learned quite a bit about teenagers and his concept of the looking glass self. The information I learned will be of great interest to you if your teenager is one of the following: lazy, incompetent, out of control, insensitive, a failure.

So take a seat—any desk will do—and take good notes because this will be on the test.

First, let me briefly explain what the looking glass self theory is in case sociology wasn’t a top priority in high school. Basically, there are three main ideas. One: you imagine how you appear to others. Two: you make judgments about how others may see you. Three: you behave accordingly. In other words, people gain their own sense of self by interpreting the reactions of others. So, now I just have one question: how do you view your teen?

I met a friend recently who was a failure because his father was a failure and his father told him he was a failure. Why even try to do well in school? I’m just a failure anyway, right?

Wrong. He was not a failure. In fact, he was smart and had the most amazing work ethic I had ever seen. So why did he act like a failure? Because we as humans do well at fitting the role people expect us to fill. He was called a failure his entire life. People expected him to mess up. So, he inadvertently put himself in situations where he would mess up. It was programmed in him from birth to mess up. He is a failure, and until someone tells him otherwise, he will always be a failure.

I asked the question because I want you to think about the answer. If you view your teen in any negative way, your teen knows. Verbalized or not, we can sense from actions and reactions how our parents view us. And our parents are one of the greatest influences in our lives. What you tell us and what you do shapes who we become.

Only positive reinforcement and encouraging words can heal a teenager who views himself in a negative way. Most of the time, teenagers act a certain way because that’s all they know. They don’t understand what it is like to be someone else because they were never told that they could be someone else. Now, don’t get this confused with poor behavior that needs to be corrected with love. Teenagers will mess up, as you do also. No one is perfect. If your teen is on a dangerous path, it is okay to steer him otherwise, but do just that—steer. Do not dictate. Do not define who he is based on his actions. Because he is so much more.

When I talked about the looking glass theory to my dad, he told me his story about when he was a teenager.

“My high school counselor told me after seeing my ACT score that because it was low that I was going to be a failure—I wasn’t going anywhere. I cut school that day because I was so angry. I went to my work (I worked at the University of Louisville medical school as a lab assistant intern) and told my boss. My boss got so mad that he went to the school. They talked to the counselor and ripped him. That experience made me want to do better in college. So now I have two bachelor degrees. Because someone gave me some positive reinforcement, I wanted to do better. I challenged myself to do better and prove everyone who told me otherwise wrong. If I hadn’t had those words of encouragement, I probably would have become a failure.”

So here’s your test.

In the situation above, should you be A) the counselor, or B) the boss?

I’d like the answer on my desk by Monday.

         Photo Credit: Meredith_Farmer from Flickr

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3 Responses to “The Looking Glass Self: Why Your Teenager is a Failure”

  1. Jack Apfel
    March 9, 2012 at 11:16 am #

    Great article, Gabriele! A great example of this parent/child relationship are two of the main characters in my book. A couple divorces, and the mom spews hatred about the dad to their daughter, then tells the daughter she gets a lot of her traits from her father. The mother then ignores her daughter,  not wanting to remember her ex-husband, and the daughter grows into a very, very troubled teen.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Parenting Adult Children: The Looking Glass Self | Theresa Froehlich - July 13, 2012

    […] Charles Cooley teaches the “looking glass self” theory. The three main ideas of this theory show that our sense of self comes from the messages we receive […]

  2. Parenting the Adult: The Looking Glass Self | Theresa Froehlich - July 14, 2012

    […] Charles Cooley teaches the “looking glass self” theory. The three main ideas of this theory show that our sense of self comes from the messages we receive […]

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