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Moving Forward Through the Looking Glass: Possible Selves, Looking Glass Self, Social Media & Needs

Updated: Mar 15, 2021

©Elaine Bontempi, 2019

All Rights Reserved

Possible Selves

Beginning as early as childhood, we begin to form ideas of who and what we hope to become. These include our hopes and dreams but are based on perceptions of what is actually possible for us based on our interests, skills, abilities, and available resources. Psychologists Hazel Markus and Paula Nurius (1986) referred to this as the “Possible Selves” theory. Possible selves derive from representations of the self in the past and they include representations of the self in the future, and represent ideal selves that we would like to become, but also include selves that people are afraid of becoming. For example, hoped-for possible selves might include being successful, rich, employed, earning a college degree, married, popular, etc., whereas feared possible selves might include being unemployed, depressed, lonely, addicted, or unattractive possible selves. These possible selves are formed as a result of one’s hopes and dreams, but also the feedback we receive from others, including available models in our socio-cultural and historical context (Markus & Nirius, 1986).

Looking Glass Self

As we struggle to pursue goals and actualized our hoped for possible selves, our concepts of what is and what is not possible, are in part, impacted by our self-identity. Our identities, in turn, are also formed in part through the feedback we receive from others. In 1902, Cooley developed the idea of the “Looking Glass Self.” He suggested that the self cannot be separated from one’s social life and involves some reference to others. Cooley (1902) suggested that the “social reference takes the form of a somewhat definite imagination of how one's self--that is any idea he appropriates--appears in a particular mind, and the kind of self-feeling one has is determined by the attitude toward this attributed to that other mind” (Cooley, 1983, p. 255). A social self of this sort might be called the reflected or looking glass self: “Each to each a looking-glass, reflects the other that doth pass" (Cooley, 1902, as cited by Prus, 1996, p. 50). In other words, our sense of self is based in part, on the way that we believe others view us. Thus, our social interactions become a “mirror” of sorts.

As we receive feedback along the way, some of this is harder to reject than others. In general, we tend to internalize the feedback (both positive and negative) that we receive from people we esteem or value. For example, parents, teachers, coaches, friends, or groups we admire. It is much easier to push out the criticisms we might receive from people we do not know or care little about. However, if we receive consistent comments from larger numbers of people and sources (even if it is inconsistent with the thoughts we have about ourselves), these evaluations are much more difficult to ignore. When you consider the different environments that we expose ourselves to, this theory of the “Looking Glass Self” makes it easy to see the possible impact that social media has on the formation of self. No longer are we simply exposing ourselves to the perceptions of our family, neighbors, community, or school. When we interact with others online through social media, we are literally potentially connecting with millions of people all over the world. Adolescence proves to be an especially critical time for identity formation, as children and teenagers are at particular risk of having their sense of identity negatively impacted by the critical and oftentimes abusive comments of others online (Jones, 2015). Social media has essentially become our “talking mirror” providing us with clearly posted feedback about our abilities, limitations, strengths, flaws, beauty, popularity, and general self worth.

Why We Listen to Others?

Why do we allow what others say impact our identity formation, self worth, and perceived possibilities? The answer is a little complex, but it suffices to say that we are social beings and have a need to belong—to fit in and have close and caring reciprocal relationships with others. Motivational theories such as self-determination theory have shown that all humans, regardless of culture, have three innate psychological needs: autonomy-the need for volition or choice; competence-the need to master our environments; and the need for relatedness-the need to develop close and caring relationships with others (Deci & Ryan, 2000). These needs are so strong in our lives that when met, not only do they motivate us, but also promote psychological well being. When thwarted, however, both our motivation and psychological well-being are undermined. Thus, these underlying psychological needs impact our motivation and behaviors. In order to stay motivated, happy, and well balanced, we seek to satisfy these needs in our lives on a daily basis. The need for relatedness plays an important role because in order to feel close to others and fit into a group, we often internalize the beliefs, values, and behaviors of others. Thus, we internalize the values and behaviors of others and self monitor so that we can be a person who is perceived as being valued and worth “belonging to.” Unfortunately, this need to fit in and feel valued by others may also cause us to lose sight of our own authentic selves in order to fit in with others. This can also result in chasing the wrong goals and behaviors. A good example of this is an adolescent whose family moves around a lot, may find themselves changing their behaviors in order to fit in with peers at school, and this may mean taking up smoking, drinking, drug use, etc. just to fit in. If someone finds themself behaving in ways inconsistent with their own beliefs and values it ultimately results in cognitive dissonance. People of all ages may be at risk of losing their authentic selves as they attempt to fit in with peers, co-workers, community members or society.

In order to move forward through the looking glass towards your hoped for possible selves you will need to establish a strong self identity, have your innate psychological needs met on a consistent basis, and behave in a manner that is in alignment with your values. To help you get started with this, see the activity: "Choosing Your Mirrors."


Bontempi, E. (2019). Mirror, mirror on the wall: The looking glass self and social media. Retrieved from: https://www.drbontempi-

Bronstein, J. (2014). Creating possible selves: Information disclosure behavior on social networks. Information Research, 19 (1).

Cooley, C.H. (1902). Human nature and the social order. New York: Scribner’s.

Cooley, C. H. (2010). Looking glass self. In J. O’Brien (Ed.), The Production of Reality: Essays and readings on social interaction (4th ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Press.

Deci, E.L. & Ryan, R.M. (2000). The what and why of goal pursuits: Human needs and the self determination of behavior. Psychological Inquiry, 11(4), 227-268.

Jones, J.M. (2015). The looking glass lens: Self-concept changes due to social media practices. The Journal of Social Media in Society (4), 1. Retrieved from:

Manago, A.M. & Greenfield, P. (2008). Self presentation and gender on MySpace. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 29, 446-458.

Markus, H. & Nurius, P. (1986). American Psychologist, 41(9), 954-969.

Oyserman, D. & Fryberg, S. (2006). The possible selves of diverse adolescents: Content and function across gender, race and national origin. University of Southern California. Research Gate.

Prus, R. (1996). Symbolic Interaction and Ethnographic Research: Intersubjectivity and the Study of Human Lived Experience. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

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