Posted by: JennyRain | December 23, 2009

Peering through the Looking-Glass Self

What determines your identity?

According to the theory of the Looking Glass Self, our identity is determined by interactions with others in a given social context.

Created by Charles Horton Cooley in 1902 (McIntyre 2006), the looking-glass self is a sociological concept that a person’s self grows out of society’s interpersonal interactions and the perceptions of others. Cooley clarified it in writing that society is an interweaving and interworking of mental selves. The term “looking glass self” was first used by Cooley in his work, Human Nature and the Social Order in 1902.

It has three major components and is unique to humans (Shaffer 2005). According to Lisa McIntyre’s The Practical Skeptic: Core Concepts in Sociology, in the looking-glass self a person views himself or herself through others’ perceptions in society and in turn gains identity.

Identity, or self, is the result of the concept in which we learn to see ourselves as others do (Yeung & Martin 2003). The looking-glass self begins at an early age and continues throughout the entirety of a person’s life as one will never stop modifying their self unless all social interactions are ceased. Some sociologists believe that the concept wanes over time.

Cooley is telling us that society determines our identity. Who we are is simply a reflection of others perception of who they believe us to be. Identity is created from the outside in.

That means our being is formed by other people. We are formed by context and environment. So, if our environment changes, so does our self (according to this theory).

Graphically, according to Cooley, the Looking Glass Self theory of identity looks like this:

This concept of identity is turning into my life’s work and passion.

How does one find their identity? Is identity changed throughout our lives or does it remain fixed? How do we define identity? Does the concept of identity change for followers of Christ?

Who am I?

Circumstances early in life created a fertile ground for me to begin exploring the subject of identity. Identity, for me, was elusive. Mostly dependent upon my environment, my identity changed like the wind. Full-blown identity crises would happen every two years from my early teens through my early thirties.

Identity was my constant shadow – ever present – but always an amorphism.

Just when I though I had my hands tightly grasped around my identity, it floated through my fingers like jello.

I would love to say that the day I became a follower of Christ, I took a firm hold of my true identity for good, but that was not the case. This simply created another environment with additional expectations that added to my already fluctuating reality.

The scripture teaches that upon accepting Christ, I am a new creation, right?

2 Cor 5:17 Therefore if anyone is in Christ, they are a new creation. The old is gone, the new has come!

Upon growing in my faith and pursuing this concept of Identity from inside the confines of Christianity I began to learn so much from the scriptures that I wrote an entire bible study about a woman’s Identity in Christ!

2 Corinthians 5:17 became my rallying cry for what I felt would become the foundation of me finally grasping my identity…I learned that I am loved, valued, accepted, forgiven… I learned that I am in Christ and this is something that is constant…

Who I am in Christ

Yet, I conveniently glossed over the fact that we are new “creations” in Christ – not just new “creatures.” Being a new “creation” means I will continue to be “in process” as I grow.

No matter how hard and fast I pursued identity, I simply could not catch it.

How is our identity determined? Is it external forces or societal perceptions – as Cooley states above? How do we know who we are? How do we know that we know? Is our understanding of identity correct?

Does becoming a follower of Christ impact how we see ourselves? Should it? Is there anything to be gained – in this topic of identity – from being a follower of Christ?

I will be blogging about this for the next few days and sharing my own journey toward identity. My hope is that if you have wrestled with who you are, if you are currently in the struggle to define “self,” that these blogs will minister to you.

Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal. 2 Cor 4.16-18

To be continued…

Part 1: Peering through the Looking-Glass Self

Part 2: Chaos and identity development

Part 3: Further along the road of identity

Part 4: The Power of Naming



  1. […] Part 1: Peering through the Looking-Glass Self […]

  2. […] I explained in my previous posts on identity, I grew up in a pretty chaotic environment. Once I was through high-school, I was so used to chaos […]

  3. […] Mental Health, Moses, My Story, psychology, Religion, Spirituality, Who am I « Peering through the Looking-Glass Self The Colors of Christmas 2009 […]

  4. I am doing research on the theory of Looking Glass Self. I have searched for your follow-up articles, but haven’t been able to locate them? Could you please direct me?


    • Tamera – if you go to this link: and scroll all the way to the bottom – it has several of Cooley’s works that discuss the Looking-Glass self, plus some other resources are listed at the bottom of the link that is at the top of my blog.

      Hope that helps you! Thanks so much for reading 🙂


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