Dear Therapist:

I was recently asked by a shadchan to write a detailed description of myself and I was surprised at how stuck I got. It was very hard for me to write about what's important to me, what my personality is like, and what I truly value, in a way that is anything other than cliche. I started thinking that there is something wrong with me that I can't do this. I think part of this is because there is a big difference between who I actually am and who I want to be. Do you have any suggestions that would be helpful for me to better understand and explain who I am? 



Your experience is nowhere near as uncommon as you might believe. I think that most people would have trouble describing their personalities and values. Although many likely believe that they easily can, if they were truly introspective—as you appear to be—they would probably find that their descriptions are partly what they think others want and partly what they want for themselves.

You wonder whether your difficulty identifying your personality and values is partially due to the difference between who you are and who you want to be. What if I told you that the two are the same—in the only way that it truly matters?

I think that the issue you describe relates to self-esteem (as do most issues). Most people have a much easier time describing others than they do describing themselves. This appears to make no sense; we know ourselves far better than we know anyone else. Nonetheless, when it comes to feeling good about ourselves or others, the latter is usually far easier than the former.

There are two basic differences between how we view others and how we view ourselves. (This largely correlates to how we feel toward others and toward ourselves.) When we think about others, we usually do so in a very general manner. We like the person or we don’t. We feel good about who they are or we don’t. We typically do not focus on particular qualities, traits, or other personality factors in order to determine our feelings toward them. It is simply an automatic sense of who they are. This makes it difficult for us to transfer positive feelings about others onto ourselves.

We also like others based on who they are intrinsically. Although we may not consciously consider this, we like others for personality qualities, like being caring or dedicated (not actions related to these). In addition to not focusing on personality (intrinsic) qualities, we don’t consider factors external to who the person is. The difference is that intrinsic qualities factor into our feelings toward others, while external factors do not.

Another person’s qualifications, achievements, looks, and possessions do not in any way change our feelings about who they are. However, since we tend not to view ourselves in an intrinsic manner, when we consider how to feel about ourselves we obsess about the external. We try to feel good about ourselves based on looks, achievements, what others think of us, and other factors that would have no bearing on our feelings toward others. In contrast to how we view others, external qualities factor into our feelings toward ourselves, while intrinsic factors typically do not.

Just as we are able to automatically get a sense of who someone else is without extraneous material, we can—technically—do this for ourselves. In fact, we should theoretically be better able to do this for ourselves than for anyone else. When we think in the typical manner, however, we can quickly get mired in all the external factors. Do I always think of others? What have I done for someone lately? What about the time that I didn’t help that person? Am I really accomplished? What have I achieved in my life?

These are not questions that we ask about others. When it comes to others, these concerns are completely irrelevant to how we feel toward them. We like them because they are generally caring and dedicated—not because of specific actions or accomplishments. Therefore, when we step back and consider who the other person is, we are able to recognize the intrinsic qualities that define them.

We are, however, able to do the same for ourselves. Although there is a system to building intrinsically-based self-esteem, I will briefly describe the basic process. The first step is to clearly recognize the fact that we view others both generally and intrinsically. The next step is to begin identifying the intrinsic qualities that make us feel positively toward others. This allows us both to move away from automatic feelings and to feel good about qualities rather than about the person. As we connect the dots between others’ personalities and our positive feelings toward them, we can begin doing the same for ourselves.

-Yehuda Lieberman, LCSW

  psychotherapist in private practice

  Woodmere, NY

  adjunct professor at Touro College

  Graduate School of Social Work

  author of Self-Esteem: A Primer / 516-218-4200


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