Self Perception through the Rearview of a Delorean

By Melissa Thornley

This is the first in a series of five blog posts on the key components of Emotional Intelligence: Self Perception, Self Expression, Interpersonal Relationships, Decision Making and Stress Tolerance.

Hands are adjusting the rearview mirror

Let’s jump right into the first building block of emotional intelligence: Self Perception.

Self Perception is made up of three main skills. As skills, we can develop them over time:

Self Regard: Respecting oneself while understanding and accepting one’s strengths and weaknesses. 

Self Actualization: Willingness to persistently improve oneself and engage in the pursuit of personally meaningful objectives.

Emotional Self Awareness: Recognizing and understanding one’s emotions, what causes them and the impact they have on one’s thoughts and decisions as well as the impact they have on others.

Given that Self Perception is all about how we look at ourselves, what better time to explore it than right before a high school reunion?  I won’t reveal which one I’ll be attending, but let’s just say Wang Chung might just show up on the reunion playlist.

As friends booked flights to come in for the reunion, I pulled out my yearbook. Despite loving high school, I found myself caught up in some sort of psycho-spiritual spiral. Remnants of who I was and who I thought I would become found themselves in a barroom brawl with the me I actually think I am.

DeLorean DMC-12 car

To wrangle this inner dilemma, let’s first hop in the Delorean to travel back and examine those three skills and how they impacted my teenage self perception.

In spite of my love for the hallowed halls of Maine South, I would have to say my self regard was pretty low. I never felt like I fit in. To be honest, I didn’t actually want to fit in anyhow (cue up the Depeche Mode playlist, please). Regardless of whether or not I fit in, I focused on what I perceived as weaknesses, like not being thin enough or not feeling talented enough. The opinion I had of myself during high school was far from generous, and I’d guess I wasn’t alone in this regard. It’s pretty hard to respect yourself when you don’t accept your mistakes, let alone ignoring your strengths. 

My self actualization, however, couldn’t have been higher. Part of that had to do with my overactive perfectionist gland (my own highly overactive and made up gland). I studied relentlessly, worked part time at The Gap (gotta love an employee discount) and taught aerobics at Women’s Workout World (yay for getting paid to work out). What I loved above all else was working on the school paper. People’s stories really mattered to me. This work wasn’t just work. It connected me to a purpose

Luckily for me, I had a solid group of friends that discussed how we were feeling and tried to understand why. This allowed my emotional self awareness to develop. Whether it was dealing with the stress of grades or insecurities about boys, our friends held each other together. Those relationships allowed us to process the insanity that comes with high school and make good choices. 

As I prepare for my reunion, I’m quite certain my overall self perception has evolved over the years. Personal and professional failures and successes big and small will do that for us. So now what? What impact does self perception have on our careers and lives? Why does it matter?

How you perceive yourself matters. You can run, but you can’t hide from yourself. Let’s say that you want that promotion. Can you easily list your strengths and pitch them? Do you enjoy the challenges presented at work and do they allow you to grow in a way that align with your values?

Whether it’s work or play or somewhere in between, increasing our self perception is key to increasing emotional intelligence.  So how do we grow these skills?

Self Regard:

  • Break down a big project into manageable steps.  Cleaning out your basement?  Take it one box at a time. Celebrate each box you get through. You’ll build momentum. Pretty soon that basement will feel like a new place where everyone wants to hang out.

  • Forgive yourself. We all make mistakes. Pause and reflect on what you’d do differently next time. Let it go.

  • Acknowledge wins big and small.  When someone thanks you for something or compliments you, take it in. Write down at least one win a day. It could be making the bed or winning a new client, notice that win.

Self Actualization:

  • Pick a new challenge and go for it. Cook that new chili recipe. Learn that new dance move your kids are doing. Ask to be put on that highly visible project at work.

  • Give yourself time to explore. Read a book, listen to a podcast, watch that documentary.  If it moves you, it feeds your values. Follow that urge.

  • Create a road map and follow it. You can’t get where you’re going if you don’t know where that is.  Look at the next six months and decide what six things you want to occur. Write them down. Then check in with your map regularly to make sure you’re on track or course correct so your goals line up with what’s important to you, which leads to...

Emotional Self Awareness:

  • Know what’s important to you. Set a timer for two minutes and see how many of your values you can list. Now notice where they’re showing up (or not showing up) in your life.

  • Look underneath that initial emotion. When something ticks you off, pause. Look a little deeper. What’s underneath? Maybe there’s a fear or loss hanging out there. What values got stepped on? What values were missing? Now how can you honor those values in that situation?

  • Don’t let your emotions drive the car. Emotions are data. They can provide insights to situations that can be helpful. And…don’t forget they will ebb and flow and change. So check in with other types of data before taking action, such as other people’s feedback, data points like timing, finances, etc.

Remember that emotional intelligence is less about individual skills and more about how they balance each other.  As important as self perception is, we also need to express ourselves, connect with others, make decisions and manage stress in order to get the results we want in our lives.

And let me assure you. I’ll leverage each and every one of those emotional intelligence skills during my reunion weekend. 

  • Stay tuned for the next blog in the Emotional Intelligence series where we look at Self Expression.

  • For a deeper understanding of Emotional Intelligence, I recommend the work of  Steven J. Stein author of The EQ Edge and The EQ Leader.

  • If you’d like to better understand your own emotional intelligence skills, taking the assessment and getting a debrief from a certified emotional intelligence expert might be the right step.  Contact me here for more information.


Melissa Thornley operates at the intersection of the left brain and right brain. She draws the creativity out of business people, and the business out of creative people. A veteran creative business professional, Melissa has produced and managed creative teams in Chicago, New York, and London. … read more.