When I meet a new client, I’ll often break the ice by asking them to tell me something about themselves. Their opening statements will usually involve a variety of neutral statements: “mother of two,” “cat owner,” “waitress,” and so on.
As the conversation progresses, I begin to develop a sense of this person’s self-image. The way they talk about their abilities, their perceived influence, their strengths and limitations — all of this helps me form a picture about their expectations for success or failure.
What they may not know is that the foundations for their self-image were laid quite early in life. Childhood and adolescence are highly influential times, during which the expectations and reactions of parents, teachers, friends, and significant others become internalised.
While it is still possible to change, our basic identity is formed in these early years. The fortunate ones will emerge with high self-esteem and confidence, because they were encouraged and rewarded and because their mistakes were put into context. The less fortunate will have low self-esteem and low confidence, because they never reached certain standards or expectations set by others. Punishment, whether physical or through verbal criticism, or through the withholding of rewards or emotional comfort, often times forms the basis for their experience.
Beliefs and truths
Whatever the causes of your low self-esteem, the important question is to ask is this: “What can you do about it now?” Perhaps we should deal in truths, the first of which is to remember that our self-image isn’t actually real. It probably feels real because of the beliefs you have about yourself, but many of these beliefs turn out to be completely false.
For example, the fact that your dad was desperate for you to follow him into the military, even though you’re partially sighted, or flat-footed, is a case in point. You may carry the guilt or shame of letting him down, but in reality, there is nothing you can do about it. Similarly, we can’t all become concert pianists, even though our piano playing abilities may be very good.
The danger with feelings of despondency arising from perceived failures is that they spread. Your belief that you’re bad at one thing can easily spill over to others. Before you know it, you believe you’re useless at most things. Which leads me to the second truth, which is that the more negative your self-image, the more likely it is to be wrong.
How to change
Thinking these things through is important, but thoughts alone are slippery and prone to change. By far the most potent combination is to combine positive thinking with behavior change. The way we behave reflects the way we feel, but the reverse is also true.
If we behave in certain ways, our feelings tend to correspond. If you’ve ever pretended to be angry, or upset, or happy, there’s a good chance that your emotions start to align. The way we behave not only creates an impression on other people, it has an impact on ourselves.
It’s often far easier to regulate our behavior than it is our thoughts and feelings. I’m not suggesting that by pretending to be someone or something else that you’ll change overnight, but simple acts of assertion do help boost self-esteem and improve self-image. However, you won’t ever discover this unless you try.
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Jerry Kennard, Ph.D., is a chartered psychologist and associate fellow of the British Psychological Society. Jerry’s clinical background is in mental health and, most recently, higher education. He is the author of various self-help books and is co-founder of positivityguides.net.