How Your Self-Image Is Running Your Life

   I chanced upon an interesting book on psychology written by a plastic surgeon: Psycho Cybernetics by  Maxwell Maltz. His concept of self-image has completely changed about the way I think about cosmetics, plastic-surgery and many other things.
    His basic theory is that every one of us carries a mental image of ourselves. That mental image includes our physical appearance, abilities, character, personality, etc.
   The self-image is rarely built up though introspection -- it is made up of all kinds of external influences like other people's opinions about you. Those that influence your self-image the most would be the statements of parents and family, as well as anyone you are emotionally attached to, authority figures as well as anyone we see as experts (fashion magazines, for example). Some of these opinions are direct statements (like an aunt repeatedly telling a very pretty and intelligent friend of mine that is was her sister was the smarter and prettier one), or subtle -- like the media showing us impossible standards of beauty that we consciously or unconsciously compare ourselves to.
    Everybody's self-image is obviously subjective and inaccurate, sometimes more and sometimes less so. The self-image is really powerful and can totally distort a person's view of themselves.

   I'll give you an example from my life -- I have for years believed that I have unusually thick legs, because a guy once told me that. Until the day I went shopping for high boots, and all the ones in the store were too loose for me in the calf. I had to laugh.
    Acting in the theater has helped me to get a bit of distance to my self-image. Basic theater exercises play a lot with temporarily changing with the self image. For example telling a person to think a certain thing, and then seeing how his body language automatically changes.

How your self-image controls your behavior

     Maxwell Maltz states that every human being subconsciously tries to behave in a way that is consistent with their self-image, and seeks out situations and opportunities that re-affirm that self-image.
   If we see ourselves as "the shy one", we will be more likely to notice situations that prove this, than those that disprove it. (Unless, and we will talk about this later, we have an experience that is strong enough to change this part of our self-image.) However if your self-image is healthy and you see yourself as happy, liked and successful; you will seek out opportunities that will prove this. (Now, this explains how the affirmation stuff works -- affirmations can give your self-image a face-lift, thereby changing your behavior).

   Your self-image will The author gives an interesting example of scars -- a salesman who saw a scar on his face as the reason he was ugly and unsuccessful, and a German duelist was proud of his scar because it made him a part of the elite (duelists were highly respected back then).

    An example from my life: I have believed that I am "intelligent" , and this came from my parents have always repeated it to me (and I am very grateful to them for that). Now, if I were to search for objective proof for my intelligence I would find conflicting information -- I have been top of my language class several times at University, but at the same time have problems with simple subtraction and division. However, my self-image is that of an intelligent women, so I focus on times that my brain has worked well and see them as more important than the times when I have blurted out the stupidest things every. That gives me loads of confidence -- I would not be afraid to take up a difficult university course or learn another foreign language.
    The question  here is not about how intelligent (or not) I am, or about having illusions about my real capabilities. I am pretty much able to see both my strengths and weaknesses clearly. However, a persons who sees himself as intelligent usually is happier and makes better choices than one who sees himself as lacking in intelligence.

How we unconsciously try to fix our self image

   Now, our self-image is changeable, and we often try to fix it unconsciously. Some of these attempts are actually pretty good, some are very temporary and can even backfire. A rather drastic way is plastic surgery -- it can change someone's life not because the world treats them better when they have a new nose, but because the surgeon's scalpel has also changed their self-image.  Basically a strong intervention from outside fixed their self-image. However this does not often work, as the author notes -- many people look "prettier" after surgery but continue to have their psychological problems. And then there are those who insist that they don't see any difference post surgery and that the surgeon "did nothing", because their own self-image did not change.

   Makeovers can also change a woman's self-image. For example the story of Doe Deere.

   Other ways that people try to unconsciously make their self-image better:
* "Fishing for complements" -- for example pretty girls in the "Am I Ugly" videos
* Looking for approval
* Make-up

Taking control of our self-image

   Now, the best way to change one's self-image for the better in a constructive, conscious way. Focus on your best parts and seek out experiences that will challenge your image of yourself.
    Some years back my then-boyfriend convinced me to enter into an essay-writing contest. I did it only to humour him, and to my out most surprise I won! Since that time, I felt that I could kinda write, and that experience is probably on of the reasons I am writing this blog.

Here are some of my ideas that could help you make your self-image more positive:

* Seek out experiences that will challenge your image of yourself. For inspiration, read the old posts on Not That Kind Of Girl
* Take small risks. I can never forget the exhilaration of me and the other women who tried fire-hooping for the first time. It's way safer than it sounds, and we were under expert guidance so nothing could go wrong. Still, this experience felt so exhilarating and wild that now "I do cool stuff" has been integrated into my self-image. I'm the girl who dances with a ring of flames around my waist. I have talked to many hoopers and several of them have experienced the same thing.
* Focus on compliments and successes. Remember them before you fall asleep at night, write them down and gather them in a jar. Be very proud of every time you didn't mess up. It's a bit like talking to a kid that is still learning stuff, but believe me -- it works!
* Compliment yourself. Sounds a bit dumb, but works. My fav time is in front of the mirror before going to bed.
* Every time you think something nasty about yourself, stop that thought mid-way and replace it with something positive. Seriously, shutting up my inner critic is one of the best things I have done.
* Watch out for people who try to drag your self-esteem down. Realise that they are most probably doing it to make themselves feel better (and it doesn't work). Feel independent from other people's opinion of you.
* Do nice things for yourself, take time off, be important to you.
* Say yes to opportunities where you can do something interesting but a bit outside your comfort zone. Especially if a friend invites you.

   Got any more ideas to add to this list? Have you had an experience that changed your self-image? Let me know in the comments.

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