33: Reforming Our Self-Image

If we use an inferior recipe for baking bread, the bread will also be inferior. This is obvious: if we substitute sawdust for half the flour the recipe calls for, we can still make bread, but its quality will be awful and its taste will be horrible.

We create similar problems for ourself when our beliefs about our competence and worth are damaged or never properly developed. For instance, we may mistakenly believe we are unlucky and doomed to loneliness or a marginal career. These limiting beliefs will generate internal hesitation and doubts in us that sabotage our capacity to engage in our opportunities as well as our performance. Our expectations of fail- ure become self-fulfilling prophecies. When we “just know” that new ideas and advice offered to us will not work, we guarantee that our discontent will grow. If we seek to reform our habits of psychic self-destruction, therefore, we must give serious attention to examining and revising our self-image. It is our self-concept that sets the paradigm we use to evaluate ourselves and our situation. More importantly, our basic beliefs about ourself are the main factor that determines the quality of our response to what happens to us.

Our self-image filters what we see in our experiences and how we react. This is similar to how sunglasses distort our vision. If we look through blue lenses, everything will take on bluish tinges. Red colored objects will appear black or dark gray. Leaves and grass may seem to be turquoise when they are actually green.

Just as tinted sunglasses change the actual colors of what we observe, our self-image can distort our view of the world. It sets the standards for what we notice, how we evaluate what happens to us, and our response to these events. For example, our pessimism will filter out favorable options to be more successful and happy. Discouragement can cause us to ignore or discount compliments and small successes while noticing all our faults. Our general hostility and insecurity will search for and find all possible threats— including ones that are exaggerated or nonexistent. Being fascinated by new intellectual fads may cause us to expect too much and ultimately cause us much disappointment.

There is an old maxim that no one can truly insult you unless you accept this insult as a valid judgment. Once we assume we are at fault or incompetent in some way, we unleash our own condemnation and humiliation on ourself. If we have unrealistically high expectations, our frustration will be even more intense. We may even be tricked into being excessively frustrated with other people who are only misinformed or rude. Because of these warped standards and attitudes, we become an active participant in our psychic self-destruction.

Although common sense will confirm how we should respond maturely to reckless insults, the temptation to become angry or despondent can be very strong. When we yield to these temptations we can bruise our feelings and wound our ego. If we do not restrain these tendencies, our injuries will congeal into severe and permanent damage to our beliefs about our worth as a human being and our competence in what we do.

Unless we recognize the problem of irrational beliefs and faulty expectations in us, we will keep recreating problems for ourself. When the basic “recipe” of our worth, knowledge, skills, and intelligence is skewed in these ways, we cripple our performance and generate results we will deem inadequate.

Any major effort to change the paradigm of how we see and relate to the world must include the repair of our self-image. The template for our basic beliefs about what we can be and do are stored in this self-concept. Our collective convictions about our competence and worth also operate from this platform. Once these sets of beliefs are warped by assorted failures, defeats, and insults, we will operate with defective standards and expectations.

The core of any personal problem often lies in our unresolved conflicts and emotional wounds. Unless we learn to move beyond the pain of these harsh experiences, we are likely to become stuck in the past. As a result, we will tend to assume that our failures, defeats, losses, and mistakes will be repeated. The most devastating loss or mistake will set the limits of our success forever after. For instance, if we fail a few times to expand our career and business success, we might conclude that we will never get beyond this presumed limitation.

This is one of the crucial errors that many conscientious people make. Being correct and effective is so important that missing the mark becomes an “unpardonable sin” from which we can never recover. This frame of mind leads to making too much of setbacks, failures, and losses. We add an exaggerated significance to how we see ourself and what we believe we can or cannot achieve.

Gradually, we create a prison of beliefs that forever limits us by what we have not done and still cannot accomplish. The power of restricting beliefs can be enough to strangle our joy and success.

The key to revising this situation is to fully understand how we create most of these limits by our faulty assumptions. Yes, we all have real limitations—but some of us are too eager to believe that a temporary failure is actually a long-lasting defeat. We do not understand that a mistake or lapse does not become permanent until we give up and never make a serious effort to try again.

Much of our psychic self-destruction stems from varieties of self-created and self-imposed limiting beliefs. Our bodyguards of fear, anger, and discouragement are eager to preserve these limiting beliefs— always in the disguise of protecting us from additional harm and disappointment. They will tell us that our safety and security are most important and that we dare not risk another failure and the humiliation it will bring.

Whenever we come up against restricting beliefs, we must challenge them. Failure to re-examine our doubts and fears guarantees perpetual limitations and more psychic self-destruction. We may have to accept some limitations occasionally, but we need never accept the unnecessary, self-imposed ones! We owe it to ourself to review our beliefs to separate the real from the artificial barriers.

Successfully challenging our bodyguards of limitations and unrealistic expectations requires us to study how we have formed our beliefs about ourself. Have we assembled most of our self-image from experiences of failure, defeat, and loss? Have we ignored or diminished the significance of our successes and triumphs? Have we minimized our achievements, belittled our skills, and discounted our knowledge? If so, we have been using inferior building blocks for constructing our basic concept of who we are. We have substituted sawdust for the flour of the “bread” we are making.

It is possible to make a few effective revisions to our self-image, but then get distracted before we complete the task. We may get so involved in our careers and family life that we put ourself on automatic pilot. Except for major crises and other profound events, we continue with familiar and comfortable beliefs and habits indefinitely.

A common example would be mothers who do a great job raising their young children, but fail to adapt the image of their role of parent as the children grow. Unless they adjust to the greater power and independence of their children, they can be too involved in their children’s life and be perceived as controlling and interfering.

Other times, the crisis comes just after retirement. This requires a huge shift in our role and expectations for our daily activities. The sudden absence of fulfilling duties can lead to much frustration until we make adjustments in how we see ourself and our circumstances. In these and many other situations, we must modify our concept of who we are to fit our new situation and role.

While these examples make the need for revision of beliefs quite obvious, many of us still do not bother with the self-examination and review that is necessary. The saddest of these situations is found in those who allow major wounds and losses of the past to grow into a figurative cancer that consumes much of our joy, creativity, and confidence. By feeling victimized and deprived about unmet needs, we can feed a monster of despair, resentment, and self-pity that thoroughly corrupts how we think and feel about ourself and our life situation.

Some understand this conundrum and want to change, but do not know how. Others embrace the suffering and adapt their self-image and lifestyle to support and sustain it—a huge and unnecessary mistake. Wearing our misery as a badge of martyrdom brings sympathetic attention and provides an iron clad excuse to be less than we could, but the price we pay for this is horrible.

The process for reversing a severely wounded self-concept is to make some crucial decisions. Shall we live in the past or in the present? Is it necessary to fall down and worship in resentment the abuse and neglect we have experienced, or shall we adore and respect the joys, strengths, and opportunities we still have? Shall we collect unpleasant memories or good ones? Do we assume it is our duty to remember our miserable moments and frequently revisit them, or do we choose to let them go and become absorbed in what we still can enjoy in life? Are the indulgences and sympathy we receive as a result of hardship worth it, or is it time to move on? Is our obsession with misery blocking the success and joy we might attain in the present? Have we become so addicted to suffering that we no longer can imagine life without it? If we put ourself through this type of cross-examination, we might evoke some new insights about where we can and should change.

Unless we make a serious effort to update our concept of who we are, our past—with all its problems and limitations—may take over and strangle our humanity. Let us be guided by hope, wisdom, and courage rather than fear and gloom.

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