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What is Self-Image and How to (Really!) Improve it

What is Self-image

Sam suffers from a poor self-image.

He believes that no one likes him and no one will ever like him. He believes that he’s ugly.

And on top of it all, he doesn’t believe that one day he can reach his dreams. Like, he doesn’t deserve success.

Sam’s ideal is extreme. He believes that he should be liked by a specific type of people; the people who rejected him when he was young. You know, the cool kids!

He should be fit and athletic. Also, he should look so good that when he passes around, people notice him and drop their jaw in the sight of his gorgeous face.

Extreme expectations stemming from a grandiose tendency mixed with deep, suppressed inferiority feelings. Though most of it is unconscious and he’s not aware of it.

How Sam actually is? That’s another story!

He suffers from a creeping social anxiety that makes him act like a creep around people. He is so shy that he can’t look someone in the eye.

He is overweight and he never exercised in his life. The idea of being in a gym terrifies the shit out of him. Plus, nothing but fast food finds a way to his stomach.

His father is a perfectionist, and secretly a narcissist. He’s disappointed with his son and he shows no inhibition in expressing his disappointment. From physically beating him when he was a child to never giving him the approval that any son in the world wants to get from his dad.

Also, being shy and socially awkward, other people weren’t merciful toward him.

He was bullied throughout school. He was never taken seriously neither by his family nor by most of the people around him. It makes perfect sense why he developed such extreme ideals that include getting approval from a bunch of assholes (who don’t care about him) by trying to impress them rather than actually connecting with them (if it’s even possible).

But he’s not totally a mess! He has some good qualities as well.

He wasn’t as ugly as he thought. He was decent looking, actually. He didn’t have that fit body but he was OK. Not as bad as he thought he was.

He was smart. He was kind and compassionate. He loved helping people and he always felt that he could do something useful to the world.

However, he couldn’t see any of that. All that he could see was the flaws that made him loathe himself even more.

A Deeper Understanding of Self-Image and Self-esteem

In order to have a healthy self-image, you need to understand what is self-image in the first place.

Not just a shallow understanding, a deep understanding.

Contrary to the common beliefs, self-image isn’t only about appearance.

There are many other factors that shape your self-image as all. And looks are one of them.

On the other hand, many people claim that self-image is strongly related to self-esteem. It’s about the way you see yourself. It’s about the estimated value that you give to yourself.

And I agree to a great extent.

However, the term “self-image” is much broader. And it’s deeper than the “self-esteem”. It’s like you estimate your self-esteem by your self-image.

The healthier your self-image is, the higher your self-esteem. And vice versa. And in fact, all the techniques that are used to raise self-esteem are about changing the way you see yourself (a.k.a. self-image).

This will get clearer as we define self-image.

Sam’s story above tells us what self-image really is. Let’s break it down.

What is self-image?

Whether we admit it or not, we all judge people. negatively or positively.

What goes unnoticed is the fact that we also judge our own selves. Whether we’re aware of that or not; whether in a positive way or in a negative way (or both!).

Furthermore, other people’s judgments have the power to influence the way we see ourselves. Especially when we were children.

This judgment, whether made by you or other people, will lead you to believe certain things about yourself, whether real or imaginary.

This is self-image. The way you see yourself, appearance, personality, expectations of yourself, desirability, skills, abilities, and everything in-between.

So, in brief and in simple words, self-image is about the beliefs that you have about yourself.

Who you are. Who you should be. How you look like. How you should look like. What you are good at and what you are bad at. Your good traits and the bad ones. And much more of course; every single detail about yourself.

Based on this, your worth is determined. In other words, your self-esteem. That’s why I earlier mentioned that your self-esteem is measured by your self-image first and foremost.

This is the short definition. The beliefs that you have about yourself and how you generally see yourself.

However, we are not satisfied with this simple definition. We need something deeper. Let’s dive a bit deeper to understand the concept of self-image better.

I mentioned that the beliefs that you end up developing about yourself come from 2 main sources:

  • Your own judgment.
  • Other people’s judgments.

To understand why we develop these beliefs, we need to talk about each one in detail.

The Ideal-Self, The Actual-Self, And The Self-Image

We judge ourselves. And more often than not, we judge ourselves in a harsh way.

Other people judge us, consciously or unconsciously.

But for that judgment to happen, we need a standard. We need a benchmark. We need an ideal.

And that’s where what I call the ideal-self comes into play.

We have an ideal self-image that we want to attain. How we should look like, how we should behave, what we should have, how and how much we should be loved or accepted, and so on.

Based on this ideal, we judge ourselves and others. So, you judge yourself based on your ideal and other people judge you based on their ideal.

Usually, your ideal is shaped by other people’s ideal. Particularly, your parents and the environment in which you’ve grown.

And bingo! Based on these 2 judgments, your self-image is developed.

And then we have what I call the actual self. Or at least, what we believe is the actual self. It’s who you actually are, how you actually behave, and how you actually look like and come across.

We don’t really see it, but we perceive it. This is extremely important. The healthier our perception, the more clearly we’re able to see our actual self.

(Side note: I believe most of the actual-self will remains unseen by us. We might never be able to see the actual self as it is. But it’s OK. Self-awareness can never reach 100%, as with everything in life.)

We look at our actual selves, using our own perception, and we measure it against our ideal self. Other people look at our actual selves and measure them, using their own perception, against their ideal to make their judgment.

Problems happen when there is, or when we believe there is, a gap between our ideal self and our actual self. That’s when the so-called “negative self-image” is developed.

To fix this problem, we need to work on our ideal self, actual self, and how we allow other people’s ideal and perceptions to interfere with our self-image. Sounds simple, but it’s not easy; it requires a lot of work. But working on your self-image is the most worthwhile journey ever.

You work on your ideal by:

  • Questioning which beliefs have formed it.
  • Weeding out the unhealthy, and the unrealistic, beliefs.
  • Having a healthy ideal that consists of things that you can control. (e.g. you can’t control how people perceive you or how they will respond to you. You can’t control certain aspects about your looks.)
  • Accepting the fact that you will never reach that ideal 100% and/or 100% of the time.

You work on your actual self by:

  • Working on making your perception as healthy as possible. We will always have perception errors, but the fewer the better.
  • Working on actual improvements. Sometimes, it’s not a perception error and we really need to improve things.
  • Being able to differentiate between the previous 2 points. I mean sometimes it’s a perception problem and other times it’s a real problem. Having the wisdom to tell which is which is huge.
  • Challenging the toxic beliefs you have about yourself.
  • Developing healthier beliefs about yourself. Allowing yourself to salute yourself.

We work on the interference of other people’s ideals and perceptions by:

  • Learning to spot the unhealthy ideals. First, in ourselves and then in other people.
  • Learning to spot the unhealthy perceptions as well.
  • Working hard on our ideals and perceptions, the 2 previous points, until we’re able to spot the unhealthy ideals and the errors in perception.
  • Some perceptions and ideal are good and they are coming from people who care about you. Listen to them and work on what they say.
  • Ditching the unhealthy things as soon as we realize them. much more like not giving a sh*t about what people think, but done after giving a sh*t about what you think about yourself (working on your ideal and actual self). Don’t let the assholes define your self-image, you’ll end up with a low self-esteem, among other problems as well.

That’s hard and it takes time. It’s a process and you’ll fail sometimes and succeed other times. Sticking to this process will be rewarding eventually, trust me. What’s better than having a healthy self-image that positively affects all of the other areas in your life?

For instance, Sam, at the beginning of the article, has a lot of work to do.

He needs to work on his ideal. It’s extreme and unrealistic and stupid. Even if he achieved that ideal, he would still feel empty within because it’s based on things that are outside of himself.

He, instead, should focus on the inside and feel worthy on the inside without the need to prove to anyone that he’s worthy, including himself.

He needs to work on his actual self (overcome social anxiety and hit the freaking gym!). He needs to solve his problems with his father. He needs to work on himself.

He needs to work on his own perception and see that he actually has qualities that he refuses to admit. He is great in some areas but feels as though he doesn’t deserve that greatness.

He needs to work on the way he manages people’s opinions. His father and the “cool people” he is trying to impress.

And before all that, he should become aware of his problems. I mean, he should become aware of his poor self-image problems. He should become aware of his ideal, his actual self, his perception, and how he manages other people’s perceptions and opinions.

Self-awareness is critical. It’s one of the cornerstones of my book The Art of Change.

That, my friend, is what self-development should be for Sam, not few tips and trick that will help him get liked or achieve something (in order to get liked!).

While it’s a hard and a difficult journey, I wholeheartedly encourage Sam to take the first step and never stop.

I also wholeheartedly encourage you to do the same. Your journey might be different, but the decision to travel it and endure it and celebrate it is the same for everyone.

Take this decision now. No one will take it for you and no one is coming to save you. A saver doesn’t exist; you have to play that role in your life instead of waiting for someone else to do it for you.

The fact that you’ve read this far tells me that you’re willing to search for solutions and apply them.

If so, I have something to offer. Those articles should be a good start:

Where to Go From Here?

Stop Feeling Insecure!
19 Tips That Will Rapidly Help You Boost Your Self-Confidence. No affirmation!
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