Archive for the ‘Self knowledge’

August 15th, 2007


We all have a ‘picture’ of who we are, a set of ideas and beliefs about ourselves that forms our identity.

Our unique identity, our ‘self’, has several facets:

· Our true selfthe person we actually are with all our strengths, talents, abilities, weaknesses, and faults.

· Our ideal selfthe person we would like to be or think we should be, which is influenced by the people we adopt as role models, peer group and social expectations, and our dreams of being powerful, beautiful, admired, and loved.

· Our reflected selfthe person others see and reflect back to us, which usually carries some measure of assessment.

· Our interpreted self—the person we think others see.

Various elements of these four ‘selves’ then come together to form:

· Our self-image—the person we think we are, the way we ‘see’ ourselves, which is made up of a host of ideas about ourselves, some positive others negative, some crucial to our self-definition and others less so.

To be psychologically healthy all these facets of ‘self’ need to be similar, realistic, and flexible enough to allow change and growth. Generally though, we don’t experience or even recognize these separate components of self. We simply ‘feel’ that we are us.

The ‘self’ that has the biggest impact on how we act, think, and feel, and what we believe about other people and the world is the last on the list, our self-image or self-concept. This mental impression we all have of who we are, shaped by a collection of feelings and beliefs about ourselves, is the basis of our personality.

We develop our self-image in childhood, from our experiences (successes and failures) but mostly from other people’s reactions to us and their evaluations of us. We learn about ourselves as a by-product of living with others, by seeing who we are in the mirror of their responses.

If someone thinks we are cute and adorable they will treat us differently and convey a different sense of us than if they think we are boring or a nuisance. It we think we are loved we will feel and act differently, and our self-image will develop differently than if we feel unloved.

Whether what we believe others think of us is correct or not doesn’t matter because the influence on the developing self is the same. An ill mother for example, might ignore her child because she is in pain. But children tend to blame themselves for their treatment and if the child believes their mother rejects them because they are bad or unlovable then their perception has the same impact on self-image as if it was true. How others see us or how we think they see us influences how we see ourselves. These external responses and judgments are absorbed, made part of the self, and help form the mental representation of us that produces our sense of identity.

Unfortunately, human beings have a tendency to judge each other. Our natural egocentricity means that people can often only see others in relation to themselves, with their own needs and expectations influencing their judgement and warping their objectivity. Other peoples’ responses to us are often more about who they are and who they want us to be than who we actually are. So the messages people give us about ourselves, which are so important in shaping our self-image, are often seriously flawed and can lead us to believe we are better, worse, or different than we actually are. These inaccurate judgments can corrupt our self-image.

Our inner world of ideas and feelings about who we are is the basis of how we interpret and react to life, other people, and ourselves. The problem is that the self-image that develops is not necessarily accurate or even rational.

Our self-image might be close to our true self or it might be far removed from it. Our self-image can just as easily be based on false information and assumptions, illusions, or even delusions, as on reality. But being inaccurate doesn’t diminish the power of our self-image.

Even the most rational people can have at least a part of their self-image that is false. ‘Julie’ for example, is a normal, intelligent woman who is clear-sighted about most things except that she believes she sings beautifully when in fact her voice is strident and off-key. No one has ever told her she has a terrible voice but although normally perceptive, she fails to see other peoples’ embarrassment when she sings.

It is impossible to know where Julie got the idea she is a great singer. Perhaps as a toddler, her parents praised her singing and she internalized their view, perhaps as a teenager, singing along to the radio her voice merged with the pop star’s so that it sounded better than it actually was. Or perhaps she simply enjoys singing so much she cannot believe she is not good at it. But however this part of her self-image came about, it is utterly wrong. Just because we believe ourselves to be a certain way does not make it so.

It is disturbing to think that the view we have of ourselves could be wrong. How can we be other than we think we are, feel we are, believe we are? Inaccurate self-images are hard to recognize as faulty because they are usually unconscious, unquestioned legacies of childhood. We might not always be able to trust other’s judgments of us, but we cannot always trust our own either. Because self-images feel so right, so real, it never occurs to us that they are not accurate and permanent or that we should analyze or challenge them.

So the way we ‘know’ ourselves through our self-image often overrides our true self and factual details about ourselves. An inaccurate self-image can be unrealistically negative, such as in the case of people with extremely low self-esteem who feel inadequate when in fact they are not, or unrealistically positive, such as someone who believes themselves to be far more attractive or intelligent than they actually are.

Once a self-image is formed though it takes on a life of its own. People like consistency. If anything contradicts or challenges the beliefs we have about ourselves, we tend to ignore or reject it. It is often easier and less disturbing to deny reality than to change a deeply held belief. Even normal, well-adjusted people resist changing the way they see themselves because it feels like a threat to their essential self.

Our self-image after all feels like the ‘real’ us. So we unconsciously block feedback that doesn’t match our self-concept, which is why few people are completely objective about themselves. Self-images can and do change over time but not quickly or easily. Our self-image shapes our interests, thoughts, and behaviour and dictates our attitude to everything, but if that self-image is inaccurate, we are for the most part, unaware of it.

© 2007 All rights reserved.


See related articles: Changing reality, Natural narcissism