When you look in the mirror, what do you see? Do you see someone who is confident and ready to take on the challenges of the day? Or, do you see someone who is self-conscious about her weight, her clothes and her hairstyle? Do you see a man with a plan? Or, is the reflection you see looking back at you just an aging guy with a receding hairline? Amazingly, what you see, may not be at all what others around you see.
Our self-image is colored by how we feel about ourselves – our worth as a person, our ability to be successful or fail, our attractiveness or lack thereof. The truth is, we can’t begin to make external changes that we will find satisfying until we do some work on how we feel about ourselves on the inside.
Well-Being spoke to Denease Bishop, LPC, LMFT, from Jackson Psychiatric Group about how we develop our self-image and what we can do to improve it.
Who is looking back from the mirror?
According to Ms. Bishop, one of the best things we can do is ask ourselves what we think about ourselves. That might sound simplistic, but if we are honest with ourselves it gets straight to the crux of the matter. Do we feel sub-par? Do we think we are a disappointment to others (and ourselves)? Do we feel defeated before we start a new project? Are we afraid to try new things because we don’t want to fail?
“We each develop a belief system about ourselves based on external input,” explains Bishop. “That input comes from all sorts of places – social media, our parents, our classmates at school, the electronic media. All of these sources are sending us messages that may influence our self-image in a positive or negative way. These experiences help to set up a template for how we come to view ourselves.”
What are some symptoms of low self-esteem?
• Do you feel like a disappointment to others?
• Do you feel that you are too needy for others to relate to?
• Do you have difficulty setting boundaries or saying no?
• Are you a people pleaser?
• Do you think you are unlovable and therefore sabotage relationships before they have a chance?
If you answer yes to one or more of these questions, you may have a distorted self-image that is keeping you from performing at your best, preventing you from following through on projects, or making you afraid of trying something new for fear of failing. If your feelings are pervasive, they can affect all aspects of your life, from work to relationships, and even how you spend your free time.
Ms. Bishop shared some techniques she recommends to her clients to help them improve their self-esteem.
• Listen to what you are telling yourself about yourself. If it is negative, practice changing your conversation to something positive. Make a conscious effort of replacing negative messages with positive ones.
• Practice “radical acceptance” – a belief that you CAN improve if you want to by empowering yourself to do so.
• Realize that some of the things we dislike about ourselves are not valid…we are actually being overly critical of ourselves. Other characteristics we dislike about ourselves are subject to change. We don’t have to accept them.
• Do one thing for yourself that is different or new. Have you been afraid to try a new hobby or to enter a sports competition? Overcome your fear of failing by taking the first step and proving to yourself you can accomplish what you set out to do with perseverance.
Fostering self-esteem in our children.
As parents we want to give our children healthy self-confidence and the strength and courage to try new things, get along with and make friends, and grow and learn so they can find success in life. To do so, we should start by evaluating our own self-images to be sure we are setting positive examples. Do we interact well with our friends? Do we resolve conflict in a healthy way? Do we put ourselves down or show self-confidence? Are we empathetic or critical? Are we warm or standoffish? What our children learn from us both directly and indirectly has a huge impact on the template they will develop for evaluating themselves and their own self-worth.
“Children also need a secure, consistent environment where they are accepted, understand the rules and can build confidence,” continues Bishop. “They learn to respect themselves when they are respected, and they learn to love when they are loved. They need the opportunity to try new things and the freedom to fail occasionally without feeling like a failure. They need to know they are important to us…that what they have to say matters. That means giving them undivided attention when we are not on the phone, not texting, not working on the computer, reading the newspaper or watching TV.”
All of life is a growing process, whether you are 15 or 80, you are always growing and changing. Growth requires effort and sometimes it takes reaching out for professional help to sort out obstacles that are standing in the way. If you are having trouble getting to the root of your low self-esteem and making a turn-around to a more positive attitude on your own, don’t be afraid to give yourself the gift of professional guidance.
“Sometimes growth means letting others people know about our struggles,” adds Bishop. “We so often are afraid to open up to those around us, but when we do, sometimes we find that they share many of the same fears and obstacles. Learning that we are not alone is sometimes the first step toward realizing we are not so different after all. The second step is believing that the good things others say about us may just be true.”
Denease Bishop, LPC, LMFT earned her Masters in Marriage and Family Therapy from Reformed Theological Seminary. She worked for over ten years with children and adolescents exclusively before moving into private practice, where she sees individuals, couples and families dealing with issues of depression, anxiety, and developing healthy relationships, among others. Denease served for several years as Executive Director for the Mississippi Association for Marriage and Family Therapy.