Ways out of self image dilemmas

To try to ease out of this sort of problem is not easy, and the relaxation response by itself is probably not going to be very helpful. So upset is the person who is trying to cope with a self image problem that the paraphernalia of relaxation is rejected before it has a chance to work. Quite a lot can be done, however, by starting to talk to yourself in a supportive way, if this is indeed your problem. To some extent you have to turn away from that old image. But if you feel, as many do in this situation, that you can’t change after all these years, you just set yourself up for certain failure.

The past must be rejected in these circumstances, and life restarted with the present and future in mind. All too often we only take account of the things we do which go wrong: the relationship that has soured, the business project that has become fouled up, the dress that we didn’t buy quite enough material for, the cake that somehow missed out on the sugar. Instead, we must remember to appreciate ourselves more for the good things we do. They may not be many or very impressive, but they are there. It’s not just a case of self-righteousness to remember them.

An example springs to mind relative to a common subject of fractured self image – the failed dieter, or for that matter the slipped drinker. It’s all too easy to dwellbon the fact that you have failed in your endeavour, say after only 10 days. But this is negative thinking. Wherever you are now you did succeed for 10 days. Having done so, say to yourself that you can go on dieting or not drinking for another day, and having regained your self image a day or two or maybe a week can be added to your score. The difference between self-righteous behaviour (which is often so irritating to others) and the sensible repairing of a damaged self image is that in the former we want others to tell us how good we are, and in the latter we give ourselves the quiet credit – and credit always has a tendency to grow, very slowly at first and then by compound interest.

One way to change bad old self image problems is to plan for success. Set yourself a few goals in which you are bound to succeed. Some people who, say, want to build more exercise into their lifestyle aim to be two- or three-hour joggers. When they fail in the first half a mile their self image wilts. Instead, if they were to set a five-minute goal, or even a two-minute one, their ‘notching up’ of success would bolster their self image. This principle can be extended to things like slimming, painting the house (start with a shelf), setting the garden straight (prune a rose bush), or even writing a letter (a two-liner maybe)! The important thing is to select a goal and then achieve it with pride. Next time the goal can be more ambitious.

Those whose self image is severely dented – fractured even – need to work quite hard at their repair job, and start, as I’ve said, with small areas of remodelling. It’s a good idea to get into a habit of self-review at this stage. Indulge in a sort of action replay of the things that worked for you today, maybe at bed time. Remember, too, how your self image evolved when you were tiny. It got good by small successes remembered (learning to read a new word or two). It got bad by equally small remembered failures (failing your two times table). Make sure that each day the remembered successes outshine the failures, even if you have to set yourself a whole range of instant successes to start with.

Some psychologists set great store by what they call guided imagery as a self image building process. Really it is a sort of daydream about the sort of person you are trying to be. It is said to work well for competitive sportsmen and performers generally. Most image-building success of this kind is due to rehearsal. Good ‘spontaneous’ speakers, whether they be at a prestigious banquet or at the local football club, do in fact carefully rehearse and work on their performance. If ever you hear even a famous actor do an ‘off the cuff’ speech the chances are that it will be awful. Similarly, preparation for an important meeting or perhaps a housewarming party pays hands down. Part of that preparation is, of course, in the mind. But practical measures are also relevant and important too. They contribute greatly to how you fare ‘on the day’, and how your self image feels about it afterwards.

Finally this image-building process must include taking full responsibility for where you are now without blaming yourself for it. Blame is self-defeating in this way. It gets you stuck deeper in the rut. You have to learn to view your failure – the things that have really hurt you – as opportunities to learn something new about yourself and about others. Once you really get down to this you are open for real improvement.

Before leaving this superficial ‘look at yourself in a new light’ exercise, always remember that there are others who can help when personal self image damage seems impossible to face alone. Don’t be put off if these people call themselves doctors, psychiatrists, psychologists or counsellors. They are all members of the same species as you, and prone to the same pressures of living that you are faced with, although possibly in other ways. They have, however, developed special skills in problem solving. Skills are only learned to be used – and helping you feel better about yourself is their life.

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