We are all familiar with the idea that we have a particular self-perception or self-image. But it’s easy to fall into the trap of seeing our self-image as something that is fixed and set, particularly once we’ve become adults. But is this actually how it is or how it needs to be? My view is that it’s useful to treat our self-image as something that can and should shift over time. In this post I’ll also suggest that the onus is on each of us to deliberately check and update our self-perception.
Why self-image can be inaccurate or out-of-date
In previous posts I have written about the prevalence of self-limiting thinking (see the June 2018 blog) and that there are things we can do to get proper perspective into our thinking (see the July 2018 blog). Building on these key themes our self-image is accurate when it is based on an informed, objective appraisal of our intentions and what we’ve actually done in work and life. But there are lots of reasons why our self-perception can be out-of step with reality. Some common ones are:
Stuck in the past Sometimes we have an outdated view about ourselves. For example someone might describe herself as being “useless with numbers” because she once got a poor grade in a school maths exam at school. She might be ignoring the fact that nowadays, however, she understands and manages her department’s finances well. Or perhaps there was a time when we didn’t feel we matched up to a parent’s or teacher’s expectation and we’re still carrying this around us, years later.
Over-reacting It’s easy to over-react to a negative situation, particularly if it relates to something that we’re very sensitive about. Say, for example, that an important presentation at work hasn’t gone as well as hoped, someone might find himself saying “I’m hopeless at presenting to the Executive Committee”, even though this is not a true reflection of his skills or how the meeting has actually gone. It’s important to practice keeping things in perspective, remembering that who we are is not simply defined by isolated incidents. It’s based on lots of lots of different aspects of ourselves and how we’ve been in umpteen different situations.
Self-critical A lot of people I have coached are very self-critical and they give themselves a hard time. In other words they believe and accept negative views and interpretations much more readily than the positive ones. This might be evidenced in someone dismissing strong positive feedback in their end of year review, for example, whilst being completely preoccupied with one tiny negative incident (e.g. forgetting to attach a document to a routine email.)
Confusing preference and ability In our general, day-to-day communication we often fail to distinguish between what we enjoy and what we’re good at. So when I hear an individual saying that they’re “rubbish at networking and politics” I’m always interested to know if they’re simply reflecting a dislike and discomfort with this type of activity or if they genuinely lack the skills and techniques to engage effectively with people.
Inflated self-perception Completely opposite to being self-critical, there are people who have an over-inflated, distorted view of themselves. I once remember someone telling me what a strong people person he was and how good he was at listening and empathising. In practice, however, I had just witnessed a very one sided 30 minute conversation where he talked at and down to a colleague, without showing a shred of interest or respect for the other person.
“The past is a point of reference, not a place of residence”
Does it matter if our self-image is outdated or inaccurate?
In a word, yes! Our self-perception affects how we feel and react so when our self-image is overly negative we can spend lots of time and energy worrying about little things that are not actually a big deal. When our self-perception is overly harsh or self-critical we are also more likely to give weight to feedback or experiences that reinforce our negative view. So it’s easy to get caught in a vicious circle of selectively attending to negative points and then using these to give weight to negative views about ourselves.
How can we update our self-image?
Like any form of biased or distorted way of thinking it is possible to make our self-image more objective and current. It usually requires a deliberate focus and some persistence to create a new self-perception and make it stick. This is because we all get used to thinking about ourselves in a particular way and new thinking habits need to be laid down in our brain’s neural networks. But with the right approach it is absolutely achievable. I’ve listed some ideas you can try below.
Here are a few suggested take-aways from this article if you want to update your self-image:
Take some time to have an honest conversation with yourself. How do you see yourself? What adjectives do you tend to use to describe what you’re like? What are the repeated patterns in how you talk about yourself? (both to others and to yourself) If you had to defend your self-perception what evidence could you point to? How consistent, recent and relevant is it?
Reflecting on how you see yourself now ask yourself how this has changed and developed over time? Has your self-perception developed in line with your life experience and personal development? Or have you allowed your self-image to be rooted in something that happened years ago? If so, see if you can give yourself permission to move on from this.
If you find it hard to be objective about yourself reflect on the feedback you’ve had from other people you respect. Do they tell you that you’re overly self-critical or under-confident? If so, it’s likely that your self-image could do with updating. If you find this difficult to do by yourself you may want to buddy up with a development partner or a coach to get some objectivity into your outlook.
Keep a simple log of positive personal successes and achievements alongside things that haven’t gone so well for you. Look back on both lists regularly to keep yourself grounded in your current experience.
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