It’s not what you say out of your mouth that determines your life, it’s what you whisper to yourself that has the most power!
This article is part of an 8 part series to help you develop more confidence in the pursuit of your goals. Here is a list of all articles within this series:
- Improving Self-Esteem
- Transform Your Self-Concept
- Boosting Self-Confidence
- Developing Self-Worth
- Building a Healthy Self-Image
- Pursuing the Ideal Self
- Fake it ‘Til You Make it!
- Developing Superhero Courage
What is a Self-Image?
A self-image is in its most basic form an internalized mental picture/idea you have of yourself. It’s how you think and feel about yourself based on your appearance, performance and relationships that consistently impacts your outlook on life as well as your level of happiness and fulfillment.
Whenever you ask:
How do I look?
How am I doing?
How important am I?
These are all examples of the internalized mental picture/idea you create of yourself that builds the foundations of your self-image. However, this doesn’t quite provide us with enough information about what this “self-image” thing is all about. So let’s break this down even further.
Your self-image is the impression you have of yourself that forms a collective representation of your assets and liabilities. In other words, your self-image is how you see yourself based on your strengths and weaknesses.
These assets and liabilities often are evident through the labels you give yourself that describe your qualities and characteristics. For instance you might say:
I am intelligent… therefore I can…
I am loser… therefore I believe I can’t…
I am outgoing… therefore I am able to…
I am shy… therefore I am unable to…
These are just some of the examples of the many labels you potentially give yourself and the inevitable conclusions you may reach. And it is these conclusions you make about yourself that either form the foundations of a healthy self-image or an unhealthy self-image. Moreover, these labels form the foundations of your belief systems.
Your self-image is not something that is based on reality; in fact, far from it. In actuality your self-image is built upon your perception of reality and that is influenced by how you believe you’re being viewed by society and other people.
Your self-image is something that gradually develops over a lifetime of experience, thought, learning and societal influence. It is however something that is constantly changing over time as you gain more life experience, as you think and reflect, as you learn, and as you interact with other people.
Healthy vs. Unhealthy Self-Image
So what does a healthy self-image look like? What about an unhealthy self-image? What’s the difference? And what impact do both have on your life? Let’s answer these questions by breaking down what it means to live with a healthy and an unhealthy self-image.
As you read through these two examples, take inventory of yourself and identify whether your self-image borders more to the healthy or toward the unhealthy side of the scale.
An Unhealthy Self-Image
A person with an unhealthy self-image tends to consistently focus on their flaws and limitations. In fact, they persistently criticize themselves and tend to judge most of their decisions and actions:
What was I thinking?
That was such a stupid decision.
I can’t believe I just did that.
This constant critical judgment tends to distort their imperfections — making them larger than life. In fact, everything on the negative side tends to be exaggerated and blown out of proportion. This often happens because they are heavily influenced by other people’s opinions of them to their own detriment. In fact, these peoples’ lives are very much defined by societal standards, norms and expectations. As a result they are consistently comparing themselves to others and trying to live up to other people’s expectations. And when they notice that they just don’t measure up, this sends their emotions into a tailspin which triggers doubt, pessimism, insecurity and eventually leads to discouragement and potentially depression.
Whenever a person builds their self-image upon external factors, there will always be drawbacks. People’s opinions change and societal expectations constantly shift. When these opinions and expectations are weighed in our favor this leads to a positive outlook and more fulfillment. However, when they flip and become unfavorable or unhelpful in respect to the outcomes we would like to achieve, this then causes upheaval by sending our emotions into a tailspin because suddenly the perfect mental picture/idea we had of ourselves has been thrown out the door. It’s certainly not a healthy way to live.
A Healthy Self-Image
A healthy self-image is primarily based on an individual’s personal feelings and perspectives. Here individuals are no longer influenced by other people’s opinions of them or by societal expectations. They instead make up their own minds about the internalized mental picture/idea they have of themselves. As a result these people often have a more optimistic outlook on life and thereby more confidence in themselves and in their own ability. Why? Because they feel a greater sense of control over themselves and over their life.
A person with a healthy self-image doesn’t deny that they have flaws. In fact, they are realistic and clearly understand and accept the fact that they have their personal shortcomings. However, there is no critical judgment here. They acknowledge who they are and how they are in this very moment, and do the best they can with what they have.
A healthy self-image is of course built upon a high level of self-worth. Both work together to help shape a healthy personality, which effectively builds the foundations of an empowered life.
How to Build a Healthy Self-Image
Let’s now take a look at a four step process that will help you build a healthy self-image. This process is closely tied to the process we used for building more self-worth. Because these two are very much related, there will be somewhat of a crossover. Having said that, there are some variations here that will help you dig a little deeper in this area.
Step 1: Explore Yourself
Your first step is to explore who you are and what that means to you. This is an important first step because unless you clearly define who you are, you will never really develop a clear and accurate picture/idea of “you”. Ask yourself:
Who am I?
How am I?
What defines who I am?
How do I see myself?
How accurate is this view?
Is this who I really am? Is it really?
Is this my true self? Or is there something more below the surface?
It is important that you keep digging deeper and deeper using these questions. It’s very much like peeling back the layers of an onion. The surface layers will reveal a fuzzy picture of who you are. However, as you dig deeper and deeper by peeling off more layers you begin to get a clearer picture/idea of yourself. This is why it’s important to periodically question the accuracy of your view. Your goal is to get to the core of who you really are without the need for all those external layers.
Step 2: Take a Personal Inventory
It’s now time to take a personal inventory by listing your positive qualities, goals, passions and purpose. Ask yourself:
What are my positive qualities? I am… therefore I can…
What do other people say are my positive qualities?
What personal strengths do I have? I am… therefore I am able to…
What goals would I like to achieve?
How could I live with more meaning and purpose?
What does all this mean to me?
Why is all this important?
The purpose of this step is to unlock all the good things you feel about yourself; to unlock all the things you have going for yourself that will now add layers back onto that onion to help form a strong personal impression of who you are today from a bigger picture perspective.
In the previous step you were removing unnecessary layers to get to the core of yourself. Within this step you are adding layers to that core to form a definitive and comprehensive picture/idea of yourself in this very moment. And it is of course that very picture that forms the foundations of your self-image.
Step 3: Analyze Your Struggles
A little earlier I mentioned how a healthy self-image is primarily based on our own personal feelings and perspectives. In other words, how we think about ourselves as well as the opinions and labels we create are all critical components that go into building a healthy self-image.
A person with a healthy self-image doesn’t rely on outside opinions or circumstances to define who they are. They must instead rely on internal resources for this purpose. It’s therefore absolutely critical that we take personal control of our internal world because it’s the only thing that really matters when it comes to building a healthy self-image.
To get an understanding of this internal world we need to take a look at four key areas. These areas include your critical voice, your unhelpful thoughts, beliefs in the form of labels, as well as incorrect assumptions you might be making about yourself. Here are some questions to help stimulate your thoughts in these areas:
How do I tend to talk to myself throughout the day?
When things go wrong, what’s my internal dialogue like?
Am I mostly critical or encouraging?
Given the outcomes I would like to achieve are my thoughts mostly helpful or unhelpful?
How do my thoughts tend to distort my reality?
How do I tend to label myself?
Are my labels helpful or unhelpful?
Are these labels rational? Does it even make sense for me to label myself in this way?
What assumptions do I tend to make about myself?
How are these assumptions potentially hurting me?
Working through these questions will effectively help you get a better understanding of how your critical voice, unhelpful thoughts, beliefs and assumptions are shaping the picture/idea you have of yourself that effectively builds your self-image.
If you discover that you tend to be overly critical of yourself; that your thoughts tend to be unhelpful; that your labels are negative; and that you tend to make assumptions that lead you astray, then it’s important to work through these areas one by one in order to solidify your self-image.
For instance, if you’re constantly being critical of yourself, then this is an indication that your self-image isn’t as healthy as it could be. It’s therefore important to reel in that critical voice and begin using more encouraging words over the coming days and weeks. By changing your language patterns in this way will help settle your thoughts and help you think more clearly and effectively, which means you will be less likely to make negative assumptions or label yourself in unhelpful ways. However, this is a process and you will need to work through each area progressively over time.
I will provide you with more details of how to strengthen your self-image within the final section of this article — to help you better manage all these areas.
Step 4: Create an Accurate View of Yourself
The final step is to create a more accurate view of yourself that you can use as the foundation for building a healthy self-image. This view of yourself must be built upon all the positive qualities and strengths you outlined within Step 2 of this process. Take those positive qualities and strengths and ask yourself one simple question:
How would I ideally like to be?
Take time to really have a good-long-hard think about this question and answer honestly how you would like to be starting today. There is of course no one right answer, but rather a variety of answers that go into building your self-image. Yes, you still have flaws and things that you might be struggling with. Accept these things. They are a part of you in the moment. You can work on improving these areas over time. What’s important here is that you’re honest, genuine, authentic and real. This is who you are and this is how you see yourself with warts and all.
In the end building a healthy self-image is all about you. It’s all about how you and you alone — without external influences — see yourself. And it is this picture/idea of “you” that is what matters above all else. You are in the driver’s seat here; you alone define how you see yourself; and that’s what counts in the end.
How to Strengthen Your Self-Image
Within this final section let’s discuss some ideas to help you strengthen your self-image. Some of these suggestions are quite self-explanatory. In fact, many of them are simply either decisions you make or they are slight shifts in the way you think about yourself, think about your life, or how you approach circumstances. Other suggestions will require a little conscious effort and self-discipline. So all-in-all there is nothing complex here. Strengthening your self-image is simply about doing the small things consistently over time that will make a big difference in the long-run.
Don’t Allow Society to Define You
Many people walk through life as a passive bystander. They accept how things are and allow society to influence/manipulate them into thinking and doing things a specific way. Yes they have an opinion, but they rarely stand up for what they believe in, and instead allow society to shape their attitudes and opinions. And because they are at the mercy of society they consistently sway with the wind.
They experience a roller-coaster ride of emotions because their internalized mental picture/idea of themselves shifts and changes depending on what is happening around them. They are therefore rarely satisfied and never completely fulfilled because they are always comparing themselves to others and trying to live up to societal expectations.
We often get stuck in this scenario because we regrettably take responsibility for other people’s problems. This is harmful because for the most part we are unable to control or influence these problems, and yet we lay the burden on our own shoulders. At times this is not even of our own doing. Other people place the burden of their problems on our shoulders and we suffer as a result. It really shouldn’t be this way. Everyone should take responsibility for their own problems. In fact, you must be the one to take responsibility for your own choices, health, happiness, finances, relationships and life. Don’t burden others with these things. You and you alone shape your life with purpose, and only in this way will you gain the personal power you need to develop a healthy and empowered self-image.
Moreover, it’s important to begin primarily living through our own internalized representation of ourselves and not relying on society to define us. And this of course starts with fully understanding and accepting who you are and then taking charge of the mental processes that are running your life. And this is exactly what we went through within the five step process above.
Don’t Indulge in Self-Judgement or Self-Criticism
When you judge and overly criticize yourself, that is a clear indication that your internal voice is taking over your life. Yes constructive criticism can be helpful, however constructive criticism doesn’t leave you with a foul taste in your mouth. It is rather something that leaves you feeling hopeful, optimistic and motivated that you can do better next time. So I’m certainly not talking about constructive criticism. What I am talking about is that type of judgement and criticism that leaves you feeling helpless and deflated. That is the self-talk that it hurting your self-image and depleting your reservoirs of self-confidence.
Instead of judging and/or criticizing yourself, choose to give yourself feedback. Feedback will provide you with an avenue for improvement and will help you to progressively develop the self-confidence you need to build a healthy self-image that allows you to be the best you can possibly be in every situation. After all you are not perfect, and you will make mistakes and fail miserably at times. That’s just part of life; actually it’s just part of being human. You are not perfect and you will never be. Accept yourself with warts and all. After all, a healthy self-image always comes through self-acceptance, which of course stems from self-understanding.
Don’t Expect Others to Complete You
When you rely on other people to complete you, you are at that very moment giving away your personal power. Moreover, you are at that moment building your self-image on external factors (people). This might initially make you feel great about yourself and will undoubtedly help you boost your levels of confidence, however the problem with this is that your self-image is now at the mercy of other people. If one day they tell you they don’t love you any more, then suddenly you feel unlovable. Or if suddenly they vanish from your life, then all of a sudden there is this empty hole inside that makes you feel somewhat incomplete.
You are not this other person, and they are not you. You are your own individual self and you certainly don’t need other people to complete you. All you need is to gain a deep sense of understanding of who you are; get to know your strengths and weaknesses; take full responsibility and control of your internal habitual patterns; and then fully accept that you are complete in your own right. Yes, other people can add value to your life, but in-and-of-itself you are complete in every way.
All this of course doesn’t mean you are a finished product. You’re not. There is much room to grow, develop and evolve in the coming years. However, this growth comes from within and then expresses itself outward in everything you do. And that is the key to developing an empowering mental picture/idea of “you”. It starts from within; it starts from how you see yourself; it starts from building a healthy self-image.
Always Follow-through with Your Word
Your word must become your law. In other words, the promises you make to yourself you must keep. Promises kept help you create consistency, and you need consistency to build a healthy self-image.
Consistency is important when it comes to building a healthy self-image because a healthy self-image is not something that suddenly fluctuates with the changing winds/opinions. It is something that is steady and steadfast. I’m of course not suggesting that your self-image doesn’t change over time. Of course it does. You certainly don’t see yourself the same way today as you saw yourself years ago. In fact, you might see yourself very differently in a variety of roles and/or situations. Your self-image is therefore fluid, however it requires consistency and consistency comes from your ability to keep your word to follow through and do things a certain way.
A person who doesn’t keep their word (the promises they make to themselves) is often the person who is heavily influenced/swayed by other people and their opinions. When you keep your word you are sending a strong message that you are running your life based on your own feelings and perspectives. You are not swayed by outside circumstances. This of course doesn’t mean you can’t change your mind. But that “change of mind” must come from a decision you make from within that is not primarily based on external factors. That is when you know that you are the one in the driver’s seat of your life; that is when you know you are the captain of your own ship.
Build Your Self-Image Upon Strong Foundations of Self-Worth
Finally, a healthy self-image is built upon the strong foundations of a highly level of self-worth. Self-worth is of course all about how much you value and regard yourself despite what others might say and/or despite unfavorable circumstances. When you have a high level of self-worth nothing shakes or phases you. Likewise, when you have a healthy self-image you don’t look to outside sources to define who you are.
You and you alone create your own definition of who you are. You and you alone create the impression you have of yourself in each and every situation. Yes, you alone mold and shape the person you are today, and the person you become tomorrow.
Time to Assimilate these Concepts
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Gain More Knowledge…
Here are some additional links and resources that will help you learn more about this topic:
- 3 Steps to Create a More Powerful Self-Image @ CBS News
- 7 Rules for Talking to Children About Self-Image @ LinkedIn
- A Positive Self-Image and Self-Esteem @ Mountain State
- Even Modest Exercise Boosts Self-Image @ Live Science
- Fostering a Positive Self-Image @ Cleveland Clinic
- How a Poor Self-Image Negatively Impacts Your Relationships @ Psych Central
- How to Improve Your Body Image @ Psychology Today
- How Your Self-Image Determines Your Wealth @ Forbes
- Improving Your Body Image by Talking to Yourself @ Greatist
- Obesity and Self-Image: Are the Two Connected? @ Huffington Post
- Self-Acceptance is the Key to a Healthier Self-Image @ Psych Central
- Self-Image is the Key to Success in Business and Life @ Fast Company
- The Strong Link Between Your Self-Image and Business Success @ Forbes