Few of us see ourselves as we really are; not in terms of our physical body and not in terms of our personality. We may exaggerate our perception of the self in a positive direction or in a negative direction. These distorted self-perceptions can change in one individual from day to day and even throughout the day as circumstances change.
When we feel good, we look better to ourselves in every way. The reverse is true when we are off-center emotionally. We have real problems when our self-perception is chronically off kilter in either a positive or negative direction. If it is off enough, it becomes pathological.
Where Does Our Self-Image Come From?
The easy answer comes from Sigmund Freud and his psychoanalytic theories on child rearing. Our self-image comes from our experiences in life from our infancy onward. The parents are therefore the primary shapers of our self-perceptions, especially the mother.
I believe that Freud is a little over the top with his emphasis on very early infant experiences and his emphasis on the role of sex in early development. But it is pretty undeniable that we are all stamped somewhat, for better or worse, by early childhood experiences.
While we form our self-image primarily through emotional experiences, these experiences often have a simple rational component. In other words, a parent may make a comment about us, either directed at us or overheard. The comment is a rational comment but it impacts us emotionally. Because of the power of the parent or other adult, we take that statement in as a truth.
If we are told by a teacher that we can’t sing, we could go through our entire life believing that to be true and would stifle any desire to sing in front of others or even in a group.
We have these kinds of experiences throughout childhood in which adults or other children make comments about us, our physical appearance and/or qualities of our personalities. These can enter our psyches and stay there until we deal with them as adults.
The Power of Self-Perception
As adults we do not automatically figure out that our ideas about the self, our fears and phobias, our physical, mental, and emotional self-images are not necessarily accurate. This is because once they are embraced, our behavior and our self-perceptions confirm the ideas we have accepted since childhood.
None of us sees the self as it truly is. We see the self through the multiple filters of our childhood experiences. We behave as if our self-image was accurate. We expect people to treat us in accord with how we see the self and most of the time they will.
There is a clue here as to how we might change our lives in positive ways. If we are living according to ideas we accepted as children; if we live according to perceptions of the self that may not be accurate, we can change our lives by changing our ideas and beliefs. We can change by changing our perceptions.
The Role of Rationalization
The biggest problem we face is in not recognizing the distortions in self-perception we are living with. This is true of positive as well as negative distortions. If we have negative qualities and are aware of them, we can rationalize them away by using psychology. We can just say it is because of my childhood and make no attempt to change for the better.
But if we have negative qualities we do not wish to see, it is very easy to hide them from the self. We do not need to rationalize them. We can simply project them onto others. You could say they are rationalized by believing that other people have the qualities we do not wish to look at within ourselves.
The same is true of positive qualities that we deny in ourselves. We can be self-deprecating in order to protect us from taking certain risks in our lives. Perhaps we could really be a good singer but we rationalize it by saying, “I can’t sing.” We repeat the powerful suggestion given to us as a child, speak it in a kind of self-hypnosis as if it were true.
Rationalization of the self-image is always designed, in our own minds, to protect us from something we are afraid of. Ironically, all it protects us from is looking at the true self.
Who Are We?
If there is a self within us that more accurately represents who we really are, what is that self like? Is it the same for all of us? I believe there is a true self. It will never be the same for all because one of the distinguishing characteristics of human beings and of all life is individuality, uniqueness.
All we have to do is think about the highest qualities possible for a human being. We can look at all of the great people of history and the great people living today. Regardless of our different circumstances of birth and upbringing, I believe that any quality that any human being has ever exhibited, either physically, mentally, emotionally, or spiritually, resides within every human as a potential.
Whether you believe in God or not, the highest potential for any human being exists within every human being from the worst to the best of us. If you believe in God, that potential can be identified as your own divinity.
We can rationalize our deficiencies and/or project them onto others, or we can open our minds to the potential we all contain within. We an stop running away from the beautiful and powerful truth of our being and begin to embrace that potential and express that potential in small ways and even in great ways.
We live according to ideas we have about the self. Although I am not suggesting that it is easy to do, or I would be enlightened myself, all we are talking about is changing those negative ideas about ourselves. Change the self-image deliberately and consciously. Use your rational capabilities to create a new self rather than defending a wounded self.
We already are the people we were meant to be. We are simply pretending to be less.