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Ch-5: Develop Your Self-Worth and Self-Confidence

Part 2: Your Body Image and Self-Concept

Tom G. Stevens PhD
Psychologist/Professor Emeritus, California State University, Long Beach
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Chapter  5,  Part  2, from You Can Choose To Be Happy,  Tom G. Stevens PhD
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How do we develop a positive body image and self-concept?

 Part 1: Develop a Positive BODY-IMAGE


 Part 2: Develop a Positive Self-Concept
 Limiting versus expanding self-concept
 Developing a facade to hide from ourselves and others  
 Fragile egotism can lead to aggression and violence 
 Growth-oriented, flexible versus status-quo, rigid, inflexible self-concepts
 Building our identity on rock



Part 1: Develop a Positive BODY-IMAGE


On the one hand, self-worth measures how we feel about our unchangeable essence--important, essential aspects of ourselves. On the other, self-image is more about how we see ourselves in important, but NON-essential aspects of ourselves. The self-image is a collection of sensory images, beliefs, thoughts, and attached feelings we have about ourselves. It includes both the ideal self-image and the perceived self-image.

The ideal self-image is the complete set of goals and expectations for what we want to be like. The perceived self-image is based on our observations of what we are really like. Guilt is caused by the gap between our ideal self-image and our perceived self-image--between our self-expectations and our self-perceptions. The larger the gap, the more guilt we feel.

To overcome guilt we must reduce the gap between our self-expectations and our self-perceptions. We can either change ourselves to become more like our self-expectations, or we can change our self-expectations (self-concept) to fit reality.

It is important to remember, that in many situations we cannot change ourselves overnight. We may never be able to change some aspect of ourselves! How do we stop feeling guilty about something we can't change?

The self-acceptance process (described later) is a step-by-step method for overcoming guilt associated with your body, your past, and your dysfunctional subparts. But first, it's important to understand more about your self-image and how to change it.

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To the degree that we do not like or accept some part of ourselves, then our self-love is affected. If I will not even admit to myself that sometimes I talk too much, do dumb things, have not met all my career goals, or bore people, then I am disowning those aspects of myself (and feeling guilty about them).

Learning to love or at least accept every part of ourselves is a fundamental part of developing self-worth and self-love. One of the first steps is accepting our bodies and our basic physical limitations.


Roger Crawford was the keynote speaker at a professional conference in San Diego that I attended. Roger is an amazing person who has overcome what could have been a disabling physical condition. When Roger was born, the physician took Roger's father back to see him. His father saw a baby with one leg crumpled beneath him and hands and feet that ended in pointed stumps instead of fingers and toes. The doctor warned him that his son might never be able to walk or participate in normal activities.

Yet Roger's parents kept a positive attitude and always believed that their son could learn to do almost anything anyone else could do. Roger said that they never let him use his disability to get away with anything. Eventually, one of Roger's legs was amputated below his knee and replaced with an advanced artificial limb.

Then Roger learned how to play tennis. His "hands" each look as if he has one giant finger--with no thumb. He learned a two-handed grip. He put the "finger" from one hand into the end of a tennis racket and wrapped the other "hand" around the throat of the racket. Roger would not allow himself to believe that he was limited by his disability. He played his hardest.

He got so good that he began winning tournaments in high school and college and became a tennis professional. He got so good that he once played John McEnroe, when John was advancing in his career. Roger says that the night before the tennis match, "I slept like a baby. I woke up every two hours and cried." Eventually Roger won a special award for his tennis and he was given the honor of carrying the Olympic torch during the opening ceremonies of the Olympics in Los Angeles.

Roger said that one of the hardest times in his life was as a child in a Chicago school. Many of the other children said cruel things about his limbs and shunned him. Some even tried to harm him. He felt hurt and angry. He kept his hands in his pockets so that no one would see them. It seemed unfair to be given these distorted hands and feet. Sometimes he felt sorry for himself.

However, other people--like Dr. Norman Vincent Peale--helped him understand that it was not his body that was his problem, it was his attitude about his body that was important. Once he began to accept and love his hands and feet for what they were and see the possibilities in them, he began to feel much better.

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Part of accepting ourselves is accepting other people's reactions to us. Roger began to understand and accept other people's reaction to his hands. He understood their curiosity, fear, and even disgust at seeing them. He accepted these as normal reactions and learned to focus on helping other people feel as comfortable with his appearance as he was.

For example, he "warned" the audience that after years of dreading to shake hands with people, he now really enjoys it and would offer his hand if they came up to talk. Being comfortable with his appearance and other's reaction to it changed his life.

Roger has been successful in his career, his marriage, and seemed to be a happy person on his journey toward self-actualization. He said that he would never trade his positive philosophy for "normal" feet and hands.

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Dr. Maxwell Maltz was a plastic surgeon who became interested in "self-image psychology" because of his confusing observations of patients who had undergone plastic surgery. Some patients who only received minor facial changes changed their personality and life dramatically while others with greater facial changes didn't seem to change at all. A boy with large ears had been told he looked like a taxi cab with both doors open and had been ridiculed all his life. He had become withdrawn and shy. After surgery he became much more outgoing.

Yet others, such as a shy Duchess who was given a truly beautiful face in surgery made no noticeable improvement in her personality. Maltz concluded that the reason was because these people continued to think of themselves as ugly, different, abnormal, or defective people.

It was their self-image that was the main problem--not their actual physical appearance. His conclusions caused him to begin to focus on improving people's self-image and eventually write books such as Psychocybernetics. For years this was one of the self-help books most frequently cited to me by clients as a book that had helped them change their lives.

One of my clients came in because she lacked confidence in herself--especially in meeting men and relating to them. Through her teen years she was 50 to 75 pounds overweight. Only in the past few years had she taken good care of her body and lost weight. She was happy about that, but she said that she still saw herself as fat and ugly. In fact she was beautiful--she could have won a beauty contest.

I was amazed that she still saw herself as fat. We discovered that a subpart of her had learned from her mom that it was wrong to show off and stand out. This part produced feelings of guilt whenever she tried to dress well or attempted to appreciate her own appearance. She would not even accept what she saw in the mirror.

It became important to reject these beliefs about being a "show off." She had to overcome those thoughts that interfered with her self-appreciation. To overcome her fear of self-appreciation, her repeated thoughts like, "It's wonderful to look at a flower and appreciate the beauty in it, and it's just as wonderful to look at myself and appreciate the beauty in my own body."

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Loving ourselves unconditionally means accepting all of the realities about ourselves and still loving ourselves. A good place to start is with our body and appearance. Most people do not love and accept every part of their body.

Looking at ourselves in the mirror. In his book, Your Erroneous Zones, Dr. Wayne Dyer suggests that one way to increase our self-acceptance and self-worth is to examine each part of our body and each bodily function in detail and observe our own thoughts and feelings about each. Do we feel disgust at certain normal body functions or products--such as bodily fluids or waste? If so, we do not accept all of our normal, healthy parts and functions. Try understanding how these basic functions work and how important these basic functions are to our health and survival. Try loving each function because it helps keep you alive and healthy. Some people can become phobic about such normal processes.

Our physical appearance is stressed so much in our society that we may be very sensitive about any part that does not measure up to our ideal. Try Dr. Dyer's exercise. Stand in front of a mirror naked and look at yourself. What parts do you feel good about? What parts do you not feel good about. How can you love and accept that part as it is right now.

Don't say to yourself, "I'll love that part after I change it." That is not accepting that part as it is now. You can still improve the part later if you choose. Ironically, changing the part may be easier after accepting it; because you can face it without guilt.

Learning to love and accept our "most unacceptable" parts. My wife, Sherry, tried following Wayne's suggestion from his book and found that she could accept every part of her body except her tummy. She has felt most of her life that her middle was too big. She always wished that she could have a tiny waistline. For years she had chosen clothes partly because they hid her tummy.

She consciously worked on looking at her tummy, developing positive thoughts about it, and loving her tummy instead of disowning it. Her attentiveness worked: she felt better about her tummy and accepted it.

This new tummy-acceptance had a number of effects. She bought and wore clothes that allowed her tummy to be seen. She started tucking in her blouses and wearing dresses with belts. Previously, if I was being affectionate, she would not allow me to even touch her tummy. Now I could love her tummy too. The most interesting thing is that her tummy began to get smaller!

PRACTICE 1: Learn to accept all aspects of your body as they are. Try this exercise on yourself and see what happens as a result of learning to accept and love the formerly disowned parts or functions of your body or your personality. You can start with the aspects you dislike the most, or if you would rather, start with less odious ones and work your way up to the worst aspects.

PRACTICE 2: Take care of your body. If your value yourself and your body, you will naturally want to take good care of your body. Similarly, paying loving attention to your body and its needs will increase your valuing of it.

(1)Assess your body and your care of it in each of the following areas: nutrition, exercise, substance abuse, weight, muscle tone, sleep, and appearance.

(2) Develop a plan to improve any needed areas. If you are not knowledgeable in an important area like nutrition, get help or start studying ASAP.

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Part 2: Develop a Positive Self-Concept

Tricia, a woman in her mid-fifties, had a job for many years working in a low-paying retail sales job. She had health problems that made long periods of standing very painful. Her teenage daughter made much more money than her mother by working as a typist. The daughter tried to get her mom to learn how to type. But Tricia literally believed that she "was too old" to learn a complex new skill like typing.

That belief about herself was limiting and affected not only her career, but many life areas. Her daughter knew that her mother was an intelligent woman who had much untapped potential. It's sad that the mother didn't share her daughter's view!

Do you think of yourself as too shy, not coordinated, not motivated, a slow learner, too flaky, or not able relate to people well? What physical, mental, personality, or financial limitations interfere with your happiness? How do your assumptions about them interfere with your success and happiness?

Limiting versus expanding self-beliefs. An alternative to having such limiting self-beliefs is to see ourselves as having almost limitless potential. It is not that we don't really have limits, but that we do not allow ourselves to retain ideas that limit us. That means that we do not allow ourselves to say to ourselves that we are too limited in any way--unless we have absolute proof! We are not too old, too young, too dumb, too weak, too slow, too disabled, too sick, too emotional, too shy, too afraid of . . ., too poor, or any other "too."

Instead, we can develop a positive view of ourselves that says we believe in our own strengths--especially our abilities to learn and to motivate ourselves to do what will make us happy.

This general self-view can help us go into almost any situation with a positive attitude of willingness to learn and do whatever it takes to achieve happiness. These general beliefs about ourselves can provide the energy, flexibility, and persistence required for maximizing our chances of succeeding at even very difficult tasks.

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Viewing ourselves with negative self-labels and self-concepts can produce dysfunctional thoughts and habits. These negative self-beliefs cause unnecessary negative emotions such as guilt, depression, and anger. They can undermine success in our career, relationships, and other life areas by undermining our motivation and confidence.

In the following sections I will discuss some types of negative self-beliefs and their dysfunctional effects. I will also suggest some ways of overcoming them. One approach common to many of these "cures" is to find these underlying dysfunctional beliefs. Like a cancerous tumor, we must locate and operate on the source of the cancer--it is not enough just to keep fighting the cancer in places where it has spread. (Use the self-exploration process from chapter 2.)

Developing a facade to hide our actual self-image from ourselves or others. One way that we may try to defend ourselves against criticism is to develop a false image of ourselves that more clearly matches our ideal self-image. Adopting a facade might be especially tempting to someone with a large gap between their perceived self-image and their ideal self-image. Consequently, they can pretend that the gap is minimal.

It is important to note that there is a major difference between trying to better ourselves by living as if we were the persons we want to be versus trying to fool ourselves that we have arrived at being that ideal self. In the first case we are completely open and honest with ourselves about the fact that we have a goal we are attempting to meet and can accept any failures to reach that ideal with few problems. That is a functional way of moving toward self-actualization.

The dysfunctional way to deal with our shortcomings is to cling to beliefs that we are what we are not--and to ignore negative feedback. We may cling to our facade partly because we fear that others will not like us if they learn the truth.

However, even presenting a facade to others is not as dysfunctional as trying to hide the truth from ourselves. Self-deception can cause persistent, mysterious guilt--such as the kind often found in alcohol or drug abuse. Maintaining a facade may also be an important cause of habitual lying, "sociopathic," or "con-man" behaviors.

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Fragile egotism is a cause of aggressive and violent behavior. Drs. Roy Baumeister, Laura Smart, and Joseph Boden (1996)--after an extensive research review--have concluded that people who hold "inflated, unstable, or tentative beliefs in the self's superiority" are most likely to be (1) easily and frequently threatened by negative feedback from others and (2) most prone to react aggressively and violently to those threats. "Entitlement" thinking and being dependent upon other people's approval (externally controlled) also increase one's propensity toward violence.

The authors discuss how one's belief in a "culture of honor" and a threatened public image (such as "losing face") can foster violent responses when those beliefs are threatened. For example, a gang member may want to be seen as a "bad ass." When someone else says he's "badder," then the only choice is to fight or be publicly humiliated. The fear of public humiliation and loss of self-esteem seems to be worse than violence or the fear of death.

When someone believes he or she must be "the best" to be "ok," then that belief inherently creates a "fragile ego," because only one person can be the best. When one defines oneself by external conditions--such as financial success or others' opinions--then that belief also increases one's fragility; because these conditions are so unstable. Only if we love ourselves unconditionally and define our essential natures by more stable measures can we overcome this fragility. Loving ourselves and others unconditionally undermines the conditions that create violence. Unconditional love of self and others is the best cure for violence in ourselves and our society.

DANGER--Choosing the wrong words can undermine your self-image.

Negative labels can undermine your unconditional self-worth.

Confining labels can backfire if given too much priority. Negative self-labels can become self-fulfilling prophesies, but even positive labels can have negative effects--if they are too self-limiting. We have just seen how defining ourselves as a "bad ass" can lead to violent behavior.

One problem I have is that my thirst for truth and knowledge can have a "dark side" if I develop the additional belief that I know more than others. If I spend a lot of time learning about something, I am tempted to conclude that I know more about it than other people. In someone else's view, I'm just a "know it all." Or--even worse--if I let myself believe that I "should" know more than anyone else about it, then I develop a fragile self-belief that is easily threatened by anyone challenging my knowledge. Whenever I allow myself to get too proud of myself in some knowledge area, then I become defensive and argumentative in that knowledge area. On a smaller scale, it is the same thing that happens to the person prone to violent behavior.

When I was in the third grade, our teacher held a math speed contest. I finished second in the class and was proud of myself. I developed a belief about myself that I was "fast at solving math problems." I was so proud of being "fast at math" that it became part of my self-image. Therefore whenever I solved math problems my self-expectation told me that I had to work them faster than anyone else. Whenever I took a math test, I raced through the exam as fast as possible to be the first student to turn my paper in. This went on for more than five years, and I was blind to its negative effects.

One day, I wondered why my grades in math weren't as good as some of the "slow" students who turned their papers in last. I realized that I could correct frequent careless errors if I would take time to check my exams before turning them in. But taking more time conflicted with my self-image of being fast in math. Fortunately, I decided that my grades were more important than this limiting self-concept, so I decided to check my exams until the last minute.

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CREATE A POSITIVE, TRUTHFUL SELF-CONCEPT--Choose the right words to describe yourself

We just saw how negative self-labels and confining self-labels can cause problems. So what are more functional ways to describe ourselves?

Growth-oriented, flexible versus status-quo, rigid self-concepts. If we view any important part of ourselves as a fixed entity that never changes, then self-change can become threatening and anxiety-producing.

We are not stone sculptures or any kind of fixed entity.
We are human beings--constantly learning and growing--
in a constantly changing and growing world.
If we define ourselves as rigid, fixed-entities,
then we will live in constant fear of the changes which are sure to come.
On the other hand, if we define our primary nature as changing, growing entities, then we will look
forward to the future and
embrace the changes which are sure to come.

Change is everywhere. We go through many phases of life from childhood to adulthood to old age. Our careers, relationships, health, and economic situations can change dramatically. Life is a river of changes. If we do not learn to "go with the flow," then we risk being swept away and drowned.

If we view ourselves as fixed, inflexible beings, then we will be threatened by change. If we view ourselves as growing, changing beings, then change is welcomed as a natural part of the growth process. Even negative changes can be more readily accepted.

I recognize that every single belief or state of my mind, body, or the world can change. If everything important seems to be changing too much and we do not have anything to hold on to, then we can become extremely insecure and anxious. Building our house on a foundation of rock means that we develop beliefs and attachments that will withstand the changes of time.

The rock I build my life on is the set of fundamental beliefs I have described as being part of my Higher Self. It includes beliefs that value personal health and happiness for myself and others, growth, truth, beauty, and a good environment. [Also, recall Maslow's self-actualization metavalues.] These are general and flexible values that are adaptable to many situations.

Building our identity on rock--avoid identifying with any role. Did you still think of yourself the way your parents, peers, or others think of you? Do you think of yourself as primarily an athlete, an artist, an engineer, a wife or mother, a son or daughter, or member of some group? No matter how important these roles are to you--they are just roles.

I am a husband, psychologist, tennis player, and father. These are important parts of me. But these roles can all be taken away from me. They are more specific and limited to certain situations than my more general values and parts of myself. If I were to make husband, father, or psychologist become more important than being happy or seeking the truth, then my identity would be built on sand.

If I could no longer be husband, father, or psychologist, then the core of my identity would be threatened. Any threat to them would magnify my anxiety if it also threatened my identity. That is one reason why losing a partner, having an "empty nest,"retiring, or losing a job is so much more devastating to some people than others. I have chosen that none of these roles will be as essential to my identity as my more general values. These more general values cannot be taken away. For as long as I live I will always be able to find some beauty, truth, growth, love, and happiness no matter what situation I am in. With values like these we build our identity on a rock foundation that cannot be swept away by crashing waves.

I identify myself as someone who values
growth, love, happiness, truth, and beauty.
I am this person that occupies my body and mind
over a certain period in history.
I have received many gifts for which I am caretaker
during a limited amount of time.
I am an explorer on a journey through life
attempting to maximize these values,
through many roles, each moment of my life.

PRACTICE: Redefine your identity to make it more growth-oriented, flexible, and limitless.
Look back over the
self-description you made at the beginning of this chapter. Or, write an entirely new one.

(1) Identify your essence.  Decide what the core of your essence is that will never change and that you can love unconditionally. What is your Higher Self like?

(2) Identify and replace limiting self-beliefs. Look for self-descriptions that are negative, limited, rigid, and non-growth oriented. Replace them with more positive, limitless, flexible, growth-oriented descriptions.

(3) Examine your various subparts and roles. What life roles do you play? Child? Parent? Older brother? Student/learner? Professional? Executive? Plumber? Wife? Dancer? Golfer? Mediator? Rebel? Problem-solver? Addict? Judge? Clown? Do you overly identify with any particular role or roles? Are there any roles that you think you must be happy or successful in to be happy overall? If so, then a key to overcoming anxiety and being happy is to plan how you can be happy even without being successful in that role. Make such a plan and start telling yourself that you can be happy whether or not you are happy in that role.

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