A Matter of Perspective

by Candice Z. Watters

Are you often frustrated with yourself, discouraged with your circumstances and convinced you've been dealt a bad hand - more than most people you know? A change of perspective may help.

Self-image begins in childhood. How you see yourself as an adult depends largely on how your parents saw you when you were young. If they loved you unconditionally and believed you could do or be anything, and if they encouraged you to take risks and try new things, then they likely set the stage for a positive self-image.

If, however, your parents didn't do much (or anything) to build up your concept of yourself - or worse, if they communicated that you were no good - it can be a real challenge to change the negative pictures you carry around in your mind.

Without the unconditional love of an adult who's crazy about you as a kid, it's easy to start doubting your ability to succeed in the world, especially when you make mistakes or fail at something.

Self-image can become self-fulfilling. People with a great deal of faith in themselves and what they can accomplish are more likely to take risks and try new things. This often translates into more successes, which reinforce their positive image of themselves, empowering them to keep moving forward in life.

But the same cause and effect is often true for people with a poor self-image. They're reluctant to step out of their comfort zone, often turning down opportunities for growth. Never stretching, they seem "stuck" in life and add feelings of failure and disappointment to their already suffering image of self.

Behavioral cognitive studies prove that outward performance is linked to inward thoughts and beliefs. The messages you play in your head have the ability to set you free or keep you bound. They play a large role in your ability to change. If you believe you're ugly, dumb, clumsy or worse - and if you repeat these messages in your mind every time you make a mistake - you'll continue to falter. It's a lot easier to break free from a low self-image if you refuse to entertain such negative thoughts. No one is beyond change and it is possible to reprogram your thinking.

In Stephen Covey's book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Families, one woman tells the story of her painful childhood amidst a broken marriage and how the patterns were repeating themselves in her adult life. She says, "My unhappy, confused childhood inclined me to be negative, but it didn't force me to be that way. I could choose to respond differently. It was futile to blame my parents or my circumstances for my painful situation."

It's a lot easier to start life with an abundance of positive messages. Experts say kids need love, humor, respect and courtesy to develop a positive self-image. They need to be treated according to the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have others do unto you. Unfortunately, not everyone has the benefit (and blessing) of a family that lives by that rule. But even if you never received that kind of affirmation as a child, it's not too late. You can still develop a positive self-image with the help of friends, mentors and other adults you admire. Trustworthy people in your life can provide the love and kindness your parents didn't offer.

Humans are unique: They are the only creatures on the planet who are self-aware. And that ability to think about yourself and observe and analyze your reactions to what happens is the source of change. Life-management guru Stephen Covey writes,

You are not the victim of conditions or conditioning. You can choose your response to any situation, to any person. Between what happens to you and your response is a degree of freedom. And the more you exercise that freedom, the larger it will become. As you work in your circle of influence and exercise that freedom, gradually you will stop being a "hot reactor" (meaning there's little separation between stimulus and response) and start being a cool, responsible chooser - no matter what your genetic makeup, no matter how you were raised, no matter what your childhood experiences were or what the environment is. In your freedom to choose your response lies the power to achieve growth and happiness.1

And you're not the only one craving that freedom. You may think everyone is looking at you, making mental notes of your flaws, but you'd be surprised to discover how unaware others are. People are a lot alike when it comes to insecurity - they're just as worried about themselves as you are about yourself. Just knowing that can take the pressure off and help you on your way to a better self-image. And as you grow stronger, you may be a source of love and affirmation to someone equally in need. That's a self-perpetuating cycle worth starting!

1. Stephen R. Covey, Principle-Centered Leadership. Fireside, New York, NY, 1990, 1991. p. 42.

Copyright 2003 Candice Z. Watters. Used by permission.