What is a Healthy Self-image ?
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Extracting from the Self-Image Model it is possible to jot down what actually a healthy and strong Self-Image is. Below I would like to give many practical and understandable examples that hopefully clarify what a healthy (and what an UNhealthy) self-image means. With each example I will also make clear what you can do in terms of thought patterns and behaviors to maintain a healthy self-image.
First essential prerequisite: healthy core beliefs
The Self-Image Model emphasizes 4 core beliefs that everyone carries within them (mainly unconsciously). I have called them Self-Image Devils because in a therapy environment it is easier to speak of negative (devilish) core beliefs. They are stored in our Long Term Memory and consist of these 4 negative core beliefs about your Self:
- I am guilty
- I'm...In Danger
A person (or rather: our brain) evaluates itself within 2 fundamental dimensions: Value and Control. Every second, every action of ours is automatically (unconsciously) evaluated for Value: how much am I worth (compared to other people)?
And also on Control: how much control (power, influence) do I currently have over my environment?
These 2 dimensions are learned since birth and are an essential part of your Self.
Too low a value or too little control is dangerous and must therefore be corrected immediately. If your felt value is too low, a person tries to seek connection or shelter with other people (also sometimes called 'attachment'). Seeking attachment, or connection, is SAFE (this is clearly reflected in Stephen Porges' polyvagal theory; see this recent article by him: Polyvagal theory: a science of safety, 2022.
When Control is too low, a person tries to gain more control, power or influence over his environment, also because that is safer than no control.
The 2 basic emotions that are directly linked to the 4 core thoughts are Fear, linked to the basic idea of In Danger but also to Guilty. After all, both a threat to your body and a threat to your status in a group (compared to others) is potentially dangerous. Expulsion from a group because you are guilty of something, because you have made culpable mistakes, is potentially dangerous because you end up alone.
The basic emotion Sadness is linked to the basic thoughts Powerless and Worthless.
See the figure below to visually see the above explanation.
Core of your Self-Image with the focus on 4 negative core thoughts, also known as self-image devils. They can be divided into 2 parts of the Evaluation dimension: Value and Control. Also, 2 devils are always linked to 1 basic emotion. Fear when Guilty and In Danger, Sadness when Powerless and Worthless.
The above fictional person has a self-image that is too weak: the devils are too strong.
Of course, your Self-Image consists of more than these 4 negative core beliefs, but these 4 beliefs largely determine the strength of your Self-Image. All other basic ideas about yourself, how smart you are, how beautiful you think you are, how strong you think you are, are all directly influenced by these basic thoughts.
The figure clearly shows that the In Danger devil is more than 50% strong. The Guilty Devil is a close second. This means that this person will very often be anxious, afraid of judgment from others and threatened. That's probably why he doesn't trust anyone and is constantly on guard. So...constantly under too much stress.
The trick of life is to constantly ensure that these negative core thoughts in your subconscious remain as small as possible. In other words, that your Self-image is as strong as possible and consists of many positive and realistic thoughts about your Self.
Parenting is essential for a healthy development of your Self-image
Your Self-image develops from birth, possibly even before that. See, for example, Damasio's ideas about the development of the Self on this page about the Neuropsychology of the Self-Image. During your upbringing you learn that you can learn to have control over your environment (both objects and people or other animals), and that you are worthwhile. If all goes well, you will receive attention and warmth from your parents or guardians.
You keep a self-image devil as small as possible by learning to become aware of this negative core idea every time it gets the chance to become stronger. For this you of course need coaches and educators who teach you to see that you can have some control/influence over your environment, and that you are worthwhile. Through these examples you will learn to become increasingly aware of these 4 self-image devils. This is really necessary because if you do NOT realize a self-image devil, it can grow in your subconscious. And if several devils start growing in your subconscious, without you realizing it, then your total self-image will become weaker. After all, for example, you increasingly think that you are worth nothing, or that you are always powerless. All your other positive qualities are becoming increasingly negatively colored by these growing negative ideas about your Self (see my explanation of the Self-Image Model here).
Your education is therefore essential for a healthy self-image. What you learn, very early on, is very important for your later self-image. It will not surprise you that many people who seek treatment of a psychiatrist or psychologist have a damaged self-image. Damaged to such an extent that they are no longer able to regain Control in their lives and no longer think they have any Value.
Fortunately, even with a seriously damaged Self-Image, it is possible to repair it, no matter how old or young you are. Of course, it also depends largely on whether you have sufficient cognitive abilities (in other words: whether you are smart enough) and whether you have sufficient support in your immediate environment. Below I will give many examples of a healthy Self-Image, explain everything for each Self-Image Demon and also indicate which factors are important to repair your Self-Image.
To reduce the Self-image demon 'Powerless'
The core idea "I am Powerless" will be triggered every time you feel powerless over something: whenever you think you have no control, or whenever you really don't have it. Unconsciously, this little devil will grow and in fact say to you: "You are completely Powerless and helpless, you really can't do anything anymore." If you do not become aware of this, you will of course only feel one thing: despondency, sadness, disappointment. A very heavy, languid feeling. With continuous exposure to powerlessness, you eventually become depressed. All the energy, drive, and zest for life then disappear out of your body. You fundamentally start to believe that you can no longer do anything, that you are completely helpless or powerless.
The stupidest thing you can do when a Self-Image Devil is triggered is to let the devil do his thing. Then it just gets stronger and stronger. The best you can do is fight, use your aggression to fight against such a self-image devil who suggests that you are completely 100% helpless or powerless.
During your upbringing you should have learned that there are setbacks in your life; that is part of it. You should have learned that you have to accept and bear such setbacks. To then climb back up and continue. You should have learned that you can always move on, that you are never completely powerless or helpless.
In short, what you need is the following to fight a Powerless Self-Image Demon:
- Sufficient frustration tolerance: you will have to tolerate being sad, sometimes also anxious, so that you are in pain. That's just part of life. Don't be a wimp.
- Sufficient aggression and perseverance: to fight you need sufficient fitness and anger. These provide strength to fight and to last longer.
- Sufficient Self-esteem: you will have to be sufficiently proud of yourself, realize that you deserve to grow, that you are worth it.
- Sufficient support: it is often impossible to do everything yourself. Fighting a self-image devil is never easy and sometimes too difficult. That's why you need all the support you can get, so... from other people around you. This requires sharing your pain and emotions so that other people sympathize with you and are willing to help you. The good news is that people are always willing to help, as long as you are honest and share your pain with them and dare to ask them for help.
- Some intelligence: you will have to make a plan on how to make yourself less powerless. So you have to make an overview of what you are up against. An analysis of where you do have some influence, with or without others, and where you really can't do anything about it. Then focus on what you can do, no matter how small these steps are. You can make such a plan together with others.
Fighting the Powerless Devil is like escaping from a cave where the main entrance has collapsed and is blocked by many stones. You will have to tackle and move the stones step by step. Very calmly to save energy and you have to take your time. If you are lucky, they are all relatively small stones that can be moved. If you are lucky there are other people in the cave with you who can move many stones together. If you're lucky, you'll still have enough water and food on hand. In short: you always have to have some luck. But that is only a small part of your fight: above all, you will have to have perseverance and hope. That's something mental. For that you need your aggression and anger. Without that you won't get anywhere.
Below I describe the 2 ways in which you can train yourself to regularly attack the Powerless Devil: through your thoughts or thought patterns, or through your behavior.
Attacking the 'Powerless' Self-image demon with your thoughts
Every self-image demon uses so-called thinking errors. These are relatively stupid, inefficient and destructive thinking patterns that many people have unfortunately learned. In the form below I have summarized what I consider to be the most important thinking errors, which can be downloaded HERE. They can also easily be summarized in 3 main points:
- Negative thinking: always thinking the negative of something, never the positive.
- Exaggerating or Black and white thinking: it is always thinking towards an extreme point of view. Words used are e.g. Always vs. Never, Well vs. Not, Terrible vs. Wonderful.
- Putting yourself down: always comparing yourself to others in a way that you always think of yourself as less than others. The comparison is always done by looking at only very successful people.
In order to reduce your self-image devil, you simply have to learn to detect your thinking errors and convert them into realistic thinking, without too many thinking errors. That requires commitment, training and perseverance. People have often been accustomed to using these negative thinking patterns for years, they usually don't know any better. To start thinking differently, more realistically, often feels very different, strange and therefore it is also scary, 'out of your comfort zone'. Yet it has to happen if you want to think and feel healthier. It must be done to make your Self-image stronger and your Self-image devils less powerful.
Practical examples for attacking your Powerless Demon
You're working on something but it's not working out well. You don't progress fast enough, or you make a lot of mistakes. This leaves you with the situation where you cannot cope, where you are helpless or powerless. Your courage sinks, a heavy (depressed) feeling overwhelms you. The Powerless Demon emerges in full force in your subconscious. What can you do?
- Don't exaggerate: tell yourself that you can't figure it out now, but that doesn't mean you'll never figure it out. It is completely normal that sometimes you just don't feel like it anymore.
- Don't conclude that you can't cope with this (fallacy: putting yourself down). Stay realistic and accept that you can't figure it out now, that you don't know anything anymore, but that will be different later. Tell yourself that you will figure it out some other time, because you believe in yourself.
- Don't think negatively: tell yourself that you can no longer think positively right now. That you now need a break, do something different to see some positive things around you again.
- Don't think that you have to do it all alone. There are always times in life when you just can't cope on your own. That's when you simply have to seek help: talk to people about it, ask other people for advice, advice and help.
- Don't demand 100% perfection from yourself at that moment. Learn to be patient and realize that you can never control everything in a few moments.
In short: accept and tolerate that it becomes too much for you, that is part of dealing with difficulties. And recognize your thinking errors such as exaggerating, thinking negatively and putting yourself down. Tell yourself you don't want this way of thinking!
Attacking the 'Powerless' Self-image demon with your behavior
What is the default or automatic stress response when feeling Powerless? Usually you withdraw, you become passive, you do nothing anymore, in short: you become passive. The more you have taught yourself helplessness in the past (the stronger your Powerless Devil has become), the more you avoid, become passive and withdraw.
It's the best way to destroy yourself even further. So a very stupid, inefficient way to solve problems and reduce your stress.
Below I give practical tips that can make you feel less powerless.
Practical examples of how to attack the Powerless Devil using your behavior
- Don't do nothing! Staying passive only makes things much worse. Seek immediate support from other people around you. Call them, go there, explain that you need help, and be open and honest. You will see that people will help you. You will immediately feel less powerless if you receive help from others.
- You can write down and make an overview of the biggest problems you are currently experiencing. You can then write down the possible solutions for each problem. Be imaginative and also write down solutions that are difficult but may be possible with the help of others.
- Write down how you have overcome difficulties in the past. Think about how you came out of it then. Perhaps you can now apply the same approach again.
- Write down what you would advise a good friend to do if he would be in the exact same situation. How would you help that good friend?
- You can share your concerns and especially your feelings with others. These could be friends, but also try acquaintances who you see often and who you find sympathetic. You will be surprised how many people want to help you, if you dare to ask.
- You can find distraction in an activity that you enjoy that DOES give you a feeling of control and happiness. This can be done: e.g. sports, cycling outside, walking. The point is that you do something where you really have control, so that you feel that you are NOT completely powerless.
Attacking the 'Worthless' Self-image demon with your thoughts
This self-image demon awakens when you compare yourself to other people, either in interactions with them or also in thoughts. We have a built-in self-evaluation in which we always compare ourselves to others. This is done, among other things, by so-called mirror neurons. As a result, we also learn a lot from others and adopt many behaviors and emotions from them. But we automatically compare ourselves and this comparison is not always done in a positive way. As soon as it takes place in a negative way, we devalue ourselves. This often arises in early childhood when we receive comments from our parents that suggests something about what we are or are not worth. Unconsciously, this worthless self-image demon will then grow within us. Below are the tips to fight this self-image demon:
- Think about which people around you find you worthwhile. Write down why they think you're worth it. Think about what they used to say to you, intended as a compliment, and write it down.
- Think about how many things you can do yourself. Consider many people who cannot actually do what you can do very well. Write this down: what you are really better at than other people. Realize that there are always things you are better at than some other people. So why do you compare yourself to people who can do things better than you? To bully yourself? That's a really stupid way to consider yourself worthwhile, right?
- Consider the following: suppose you end up seriously ill in the hospital. Would all the people around you, who care about you, really think that you are worthless as a person all those months in the hospital? Is that why they never come by? Or would they come to see you because you are worthwhile as a person? Would you consider a good friend less valuable if he also had to spend six months in the hospital?
- Consider whether Valuable depends on how rich you are, or how many things you have, or how much you have accomplished. Or does it mainly depend on who you are as a person? Why do you like being with a friend? Because that friend happens to have a lot of money, or because that friend is very sympathetic and worthwhile as a person? Aren't you just as valuable as a person as such a friend?
- Think for yourself why you can learn to look at your positive sides better than your negative ones, to feel more proud of yourself. Would a personal trainer also start to emphasize your negative points? Or would he also start by getting to know you and compliment you as a person? So why not compliment yourself?
Attacking the 'Worthless' Self-image demon with your behavior
- Ask your loved ones around you what positive points they think you have. Make a nice summary of this and save it in your mobile. Look at that every week and be proud of yourself.
- Find out which people around you have greeted you in the past week. Do you think they would do the same if they really thought you were a worthless person? They took the time to greet you and that says something about how valuable you are. Realize that very consciously.
- Think of how many people have ever thanked you for what you did for them. That they said they were happy with you. Go back to those memories and then write down why they were so happy with you. Even though that was some time ago.
- Do something for yourself that you enjoy and that gives you energy. Allow yourself that and do it more often during the week. This automatically strengthens your self-esteem. You can give yourself that, because you are worth it. Reward yourself with such nice things and do it a few times a week. Preferably healthy activities, of course.
- Start calling people around you and meeting up with them. Just to chat, about their or your life. Do fun things with them, sit on a terrace, drink some coffee/tea, just because you can. Because you seek connection with others, your self-image devil Worthless automatically becomes smaller. The other person will always enjoy doing something with you.
Attacking the 'Guilty' Self-image demon with your thoughts
This self-image demon surfaces when you make a mistake or when other people accuse you of a mistake. Or the fact that you have deviated from a certain 'normal' thing, something that others expect or consider normal. This devil then takes that as a serious mistake and thinks that you are guilty. In fact, this is your 'conscience function' which was of course learned in your upbringing. It functions as a correction to your behavior, often in interaction with other people. But if it has become too strong, then the guilt/idea is too strong and it actually breaks you down. Fear within yourself also grows. Below are the tips to tackle this self-image demon:
- If you have made a mistake but did not do it on purpose, i.e. accidentally, you should never think that you should be punished for it. Remember that you are just an ordinary person who makes mistakes. That's part of life. If you can say sorry then that's fine. You should not be or want to be punished extra. So don't feel guilty, after all, you are not someone who should be judged.
- Remember that punishment never works. Punishment is about making bad behavior less likely to occur. But making a mistake is never about 'bad' behavior but about an error that happened accidentally. So punishment makes no sense here. An ordinary person will sometimes make mistakes, because we are not perfect. You aren't either and that's not a disaster. That's why we are people, not robots.
- Think of criminals who have deliberately robbed or hurt people. They are really guilty of something. Then remember that you are not a criminal but a person who made a mistake. No more and no less. So don't hold that guilt for long.
- Write down what an error actually is. Remember that making mistakes is part of learning and life. Without making mistakes, no products or services have ever been improved. Because mistakes are made, there is always improvement. So making mistakes is really not as bad as you always thought. We learn and improve through mistakes!
Attacking the 'Guilty' Self-image demon with your behavior
- After making a mistake or even a major blunder, you should immediately share it with others. Be honest, tell them what happened and say you're sorry. Everyone around you will always be able to forgive you because you were so honest. They will think with you about how you can make up for this mistake. People are wired in their brains in such a way that they not only appreciate honesty, but also sympathize with you when you have made a mistake and admit it. By sharing it so quickly, your feelings of guilt and fear (or sadness) subside very quickly.
- Read about making mistakes and in what ways people are saying sorry. In all cultures you will find that making mistakes is common and that the best advice is always to say sorry and then learn from these mistakes to improve yourself.
- Watch funny videos about making mistakes. Also learn to see the humor in making mistakes. This makes your ideas about mistakes less extreme and you can also feel less guilty.
- Ask your loved ones around you how many times and what mistakes they have ever made in their lives. You will then hear very nice, interesting stories and realize that they are just ordinary people. People you like and who should not be judged because they once made mistakes.
- Do something nice for yourself so that you can get rid of that guilty idea/feeling faster. Make sure you get into a different mindset by e.g. do something with your body (exercise, walk, take a bath).
Attacking the 'In Danger' Self-image demon with your thoughts
This In Danger Self-Image demon comes up when you think you are in danger. This could be, for example, a severe pain somewhere in your body, or an injury, or a threat from someone else (whether verbal, written or physical), or a near accident. Anything that shakes your emotional or physical balance can be seen as a danger or threat. Below are the tips to tackle this self-image devil:
- Remember that you are almost never really in danger. Of course, this is not the case if someone threatens to physically harm you. Then you have to get away quickly (flee) or fight, or call for help. But usually there is no danger to life, but your autonomic nervous system goes into alarm or panic mode. No more and no less. There is just anxiety with the associated high heart rate, sweating, shaking, and so on. But...if you consider that this will subside and that no disasters will happen, then you can calm yourself down again. So never imagine that a disaster is looming! That is always an exaggeration and never true.
- Remember that you can always ask for help if there are others around.
- Also learn to be mentally prepared for what might happen. Of course you can't be prepared for everything, but it would make a big difference if you fantasized and prepared yourself for different types of possible situations. In other words, never be naive.
- Write down fantasy situations that could happen and use your humor as well. This way you already program your brain a little bit for possible situations. It is known that such mental, imaginary preparation ensures that the brain is better trained for situations that actually happen afterwards. You will then be less anxious and less likely to feel in danger because you have more control.
- Always remember that you are never completely weak or powerless, you can always do something in each situation to reduce danger. Also learn to think like that in a mindful way so that you can always have some control. Always consciously look for these control options.
Attacking the 'In Danger' Self-image demon with your behavior
- Make sure you are in good physical and mental condition. Train yourself to strengthen your body and also your mind (self-image). This makes you feel stronger and you can also rely more on your strength to reduce danger.
- Watch and read enough about dangers in this world. Also conduct extensive research into the risks of danger. Often these probabilities are exaggerated. For example, people on an airplane often think that they are in great danger. But statistics show that the chance of danger or a serious accident is tens of times higher on a long car journey than on an airplane. Especially if it is a good airline with well-trained pilots.
- Talk to people around you about the dangers in this world and learn to make good probability assessments with each other. Challenge each other to always find out what the actual facts are about hazards. For example, the chance of violence on the streets in the Western world (with the exception of the USA) is very small. This also increases the risk of all kinds of diseases.
- Train your social skills and resilience. This gives you a much greater chance of reducing aggression or danger when interacting with other people.
General advices for a healthy Self-image
In fact, all important tips for a healthy mind and a healthy self-image have already been given on many websites and in many books. I'll summarize them again here, for convenience.
- Keep exercising regularly. It has been known for centuries that a healthy and strong body strengthens your self-confidence. Your self-image demons Powerless, Worthless and In Danger are less likely to surface if you have a fit and strong body. Understandably, because then you literally feel more in power, you look more beautiful, fresher and younger and you can then escape danger much faster or even actively reduce it.
- Do fun, new things regularly. Our brain is not designed to always do the same thing. The brain then loses nerve cells, the reward system becomes weaker and the risk of sadness and anxiety increases. You then automatically avoid more and more, think more and more in the same way and you become inflexible, both in thinking and in your behavior. Doing new things broadens your thinking, your experiences and challenges you more. This ensures healthier resistance, both mentally and physically.
- Eat and sleep healthily, with a fixed structure, so regularly and use good healthy products. There is plenty on the Internet about what healthy products are, so I won't tell you about that here. A regular sleep rhythm, when you sleep between 6 and 8 hours on average, is also important for a healthy mind.
- Write down your thoughts and concerns regularly. Don't hold these in your very limited working memory or consciousness. Write them down so you get a better overview of your stressors. Then write down what you think the possible solutions are. Be creative and imaginative, even if solutions seem far away at the moment.
- In addition to writing regularly, you should regularly share your emotions with people around you. People you can trust, such as friends, colleagues or family. Sharing emotions is hugely underestimated, but it is one of the most powerful methods of reducing stress. It strengthens your connection with other people and that strengthens both your self-image (self-esteem) and your immune system. Connection is also the fundamental principle of Porges' polyvagal theory (see earlier on this page).
- Learn to focus on those things you have some control over and let go of those things you have no control over. As you try to change things over which you have little or no control, your Powerless self-image devil becomes stronger and stronger. Your disappointment and sadness then increases to such an extent that you can end up in depression (learned helplessness). In matters over which you have control, your self-esteem becomes stronger and your powerlessness decreases.
Powerful method (P.E.A.C.E.) to strengthen your Self-image
I have developed a digital writing program, P.E.A.C.E. with which you can work for a while to strengthen your Self-image. It will help you to put the above advices into action in a more structured way and while writing. For more information about this P.E.A.C.E. program, I refer HERE to the page about P.E.A.C.E. I also recommend reading the other pages here about the Self-Image Model (see column on the right in the table of contents). The more you learn about it, the more likely you are to strengthen your self-image in the right way.
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