Self-image is rigid

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Why can you change your Self-image and why is that hard work ?

I have to reiterate what I wrote before about the Self-image: it is an extensive idea stored in your subconscious mind in your long-term memory. Normally you are not aware that it exists.

Precisely because it is unconsciously present, and therefore active every second (!), it is able to constantly strengthen or weaken itself. If you have a negative self-image, you weaken yourself (unconsciously) almost every second. If you have a positive self-image, you will keep it for a longer period of time. However, subconsciously the 4 self-image demons keep trying every second to strengthen themselves, so... to weaken your Self-image.

Again: if you do not understand or have not learned to see that this subconsciously works that way, then you are not improving your Self-image sufficiently. You do not realize that the Self-image demons (unconsciously) are working hard to weaken your Self-image.

It takes COURAGE to change your Self-image

To be able to see this unconscious Self-image, you need courage. Courage because the confrontation with your own negative self-image can be quite painful. You often think you know yourself quite well, but actually looking at Your Self, often based on feedback from other people, is a quality that not everyone has mastered yet. And certainly not if you already have a low self-esteem.

After all, if you look at Your Self with low self-esteem, it is really just rubbish what you will see. Because you look with the tinted glasses that the Self-image demons have fabricated in all these years. So if you look at your Self-image, then under the strong influence of your Self-image demons, you only see shit: that you are worth nothing, that you are powerless, that you can't do anything, that you are constantly in danger, all that kind of nonsense ideas.

You do not realize that you are wearing the wrong glasses, dark black glasses with which you look at your Self. Looking at Your Self therefore requires courage: dare to look at that black hole in your Self and look past it, see what else can be found in your Self-image like other  beautiful things about yourself.

Self-image is an elaborate complex of ideas

A second, important reason why improving your Self-image is not so easy is that your Self-image consists of many hundreds of ideas about yourself. Over the course of your life, these thoughts about yourself have been translated into fixed behaviors and fixed feelings. In fact, they have become fixed patterns of thinking and habits in your brain. Patterns that are so familiar and so automatically retrieved in your long-term memory that you usually don't realize you're using them. In other words, it has become your own identity, it feels natural and comfortable to think and act as you are used to.

In fact, to put it bluntly: you have become inflexible and rigid, you don't adapt so easily anymore. Change is more difficult than (unconsciously) sticking to familiar thinking, feeling and behavior patterns.

Because changing your Self-image, your thoughts, feelings and behavior is so difficult, the threshold for change is lowered in Self-image courses. There is often a positive approach: you start by doing nice things for yourself, for example you first collect compliments from others about yourself.

But... doing all these positive things and getting compliments from others is not enough! Your Self-image demons have become so powerful in the course of your life that they have collected hundreds of arguments (ideas), stored in your subconscious long-term memory, that you are worth nothing, or powerless, or remain guilty.

Precisely because such a self-image demon has collected many hundreds of arguments, you must also fight against these arguments hundreds of times. If you don't, you will lose the battle and a Self-Image Demon will always be right (and become stronger).

Changing your Self-image is hard work, EVERY day!

A third reason that you cannot just change a negative self-image is that you often do too little to strengthen your Self-image.

What? Too little ? But if you follow all the tips from those self-image courses? If you start doing nice things for yourself, spend more time with nice, reliable people, collect and accept compliments, then that should really work, right?

It surely helps... a little. But NOT enough! That's what I'm trying to explain here.

Especially if your Self-image is really very low, very negative, built up like this for years, then the Self-image model predicts that you will not strengthen your Self-image sufficiently with all these tricks and tips.

This is mainly because your Self-image is stored in your long-term memory; it is actually programmed. And changing this content of your Long Term Memory takes a lot more than just some fun activities.

We now know from modern memory theories that real information  changes, real long-term memory changes, only take place after a lot of conscious repetition of thoughts.

An example: you only really remember something if you pay enough attention and time to it, repeat it a lot, and think about it. And how can you best do that? Not just talking or doing, but especially with writing.

You can understand this very easily by remembering which summaries of a book in high school you always remembered best: the summaries you had read from a fellow student or the summary of the book you had read yourself and therefore had made for yourself ?

With your self-made summary you spent more time and attention on it yourself, you really thought about the book, you also linked your own experiences to what you had read and you also wrote it down in your own style, in your own way. That is the way to change information in your long-term memory and store it better. The same goes for your Self-image.


  1. The Self-image works unconsciously: the self-image devils therefore work unnoticed every second to weaken your Self-image. They do this by making you look at your Self through dark black glasses that prevent you from seeing the beautiful things about your Self.
  2. The Self-image mainly consists of 4 negative Core Thoughts (the 4 Self-image demons that have collected many hundreds of negative thoughts over the course of your life. These negative thoughts are used as ammunition by the Self-image demons to keep your Self-image weak.
  3. Fighting your Self-image takes constant commitment and action, every second. It's really not enough to apply a few tips and tricks. Writing turns out to be a very strong method to change your long-term memory.


Below I will give some concrete examples in daily life in which, hopefully, it will become clearer why your self-image is difficult to change (but possible).

You often learn at self-image improvement courses that you should do nice things for yourself. Indeed, if you do a fun activity, e.g. sitting on  terrace together with a friend, you will temporarily feel better.

But it really doesn't have to positively change your Self-image. Your Self-image is unconscious, stored in your Long Term Memory. If you don't store this fun experience in the right way in that Long-Term Memory, then NOTHING will change about your Self-image.

That usually happens in daily life: you do something fun and it feels nice for a while. Then you come home and almost immediately that nice feeling is gone. That's because your Self-image demons really do everything they can to strengthen your negative Self-image, after all, then they will become stronger themselves. They are actually a kind of parasites that live in your brain: you cannot do without them, but if they are too strong, they have a very negative effect.

A fun experience, as in the example above, is usually stored in your memory as follows. "Wow, that was so nice with my friend. I should do it more often." That's what you think. Then you continue with your normal order of your day, you continue with other things.

You forget the most important thing: what did you actually learn from this fun experience and how did it strengthen your Self-image? You don't remember this fun experience in the right way: in short, you don't really change your long-term memory (and therefore your Self-image).

This is a good example of not really being Mindful: you are not attentive or conscious enough. You don't think about it consciously enough so that this fact isn't properly stored in your long-term memory!

You should actually write a summary about it: you consciously reflect on what you have experienced and how that has strengthened your Self-image. You use this experience as a conscious argument to attack your Self-image demons. So you do that with writing consciously. Only then have you properly stored this experience in your long-term memory and strengthened your Self-image.

Journal fragment

The above example of a nice experience can be written in your own diary in the following way. This comes from a client who has already learned how to strengthen his self-image after such an experience.

"Today I had a very nice date with my best friend Paul. Not only did the coffee taste really good, but we took the time to talk about some serious stuff. I got to know him even better than I thought. Our contact was warm, he was interested in me and I told about what I experienced. And that I see a psychologist. He greatly appreciated my honesty and he told me so. He was happy that he was my friend and that I was so honest with him. He clearly showed how he appreciated me, now even more than all those years before. Precisely because I was so honest about my shortcomings. He also said that he once had such a difficult phase in his life as well. I then felt heard and not alone.

That I always have the idea that I'm worth nothing is a nonsensical idea. I now see that Paul really appreciates me as a person and that makes the idea that I'm nothing, of course, nonsensical. I'm now starting to see that this stupid idea doesn't come from me or Paul, but from my Self-image demon 'Worthless'. I'm starting to understand what my therapist always explains to me: that such a self-image demon is always trying to bring myself down. Even now, as I write this, it comes to my mind that maybe Paul appreciates me but a lot of other people don't. Like my mother, for example, or my employer.

I have to learn to realize that such negative thoughts mainly come from the Self-image demons inside me, who have become so strong over the years that they want to take away this nice experience with Paul. They want me to keep seeing myself as Worthless. They don't let me have fun. But...I will learn how to attack them and make them smaller! I had a lot of fun with Paul today, I saw and see that he really appreciates me as a person, even though I have emotional problems now. I realize that I am really worth it! And no one can take that away from me!"

In the diary fragment above it becomes very clear that this client deliberately puts a lot of time and effort into properly storing this pleasant experience in his long-term memory. The way he does that, how he writes about it, makes his Self-image demon ("I'm worthless") come forward into the open, so that Paul actually can attack it. Through this way of storing experiences, the Self-image is consciously strengthened.

Example from Schema focused therapy

Another example from another client who has learned to apply Schema Therapy techniques.

Maria has learned with the multi-chair technique to use her 'protector' when she falls into her 'vulnerable child' mode. That's what happens at her work:

During a meeting she has to give a presentation about what she has been working on. That goes pretty well until the round of questions comes and some colleagues respond critically. She can answer most questions reasonably, but one critical question in particular hits her hard. A colleague asks why she needed so much time for her work. Couldn't she have finished this much sooner?

She has no direct answer to this question and almost immediately gets a very bad feeling inside. But...she has learned in schema therapy to use a 'protector', the healthy adult. She therefore uses the healthy adult to be able to continue answering other questions. However, she did not give a real answer to the direct question of her colleague.

Afterwards, when she came home, it turns out that she is irritable, down, and that same night she sleeps badly. It still haunts her for days afterward.

What actually went 'wrong' here? She did a good job of using a schema therapy technique by playing the "healthy adult" during the Q&A. This allowed her to complete the presentation well; no one noticed her feeling uncomfortable.

However, the Self-Image model predicts that she has suffered damage to her self-image that she herself has failed to repair. The remark of the critical colleague hit her very deeply, after which she rightly deployed a 'protector'. However, she did nothing with the damage to her self-image itself. The Self-image demon showed up very strongly and she did nothing at all with this demon. As a result, this Self-image demon has become stronger and she got a permanent bad feeling in her body. It stayed that way for several days.

What could she have done better? Very simple: writing down this experience in her diary or Self-image notebook. She should have deliberately written down exactly what touched her in the comments of this colleague. Because she had felt like the 'hurt' child, but most of all, one Self-image demon (namely: I am Worthless) had scored a clear point.

She should have written that the Self-Image Demon had become active again, but that it was utter nonsense. She wasn't worthless, but this idea came from her little self-image demon. She could then have written down several reasons why she as a person was worthwhile. For example, by clearly writing that the entire presentation went well. That other colleagues had said the same thing, that she had been able to answer the other critical questions correctly and that everyone was satisfied afterwards.

But... she hadn't done all this so that her Self-image had only been damaged, the Self-image demon showed up forcefully and got away with it. It is precisely because of this that such a little demon remains strong (and it only gets stronger).

The examples above clearly show that writing is a very powerful technique to strengthen your Self-image. It also shows that you have to put quite a lot of time and effort into improving your Self-image.

Language and thinking: the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis

In linguistics, a hypothesis arose as early as the 19th century that language strongly influences thinking. In the strong version, which is no longer considered correct by linguists (linguistic determinism), cognitions (=ideas) are mainly determined by your language. In other words, you cannot think outside a language framework. There are plenty of cognitive experiments that have undermined this idea: after all, we also have nonlingual, nonverbal thinking.

However, the Safir-Whorf hypothesis states that language does strongly influence our thinking, also called linguistic relativity. In other words: our language strongly influences the way we see the world, the other and ourselves. So our cognitions strongly influence our mindset, how we see and interpret things.

I bring this up here because it makes my point clear: the way you write something down (= talk to yourself) determines how you think about yourself, the other person and the world. So, how you define your Self-image.

This is also the reason why stories and poems are so incredibly important to people. The appeal of language, the way language is designed, is strongly linked to people's basic emotions.

For example, there is a lyrics by Blackbird (the Dutch singer Merel Koman) that shows a lot of emotion: "We are all made of those who have built and broken us" (originally by a Greek philosopher around 175 AD Atticus).

If you simply say this, "we were formed by others who damaged and built us", it has less power. If you listen to how Blackbird pronounces it with the accompanying music, it touches you much more emotionally.

Another example is the use of poems in films. For example: Part of Dylan Thomas' beautiful poem used in the movie Interstellar:

"Don't go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light."

When you say that aging is annoying and you have to fight it, it comes across as much less emotional. But if you watch the movie Interstellar and hear this poem by Michael Caine, then it sinks in a lot more, emotionally.

That is also the reason why one writer or book or poem has more impact than another. Language and the way it is designed can actually change your mindset, your view of things. That's why I recommend writing here: to talk to yourself. That is the only thing that can change your Self-image.

Can your Self-image change very quickly ?

Theoretically, the answer is clearly 'no'. As indicated earlier, your Self-image consists of many ideas about yourself, the other and the world. However, it does have a core that mainly consists of the aforementioned 4 indivisible pillars, the so-called Self-image demons. These are the fundamental ideas (basic cognitions) about Yourself that are expressed in negative form. Why in a negative form? Simply because as a psychologist I find that the most useful in doing therapy and show clients that you have to fight against these negative ideas.

If you e.g. strongly go along with your negative idea that you are, in fact, a Worthless person, then you can teach yourself to rebel against this. In principle, it could also be the other way around by stating that someone thinks to a very small extent that he/she is Valuable. Therapy should then be aimed at someone convincing himself that he is valuable.

However, this does not work well in clinical practice. In my opinion, this is because it is underestimated how strong pre-programmed ideas about yourself are. The stronger a negative idea about yourself is stored in your subconscious (= long-term memory which is not active), the faster you automatically go along with this idea. You don't consciously think about changing this idea. As the Sapir-Whorf principle states: your thinking is strongly influenced by your language. If you don't change this language, you won't change your mind any time soon.

Strong suffering seems necessary

There is an exception to the above rule that your Self-image cannot change quickly: extreme suffering. Such a shock can quickly change some elements in your Self-image.

This often happens because of a strong emotion, usually anger. A lightning-fast decision (choice) then seems to be made to fundamentally change something in thinking and behaviour. Subsequently, all subsequent thinking and behaviour is actually changed in practice.

This is most often seen in people who are addicted, e.g. to alcohol or smoking. If a serious incident occurs, e.g. another fierce relationship quarrel and your partner leaves because you are drunk again, then it may happen that you no longer want that. That you want to win back your partner, at all costs, and then decide to radically quit alcohol or smoking.

This decision in your life can actually change your life in an instant, often for the better. In this example you mainly choose for yourself: that YOU are worth getting this friend back. You finally realize that you are not so worthless but of value to someone else.

However, these kinds of rapid behavioural changes are fairly rare, so you still have to change the Self-image with many different behaviours, ideas and writing. Often it is also due to serious incidents in which you clearly feel the suffering. People never change just like that: it has to be under the pressure of pain. The saying: 'no pain no gain' is also very true here.

P.E.A.C.E. writing programme

A powerful tool to help you strengthen your Self-image is P.E.A.C.E. 

Click HERE to find more information about P.E.A.C.E.

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