Self-Image: How We See Ourselves and Why It Matters

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All of us tend to think that we’re okay and it’s everyone else who’s all screwed up. But usually the truth lies somewhere in the middle. Others have their flaws, we have ours.

Self-image is the conceptualization we form in our minds about the kind of person we are. We all draw a mental picture of ourselves, and it’s a picture that tends to remain relatively stable over time unless we take deliberate steps to modify it. Some researchers use the term self-schema (the term schema referring to an outline, model, or representation of a theory) when studying self-image and how we acquire it. There’s evidence the image of ourselves that we develop is based in large measure on what we’ve learned from our environment, such as what other people have told us about ourselves and how they appeared to respond to us. But our self-concept is also based in part on our own reactions, our unique interpretations of events, and especially the manner in which we appraise both ourselves and the nature of our interactions with others. There’s plenty of evidence that how we see ourselves really matters. Our self-image is important for many reasons but mostly because the extent to which it is both accurate and balanced significantly impacts our overall psychological well-being and the character of our relationships.

A person’s self-image can become distorted, imbalanced, or otherwise unhealthy for a variety of reasons. As children, we’re particularly sensitive to the judgments we perceive are passed on us by our parents, other authority figures, those with power or influence over us, and especially our peers. If those judgments are too often and/or too intensely negative, we’re likely to internalize a self-concept that’s more negative in character. But our innate personality characteristics play a role in our self-image development, too. Some individuals are particularly sensitive to criticism and might carry to an extreme the interpretations they make about events or about actions that reflect negatively on them. To this day, I can remember my then 4-year-old sister having a total “meltdown” after I said something ugly about one of the mud pies she had so carefully fashioned in our backyard and wanted me to try! Others, who tend to put so much pressure on themselves to be “perfect” might regard even the smallest of setbacks as evidence of personal failure and worthlessness. But forming a negative self-image is not the only kind of self-perception problem a person can have. Our self-image can become problematically distorted in the opposite direction as well. Children who are used to getting inordinate praise and attention for their talents, looks, or social facility can come to overly positively appraise and esteem themselves. I’ve written about the kinds of things that can inflate a person’s ego and the problems that can cause in several articles:

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The key to a healthy self-image is getting both the perception and the balance right.

Over the years I’ve engaged in consultations of various types with individuals and couples seeking my expertise on matters pertaining to personality and character, and it never ceases to amaze me how differently each party in a relationships sees not only their partner but also themselves. If they happen to be familiar with my books (In Sheep’s Clothing [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK](?), Character Disturbance [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK](?), or The Judas Syndrome [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK](?)) or online articles, each one will point to the other as the highly disturbed character in the relationship while casting themselves as the more “neurotic,” dependent party and hapless victim. To top it off, each seems perplexed the other doesn’t see them in the same way.

Why does how we see ourselves matter? It matters partly because we tend to become all too comfortable with ourselves. By definition, most personality styles are “ego-syntonic” (i.e., the person finds their way of seeing things and doing things both agreeable and preferable). All of us tend to think that we’re okay and it’s everyone else who’s all screwed up; this is particularly true when it comes to character disturbance. But usually the truth lies somewhere in the middle. Others have their flaws, we have ours. And, if we’re ever going to be truly and accurately able to address the flaws in another, as a wise person once said, we must first remove the distortions in our perceptions that cloud our own judgment.

Here are just a few of the questions that can help anyone to reflect on how they see themselves:

  • What do you see when you look in the mirror?
  • Do you see what others see?
  • Are you governed by it?
  • Can you accept criticism without going to pieces (i.e., “constructively” as opposed to destructively)?
  • Can you live with the idea that there’s room for improvement in the kind of person you want to be?
  • Do you think so little of yourself that you should feel fortunate that anyone else would want you?
  • Do you think you’re perfect and everyone else has to shape up?
  • Do you know full well you’re anything but perfect but resort to impression-managing others instead of committing yourself to the task of self-improvement?

The way you see yourself not only says a lot about your psychological adjustment but also matters a lot for your interpersonal relations. And, of course, when it comes to self-image, the task of a lifetime is to get it right.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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