Psychology: Self-image: Why you see yourself differently than you are - and how you can correct it

Our self-image influences what we believe in ourselves, what decisions we make, how we feel and behave. For many people, however, it does not correspond to reality. You can read here why and how we can deal with it.

In our minds, a tree is a large plant with a thick, brown trunk, maybe a few branches and some sort of greenery. Probably leaves, maybe needles. We know, of course, that it has roots, but as a rule they do not play a major role in our imagination at first. The fine vessels through which trees transport water from the ground to their crowns and into the leaves. The ants and other insects that crawl up their trunks, live on and with them. The birds that build their nests in the treetops. The many individual, living, different cells that make up a tree, which make it a habitat for numerous organisms and an important component for a life-friendly climate on our planet. Our standard image of a tree usually does not reflect any of this. But all of that and much, much more is a tree.

In our imagination we don’t see the world as it is. We organize them into patterns and categories that are defined by a manageable number of properties. We schematize. We simplify. We judge. And this is how we proceed with our self-image.

Our self-image consists of self-schemas

“In the course of our lives, our brains form schemes that help us organize information and associate meaning with ourselves and our environment,” writes trauma psychologist Danielle Render Turmaud in Psychology Today. “That includes self-schemata, cognitive generalizations, and beliefs about us that affect how we think, feel, and act.” Examples of such self-schemas are, for example i am an extrovert, i am athletic, i am overweight, i am intelligent, i am shy, i am lazy.

Strictly speaking, all of these ascriptions are simplifications or generalizations. A person may be shy in their private life, but maybe they will go out of their way at work – or would do so if they did not consider themselves shy. Or a person has to be able to see relevance and meaning in an activity in order to get involved. And because she always missed both of these things in school, she sees herself as lazy.

Like most of our ideas, our self-image is significantly shaped during our childhood and adolescence. According to the psychologist, it is fed by our experiences as well as the messages and feedback that we receive about ourselves from other people. As a rule, we unconsciously draw it without even realizing it.

Our self-image influences our self-worth and our actions

First of all, that’s just what happens. We have to order, generalize and simplify, since we are not able to grasp our environment or ourselves in our complexity. However, we experience disadvantages or difficulties when we have experiences or receive feedback that constitute a self-image that is not only simplified, but also restrictive or wrong, and which prevents us from developing and unfolding ourselves.

Suppose we grow up as little sisters and whenever we are sad or angry and cry, we get feedback from our big brother that we are annoying. For our self-image, this can mean that we believe that we are a nuisance for those around us if we openly show our grief or anger and train ourselves to suppress these feelings. If we differ from our classmates: inside because we are, for example, more sensitive, smarter, more creative or smaller than them, and if they exclude us because of this, this can result in our self-image that we see ourselves as weird, as different, wrong, not adorable. Although in truth we are particularly sensitive, clever, creative or small.

Another disadvantage that our schematic self-image can have is that it prevents us from discovering or living out aspects of ourselves that do not appear in our schematic. For example, if we have decided that we are chaotic, this may lead to us avoiding any organizational tasks. But maybe we could do it after all if we tried. And maybe many of the explanations we find for our actions, our mistakes or for things that happen to us are not true at all, but only projections that fit our self-image. That at least simplified, maybe even flawed, but certainly does not correspond to the full reality.

How can we correct our self-image?

We will never see ourselves as we are. But how we see ourselves influences how we feel, what we trust ourselves, how we behave. It is therefore in our interest to deal with our self-image and develop one that we can live with as well as possible. One that we feel comfortable with, that makes us brave decisions, but does not constantly overestimate ourselves. One that is not rigid and ready, but open to adjustments, corrections and developments. According to the trauma expert, the following tips can help with this process.

1. Be curious

Who do I think I am? Why do I think I am like this? What else could there be about me? Who do I want to be? If we approach ourselves with interest and curiosity, instead of prejudice and firm opinions, we can on the one hand explore what we actually think of ourselves and why we are doing this, on the other hand we can discover aspects of ourselves that we did not know before.

2. Attack negative self-schemas

Since negative aspects of our self-image often damage our self-esteem and restrict us, we can best fight them actively. Instead of telling us, for example I’m a loser, I’m doing it all wrong could we persuade each other All people make mistakes, failure doesn’t make me a loser.

3. Questioning self-image

Since our self-image is a simplification that has arisen from experience, we can also subject individual aspects of it to a test. Do I really seem that annoying and immature when I’m angry? Or am I not giving my fellow human beings more clarity and showing maturity and authenticity?

4. Allow complexity

We are more than our strengths, weaknesses, mistakes, successes, advances and relationships. We are more than we can grasp, and we are all sorts of things at the same time at all times. When we accept this, we can more easily acknowledge that we don’t have to understand everything we do, feel, or think. Sometimes we even overlook the most important things, just as we do not take the roots into account when we imagine a tree. We are more than our self-image suggests. We are wonderfully complex.

5. Seek help

Since our self-image is central to our life, it can be useful to seek professional help to transform it. Psychotherapy may be particularly appropriate if we have had traumatic or negative experiences in our youth.

Sources used:, Kevin Dutton, Schwarz.Weiß. Think! Why we tick, how we tick, and how evolution makes us manipulable.


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