Self-image and self-esteem are important components of a person’s mental health. They are similar, but not the same, and either one can influence the other.
Self-image is what you think other people think of you, and also how you want other people to think of you. Self-esteem is what you think of you. How do the two work together? What should you do if they don’t align, or if they’re too low or too high?
Let’s start with self-esteem, our internal view of ourselves. Self-esteem begins to develop in early childhood, and forming healthy self-esteem is a crucial protective element for long-term mental health much in the same way a healthy immune system in crucial for long-term physical health. When negative or uncomfortable situations arise, having healthy self-esteem is a layer of insulation, like a buffer, against them. Your self-esteem will ebb and flow over the course of your lifetime.
How we think and feel about ourselves, our self-esteem, is an amalgamation of multiple factors, including:
- Your own perceptions, thoughts and feelings
- The way other people react to you
- Experiences you have at work, school, home or in the community
- Illness, disability or injury
- Your age
- Role and status in society
- Messaging from the media
- Family dynamics
A person with healthy self-esteem has an accurate, balanced view of himself or herself. They’re aware of their weaknesses or flaws, but they also appreciate their abilities. Their relationships are mostly positive, and they’re open to feedback and learning. A person with healthy self-esteem is:
- Resilient and able to weather stress and setbacks
- Able to form and maintain secure, healthy and honest relationships
- Less likely to remain in toxic or unhealthy relationships
- Confidently assertive in expressing opinions
- Realistic in expectations
- Assertive in expressing what they need
- Able to make decisions with confidence
- Less likely to be overcritical of oneself and others
Signs a person’s self-esteem might be too low include focusing on perceived faults and weaknesses, feeling that her or his opinions and ideas aren’t valuable, believing that others are smarter, better or more valuable, and being reluctant or even opposed to accepting positive feedback. Another indicator of low self-esteem is appearing to be overly confident, boasting or behaving as though others are inferior.
A person with low self-esteem may have:
- Poor boundaries, or difficulty establishing healthy boundaries with others
- A negative view of themselves
- Mean, critical or even verbally abusive self-talk
- A tendency to constantly apologize for things they are not responsible for, or for simply sharing their opinion
- A ‘don’t rock the boat’ approach, and may follow others in what they are saying, doing or even wearing
- A tough time making decisions for themselves
Circumstances can cause self-esteem to fluctuate. We all feel down about ourselves sometimes, and we all feel really good about ourselves sometimes, too. A few dips into higher or lower zones are normal, but how we truly view ourselves tends to stay within a range.
To improve your own self-esteem, consider these ideas from the Mayo Clinic:
- Take care of yourself. Follow good health guidelines. Try to exercise at least 30 minutes a day most days of the week. Eat lots of fruits and vegetables. Limit sweets, junk food and animal fats.
- Do things you enjoy. Start by making a list of things you like to do. Try to do something from that list every day.
- Spend time with people who make you happy.
- Use hopeful statements. Instead of thinking your presentation won’t go well, try telling yourself things such as, “Even though it’s tough, I can handle this situation.”
- Forgive yourself. Everyone makes mistakes — and mistakes aren’t permanent reflections on you as a person. They’re isolated moments in time. Tell yourself, “I made a mistake, but that doesn’t make me a bad person.”
- Avoid ‘should’ and ‘must’ statements. If you find that your thoughts are full of these words, you might be putting unreasonable demands on yourself — or on others. Removing these words from your thoughts can lead to more realistic expectations.
- Focus on the positive. Think about the parts of your life that work well. Consider the skills you’ve used to cope with challenging situations.
- Consider what you’ve learned. If it was a negative experience, what might you do differently the next time to create a more positive outcome?
- Relabel upsetting thoughts. You don’t need to react negatively to negative thoughts. Instead, think of negative thoughts as signals to try new, healthy patterns. Ask yourself, “What can I think and do to make this less stressful?”
- Encourage yourself. Give yourself credit for making positive changes.
Self-Image the mental picture or personal view we have of ourselves, based in part on how we think others see us. It includes, according to the Cleveland Clinic, “the characteristics of the self, including such things as intelligent, beautiful, ugly, talented, selfish, and kind. These characteristics form a collective representation of our assets (strengths) and liabilities (weaknesses) as we see them.”
Our self-image can be based on objective measures, literally our height, education level, etc, but it can also include how we presume others see us. Self-image as a whole can be made up of accurate and inaccurate components, positive and negative. Our self-image is based on how we perceive reality, evolves as we do, and is something we can change. Body image is part of self-image. It goes beyond what we look like and how others see us to include how we think about and react to our own perceptions of our physical appearance and attributes.
If you pause before you do things because you’re concerned about what others might think or have thoughts about yourself that you consistently want to change you may not have the healthiest self-image. Self-image is tricky because we see ourselves through our own lens, which may or may not be accurate, and then we layer on top of that what we think people think of us. We may also sprinkle in a little projection (a defensive tactic in which we attribute our own negative thoughts or feelings to another person), or subjective filtering (seeing only the traits we believe to be present).
A healthy self-image translates loosely into self-acceptance. You hold a generally positive view of yourself and you may have areas you want to improve. Your values are clear and you are centered and ethical. You’re not perfect, but you take the good with the bad, and stay more focused on your attributes. Positive self-image helps people build better social relationships, try new things and enjoy the experiences of life.
Here are some tips for building your self-image:
- Make a list of your positive attributes, the things you like about yourself
- Ask people you trust to describe your positive qualities
- Define personal goals and objectives that are reasonable and measurable.
- Confront thinking distortions and examine what may trigger them
- Realize the impact of childhood labels
- Try not to compare yourself to others
- Grow your strengths
- Learn to love yourself
- Give positive affirmations
- You are unique and worth celebrating
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