Editor’s note: this post used to be titled “How to Cultivate a Strong and Positive Self-Image, Part 1. I changed the name because of the conversations that arose in the writing of Part 2.”
Self concept (n): An idea of the self, constructed from the beliefs one holds about oneself and the responses of others.
When I work with people to build self-esteem and improve body image, we are always dealing with their self-concept. If we weren’t, then I would simply tell my client “you’re already beautiful and powerful!” and she’d be all like “Oh, ok great!” Then she’d go out into the world knowing her immense worth, and create the life of her dreams with unapologetic, whole-hearted gusto!
That would be nice. But alas, it doesn’t really matter what I think of my client. It only matters what she thinks of herself. What she thinks of herself, ie her own self-concept, is what will determine the choices she makes, and results she gets, and the life she ultimately lives.
It’s important to note that each of us are always acting in accordance with our self-concept. This is a useful fact for anyone who is struggling to put into place new habits or behaviors. It applies to everything from trying to stick to a workout routine, to making a certain amount of money, to becoming more generous or compassionate. If deep down, you don’t see yourself as being the “kind of person” who has those new habits, it’ll be extremely difficult to make them stick.
Many people experience the phenomenon of “self-sabotage,” meaning they somehow act in a way that goes directly against their goals. We’ve been taught to address this kind of behavior by trying harder, wanting it more, or getting more motivated. But when the habits you’re attempting to adopt don’t align with the person you see yourself as, you’re already fighting a losing battle.
To use a common example, imagine someone who is trying to lose weight. She has a history of yo-yo dieting, and she blames herself for not having enough willpower to ever successfully keep the weight off. Deep down, she sees herself as weak-willed; she sees herself as someone who is destined to be fat. Despite any weight-loss she achieves with a new diet plan, she will always somehow gain the weight back, and return to being the person that she believes she is.
Her problem isn’t a lack of effort, or a lack of information. Her problem is her self-concept; she sees herself as someone who will fail. Trying to fix that problem by telling her to try harder, or by giving her a new weight-loss plan, is like trying to fix your couch by re-starting your internet router. It won’t do a damn thing to help; it’ll just make you feel like a frustrated idiot who doesn’t understand how the world works.
You can’t outsmart your self-concept. If you believe you are a certain kind of person (ie, a person who can’t keep weight off) then you will behave in accordance with that belief, and that belief will be proven true over and over again. It’s actually a pretty ingenious protective mechanism, this self-concept. It helps you maintain your sense of self; it protects you from the terrifying identity crisis that might occur if you suddenly behaved like a completely different person. Rather than allow such catastrophic identity distress, your self-concept causes you to simply… fail.
Ultimately, for better or for worse, your self-concept is a self-fulfilling prophecy.
What you believe about yourself will also be proven true by the circumstances of your life; such as the people you’re surrounded with, your career situation, how much money you make, and the partner you choose. If you believe you’re a person who is unlovable, for example, it will not be difficult to find people who prove you right.
Your self-concept determines how you show up, and telegraphs how you want to be treated. Pause for a moment and consider what your body language, tonality, words, and actions telegraph to the people around you?
Luckily this self-fulfilling self-concept works in the positive, too! For example, if you believe that you are inherently worthy of love, you will find that to be proven true everywhere you look. Whether in the negative or the positive, your mind will always be able to gather proof to support your core beliefs. In this way, the self-concept tends to snowball. Your beliefs create your behavior; the internal affects the external.
The interesting thing is that your behaviors also create your beliefs. The external affects the internal just as much. Your self-concept is a composite, made up of the thoughts you think, the words you speak, and the actions you take. It’s constantly being created by you, moment to moment. This means that you are always just one thought, word, or action away from being able to subtly shift your self-concept. Over time, you can drastically alter what you believe about yourself.
If you’re dedicated to living the life of someone who loves herself, you’ll discover that everything you think, do, and say can become a practice in cultivating a strong and positive self-concept. Consider for a moment how just 2 minutes of “power posing” can make you significantly more confident, energized, willing to take risks, and mentally sharp. Our posture, vocal energy, word choice, and actions are constantly helping create how we feel about and see ourselves.
This is actually one of the biggest reasons I encourage women to get strong at the gym. Thanks to how the hormones in our bodies respond to lifting weights, we instantly feel more confident, energized, driven, and proud of ourselves. Doing that a few days a week for years has the power to dramatically improve how you see yourself.
If you struggle with low self-esteem or low body-image, you already know how much it can hold you back form living the life you want to live. But even if you’ve never struggled or felt held back, I encourage you to consider where your life could be improved by cultivating a stronger and more positive self-concept.
Taking responsibility for how you see yourself, and how that affects your life, is an incredibly courageous act. Learning how to cultivate and practice your own desired self-concept is a skill that comes with tremendous rewards. Some people will naturally feel more comfortable working on the inner beliefs directly, and others will be drawn toward working on the external factors. The best results come when you include both, allowing the internal and external changes to play off each other until there is a strong and positive snowball effect. That is the cycle I want you caught in.
What do you stand to gain by taking control of your self-concept? Everything.
When I was a little kid, I had asthma and I played with kids who were older, bigger, and faster than me. By comparison, I seemed slow, clumsy, and out of shape. I allowed my self-concept to be formed by that comparison; the story I agreed to was “Jessi is a klutz, and she’s bad at sports.” I maintained that label all through high school, and over time what started as a conditional, relative truth morphed into what seemed like an objective, non-negotiable truth. Because I thought of myself as unathletic, I avoided absolutely everything athletic. As the years went by, my coordination and fitness, compared to others my age who were regularly playing sports, got worse and worse. Every time I attempted to try something physical, my belief about myself, “I am not athletic” was proven to be more and more true.
I could have lived the entire rest of my life this way, thinking I was limited by genetic potential; thinking that some people are born to be athletes, and others are born to be indoor kids with inhalers and stacks of books.
Obviously that story and those limits turned out not to be true. But I can imagine the life I would be living right now, had I never discovered that the shackles holding me down were imaginary. I never would have discovered the extraordinary power and joy of movement, found my purpose, or become a body image coach. The thought breaks my heart.
In Part 2 of this article, I’ll break down some key practices and behaviors for cultivating a strong and positive self-concept. Some will be how to address and explore those internal beliefs, and others will be concrete behaviors and actions that you can take in the world.
Leave a comment below to let me know your favorite practices or tips for creating a strong, confident, and positive self-image!
I am passionate about helping women learn to love their bodies. That includes unlearning what a woman “should” be, feeling empowered and confident in yourself, embracing your authentic power, and creating a life so kick-ass and beautiful that you hardly have any time or energy left over to think about how your body looks. 😉
That’s why I created
The Empowered Women Project
— for women like you, who are sick of being judged for what you look like, and want to focus instead on all the amazing things you can do and be. Click here to know more