Do You Have an Accurate Self-Image?

It is normal to want people to like you. Approval from friends, family members and others makes you feel secure. The downside of wanting others’ approval can be shape shifting: altering who you are to fit the situation. Over time, you lose touch with what you think and feel, confusion that leads to feelings of anxiety and alienation.

The chief symptom of anxiety is fear of change, even change for the better, since that disproves the negative outcome your brain expects. Another sign the mind has lost its moorings is that you feel defensive when people challenge your way of thinking. Sometimes these critics are in error, sometimes they are right, but when the mind assumes worst case, it’s hard to be objective.

Opening New Pathways in the Brain

Maxwell Maltz was a plastic surgeon whose pioneering book Psycho-Cybernetics described his success with re-patterning his patients’ brains. Like most innovators, Maltz was motivated by a desire to figure out a problem that intrigued him: why his patients could not accept improvement in their appearances following surgery. He concluded this was the result of a faulty or unhealthy self-image; their brains were not prepared for the positive outer change.

To alter how they thought about themselves, Maltz asked his patients to repeat positive statements about their appearance every day for three weeks prior to their surgeries, such as “I am pleased with my new look.” His theory was that constant repetition for three weeks would create a new memory groove in the brain. At the same time, ignoring negative thoughts would erase the old memory grooves. Similar to getting off a familiar, decrepit road to travel a new and smoother thoroughfare, his patients’ brains responded. Those who followed Maltz’s directions were happy with their appearances following surgery.

Do You See Yourself Accurately?

To determine if you see yourself as you are, write a description of what you think of your appearance, how you interact with others, your attitude toward money, work and life in general, and how your brain reacts to new information. Is your mind open to or threatened by change? Do you like the person you describe?

Next, write about how others see you. Make a note of who the “others” are: friends, spouse or partner, parents and other family members, co-workers, bosses, clients or customers, since you may appear to be different depending on where and how people know you. If you don’t know what others think of you, ask them. You might be surprised by what you hear.

What Is Your Balanced Self?

Balance implies health, a mind, body and spirit that function well. A healthy mind sees all parts of the self objectively, the weak, the strong, the fair, the unfair, the wise and the foolish–all are welcome at the table of the personality, although no one part dominates, such as the nice self, or the angry self.

Even if you do not feel balanced yet, write a paragraph that describes who you would be if this were true. Then use the technique that worked so well for Maltz’s patients. For example, if you have money woes, repeat daily, “I handle money well.” This simple phrase prepares the brain to create a memory groove that sees you as capable with money. When thoughts of being stressed financially enter the mind, say “No, we are not going down that road.” In time, you will leave behind the habits that matched the old self-image and create good money habits, such as saving part of what you earn, and buying only what you need.

Getting Off the Anxious Road

Since those who suffer from anxiety usually perceive situations to be more dangerous than they are (the fight or flight memory groove Maltz describes), using cognitive tools can develop the habit of calmness, even in situations that used to scare you. The first tool is to get accurate information about what scares you so that you do not jump to conclusions.

Next, practice reining in the mind when it wants to go down the dire outcome road. Repeat daily: “Anxiety is a mental habit I can change.” This statement puts anxiety into the category of a habit, not a weakness or flaw over which you have no control, a perspective that strengthens your self-image. In time, the brain will create a calm pathway that becomes familiar the longer you stay on it, and off the anxious road.

As Maltz said, when your self-image is unhealthy or faulty, due to early negative conditioning or illogical conclusions you made when you were too young to know better— regardless of what you want to do, all of your efforts will end in failure. So start with changing what you think of yourself. If you need help, find a cognitive therapist who specializes in keeping the mind in the moment. When you practice this good mental habit until it becomes second nature, your balanced self-image will also be how others see you.

Nancy Anderson is a career and life consultant based in the San Francisco Bay Area and the author of the best selling career guide, Work with Passion, How to Do What You Love For a Living, and Work with Passion in Midlife and Beyond, Reach Your Full Potential and Make the Money You Need. Her website is

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