Our mental processes--our "cognition "--play a complex and dramatic role in our lives. Our cognition makes us human. We can cope only by first sensing and understanding the environment. Sometimes we misperceive and wrongly interpret the situation, causing problems. Our expectations and response sets partly determine how we see the world. Our attitudes, suspicions, and conclusions about others also determine how we relate to people. Our hopes, dreams, and/or fears become self-fulfilling prophesies and determine the future to some extent. As we saw in chapter 3, our values and goals determine the directions our lives take. Our knowledge of human behavior, including self-help skills, and our rational planning partly determine our success in achieving our life goals. Our motivation also determines how far we go in the directions set by our needs and values. The discrepancies between reality and our ideals will determine how satisfied we are with ourselves and our lives. Most importantly, humans are the only species which can systematically study its own thought processes; we know some of our inner selves. All of this phenomenal world of cognition is due to 2 1/2 pounds of 100 billion nerve cells inside each human head. The brain weighs less than 3% of our total weight but burns 25% of our total oxygen intake. It is a busy, powerful, phenomenal, mysterious place.
Humans are the only animals endowed with enough mental capacity that they may glorify themselves by believing they will spend eternity in heaven with a God who looks like them, or, at the other extreme, they may denounce and abhor themselves so much that they choose to end their lives.
Between 700 and 1500, the concept of the "self" referred to only the weak, sinful, crude, "selfish" nature of humans. The evil "self" was contrasted with the divinely perfect nature of a Christian soul. Joseph Campbell believed the concept of an independent, self-directed "self" didn't start to develop until about 800 years ago. So, it is a relatively new idea (somewhat older than the idea that we are not at the center of the universe) which has grown in importance. In medieval times, values and meaning were dictated by the community ("do what you are told to do"). Today, modern "self" theory says each person is expected to decide what is right (almost by magic and without much reliance on the accumulated wisdom of the culture) and to know him/herself well enough to determine what courses of action "feel right." In short, we must know ourselves, so we can set our life goals and self-actualize. The cultures of 1200 and 2000 are two very different worlds.
Today, our self-concept, i.e. our knowledge, assumptions, and feelings about ourselves, is central to most of the mental processes mentioned in the last paragraph. This self-awareness is one of the most important concepts in psychology. We know that each person's self-concept is different from all others. But, surprisingly, there is no general agreement about the general structure or content of the self-concept. Some adages suggest that you have one true self or authentic self, such as in the saying "just be yourself." The true self may be similar to your preferred identity or your best self. This tidy, unified, relatively stable positive description of the self doesn't fit the reality most of us experience. We seem to have a self with many parts, some we like and some we don't.
Freud described three parts of our personality; Berne thought there were six parts; other theorists proposed other parts (see chapter 9). They are very different but all recognizable parts. More recently, several researchers suggest that humans are best understood by accepting that we have many selves. For instance, we are not only aware of many current traits, but we have selves leftover from the past (our "former" selves) and we have potential future selves, such as "hoped for" selves, "ideal" selves, "successful" selves, "rich" selves, and also "feared" selves, "incompetent" selves, "drop-out" selves, "unemployed" selves, "angry" selves, etc. Most psychological tests only ask about the current selves and neglect the future and past selves, although what you want to become and what you fear becoming powerfully affect your behavior.
Some aspects of our self-concept are stable for years; other aspects change almost moment to moment. For instance, most of us immediately feel "stupid" after failing a test or making a foolish comment. We may feel attractive at one time and unattractive a little later. Each of us also has public selves (several may be used to manage one's image as presented to others) and private selves. One may love him/herself in some ways and hate him/herself in others (Denzin, 1987). One's self-concept may mostly mirror other people's opinions or only one's self-evaluation. Your self-concept may largely reflect the dictates of a culture, religious teachings, family tradition, or you can create a unique personality based on your own ideals. The self-concept is probably primarily learned or acquired, but basic tendencies, such as to like or dislike others or one's self, might be inherited as well. The self-concept may have conscious and unconscious facets; it is a safe bet that the former is more socially acceptable than the latter. Surely very few of us would consider even our conscious selves to be perfect. Some think the "self" we know is just a highly verbal part of us that tries to understand our other parts. Obviously, there are many different notions about the self.
We are what we think. All that we are arises with our thoughts. With our thoughts, we make the world.
Humans have always, I suppose, been fascinated by the mind. Yet, the disciplines of psychology and psychiatry only started studying the mind or cognition about 100 years ago. The universe of the mind is still a dark, vast, unexplored place. It mystifies us. Yet, it is a region of great promise. If we could learn to develop our values, master basic psychological principles, and increase our self-awareness and motivation, great strides might be made in self-control or self-actualization. Many wise people have thought that it would be much more lasting and meaningful to change a person's basic self-concept or personality than to try to modify thousands of his/her specific, isolated, overt behaviors and superficial emotions. Some theorists think the mental image of ourselves (or of our potential) must change first, then the behavior will change; others think it works in the opposite direction, i.e. behavior changes first, then the self-concept (I think both ways may work). Psychoanalysts, cognitive psychologists, behavioral psychologists, and others will, no doubt, continue this debate.
When minds study themselves or each other, a number of paradoxes appear: While we know much about our mental processes, there is far more we don't know, and, as individuals, there are some things about our minds we don't seem to want to know. Likewise, while the brain is a fantastic sensing, remembering, thinking, problem-solving machine, it still, without our awareness, makes many foolish mistakes, and, certain individuals seem to want to make mistakes. Much of this chapter is devoted to straightening out our thinking, both as a rational process and as an attitudinal process.
All this "internal activity"--ideas, memory, imagery, hopes, and self-evaluation--is complexly intertwined with simple behavior, motivation, and emotions (chapters 4-8), including self-help methods using plans for behavioral changes and self-instructions (chapter 11), for expressing our emotions (chapter 12), and for learning skills that alter our choices and increase our effectiveness (chapter 13). Clearly, the brain and "mental processes" are involved in everything we humans do. However, for clarity, this chapter includes the more complex and cognitive self-help methods, such as:
Changing our self-concept and building self-esteem
Only we know who we are--what we have intended to do and actually done, what we have thought and felt, and what we have hoped for. Our "self " is a life-long accumulation of impressions. How we see and evaluate our "selves" and others' selves has a tremendous impact on self-acceptance, self-control, and acceptance of others. But as mentioned above, psychology has no clear-cut definition of the self concept (Campbell, 1976). Examples: Is most of the self hidden (the ice-berg self) as Freud suggested? Does our self include the dark and shadowy but "natural instincts," such as greed, hostility, and sex, or does the self constantly fight these basic instincts? Does the self include "human nature," such as infatuation, nurturing, game playing, and Jung's archetypes, or are these "needs and impulses" separate from our "self?" Is the self basically good (Maslow's "Pollyanna" self) and yearning for personal growth once the basic needs are met? Is the healthy, fully functioning self accepting and reflective of all your feelings, urges, thoughts and experiences, including the organism's striving to be all it can be (Roger's authentic self)? Or, is the self persecuted and constantly being judged against one's own ideal standards which are separate from the self? Is the self merely an illusion because there is nothing there except a conditioning machine, as Skinner suggested, or layers of roles or masks used to manipulate others, as Goffman suggests? Is the self primarily Mead's "mirror" reflecting our interpretation of the reactions of others to us? The self is seen many ways.
The concept of good self-esteem becomes clearer, however, if you think of it as having two parts: (1) a generally positive but realistic self-evaluation and (2) the generally positive belief that one can handle life's problems. Currently, there is a national debate between two groups of theorists: (1) those who believe low self-esteem causes most social problems--school failure, strained relationships, drug use, unwanted pregnancy, delinquency, and all kinds of troubles. They, of course, advocate building children's self-esteem but mostly by giving rewards and praise even for easy tasks in school. Self-esteem is considered so vital that some even say "don't make your kids feel bad if they lie and steal." (2) The other theorists think it is the other way around, i.e. that failing in school, getting in trouble, fighting in the street and at home, being irresponsible and anti-social, etc. cause low self-esteem. I suspect both views are right to some extent, i.e. self-esteem can be both cause and consequence of undesirable behavior (Bednar & Peterson, 1995). Having self-esteem would help with many social problems, but it will take more than teachers full of praise to develop motivated students and good citizens with high self-esteem. It will take a supportive (perhaps even demanding) environment, removal of fears and resentment, development of high values, good interpersonal relationships, life plans, useful life skills, knowledge, actual praise-worthy achievements, and on and on.
Although feeling negative about yourself is an unpleasant situation (such people especially get down on themselves when they fail), it isn't always entirely bad. Fears and feeling inferior may sometimes compel us to work very hard to succeed. Most of the time, however, failure makes us (especially if we are extrinsically motivated or conclude we are stupid) feel incompetent and uninterested in the task (Kohn, 1994). Certainly, as we will see, there are better ways to motivate ourselves, but nevertheless self-doubts, fears, and guilt can help us strive to be better. At the other extreme, there are highly arrogant people who are mean, dishonest, immoral, lazy, and all sorts of bad stuff. Dalrymple (1995) reminds us that the Nazi leaders had such inflated self-esteem that they felt invincible and were unfazed by their atrocities. So, high self-esteem can be part of a serious problem as well as parts of solutions.
For most of our purposes here, however, we don't have to impose a definition: the self is whatever you define it to be. Your sense of self is whatever you believe you are. It can be all of you or just your conscious self-evaluations; it can be good or bad or both. Individuals obviously see their selves very differently, e.g. as free, choosing, and effective (Bandura's self-efficacy) or as helpless and controlled by external forces or internal unconscious urges. This method is to help you feel better about yourself, no matter how you acquired the negative feelings.
Certainly we humans have an enormous capacity to judge ourselves as bad or inadequate--dumb, mean, selfish, ugly, unlovable, hopeless and on and on (probably equaling our capacity to exonerate ourselves and deny our evilness.) It has been estimated that almost 90% of college students feel inferior in some way (Hamachek, 1987). Some of us know very well that demanding, judging part of us, called our "internal critic." It is a common source of low self-esteem. But we also have a "rational part." The rational part can confront the unreasonably critical part.
Your internal critic may be obviously cruel and merciless with you, like Sooty Sarah's critic in chapter 6. Or, your critic may also be weak so that you are insensitive to your own cruelty and indifferent to others (see chapter 3). Or, you may not have much of an idea about how strong your critical parent is (see chapter 9). In which case, it may help you get in touch with your critic if you imagine how you would respond to the unpleasant assignment of eating a worm. Two psychologists (Comer & Laird, 1975) tried this experiment and found that subjects responded by talking to themselves in one of three basic ways as they contemplated the wiggly worms:
If you respond self-critically, as in #3, you surely have a mean internal critic. Similar careful observations of what you say to yourself moment by moment will help you decide how destructive your critic is. For instance, note how you talk yourself into getting up in the morning:
- "Worms aren't so bad."
- "I'm tough. I can do it. I'm braver and more adventurous than others."
- "I deserve it. I should suffer."
Several examples of a destructive internal critic will be given later in this method. But, it is important to note that the internal critic is often seen as doing good too. The "self" may, in fact, feel that the internal critic serves many important specific purposes (like getting you up). Therefore, the critic is reinforced (via negative reinforcement) when it helps us out of some mess, as when we say "Wow, I'm glad I got up and got things done this morning" (Mc Kay & Fanning, 1987). What useful purposes do you feel your critic is serving? It may seem to help you overcome laziness and do what needs to be done. It may seem to help you avoid painful feelings by stopping some act that would cause shame or guilt. The critic may seem, ironically, to help you tolerate certain disliked parts of yourself, such as itself.
- "It's going to be a wonderful day! I want to get started."
- "Oh, God, I've got so much to do today: 1__ 2__ 3__; I'd better get up."
- "You are such a lazy slob. Get your butt out of here."
Examples: when the internal critic tells you, "He/she won't like you, don't approach him/her," the critic is protecting you from social stress and from the fear of rejection. If the critic says, "You can't do that," it is helping you avoid a situation in which you might fail. If your critic repeatedly says, "You were terrible to have done that," it is punishing you so you won't have to feel so much guilt. Thus, we often tolerate and even welcome the internal critic as a necessity. The question is: can a person achieve these purposes without having a destructive internal critic? The answer seems to be "yes."
You can produce the desired behavior in other ways. You can correct the critic when it exaggerates your negative traits. You can use thought stopping (see chapter 11) to silence the critic. You can stop depending on others for your self-esteem; do your own self-evaluation. You can accentuate your strengths and assets. You can learn to accept yourself--warts and all--just like a good therapist would accept you in therapy. You can avoid the tyranny of your own "shoulds," your perfectionistic tendencies, your over-reactions to criticism, and your domination by others. You can modify your negative traits; you can feel good and adequate by being good and adequate.
It is also important to keep in mind that a poor self-concept can be dealt with at other levels, not just by changing your thinking. For example, you can reduce feelings of inferiority, shame, and guilt by being a high achiever and behaving morally (level l, chapter 11), by desensitizing yourself or using stress inoculation (level 2, chapter 12), by learning new skills (level 3, chapter 13), and by recognizing the sources of your low self-esteem in childhood and lovingly reassuring the scared little boy/girl still within you (level 5, chapter 15). In this chapter, I am focusing only on level 4, i.e. cognitive methods for building self-esteem. But it is important to take all levels into account, as described in chapter 2.
Many writers only concentrate on one level. Gloria Steinem (1992), for example, writes powerfully about uncovering her own internal sources of low self-esteem (always before she had believed low self-esteem in women came entirely from a discriminating, sexist-racist culture) and about regaining her self-esteem by getting in touch with childhood events that produced her suppressed, neglected, and insecure inner child. Certainly, uncovering unconscious forces, like your inner child, is one way to build your self-concept (see shame in chapter 6 and chapter 15), but there are many other reasonable methods.
Besides this first method in this chapter, method #4 will help you accept yourself and method #9 in this chapter also discusses the building of self-efficacy, which is closely related to self-esteem. Likewise, a poor self-concept is a part of many human problems, including a lack of purpose (chapter 3) and motivation (chapter 4), a lack of confidence (chapter 5), sadness and pessimism (chapter 6), a lack of assertiveness (chapter 8), self-put down games (chapter 9), and the lack of wisdom and equality in selecting a mate (chapter 10). Low self-esteem is closely related to sadness, so chapter 6 contains many related topics, such as self-criticism, anger turned inward, guilt, shame, feeling inferior, low self-concept, and pessimism.
The idea here is to raise your self-concept if it is lower than warranted and, as a result, enable the person to be happier and to achieve more of his/her potential, to be all that he/she can be. The goal isn't to just accept yourself, regardless of how you are behaving or feeling. More self-esteem is not necessarily better if it means becoming an egotistical snob or a prima donna. The 1990 California Task Force to Promote Self-esteem and Responsibility has this definition of self-esteem: "appreciating my own worth and importance and having the character to be accountable for myself and to act responsibly toward others. " Self-esteem isn't narcissism; it is self-love, responsibility, and respect for all other humans.
- To have a more positive self-concept.
- To see yourself honestly and to like or at least accept yourself.
- To remove the internal barriers that keep you from doing your best.