CHANGING YOUR SELF-CONCEPT AND BUILDING SELF-ESTEEM

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Steps

STEP ONE: Recognize the internal critic and realize what pain the critic helps you avoid.

 The critic, as mentioned above, badgers you into doing what is right or into doing what is necessary to achieve some goal. You may even think you need a haranguing critic to make you be good! However, every time you think the critic is helpful, the bitchy, nasty critic is reinforced and becomes more likely to attack you again and again until you dislike yourself. In short, although the critic seems to do you some good (actually you could do without it), it does more harm by undermining your self-esteem in the process (Mc Kay & Fanning, 1987).

 You have to search deeply for the critic, much of its harm is done without your awareness. The critic blames you when things go wrong (and you accept the blame). When things go well, you call it luck or "someone felt sorry for me." Expressing self-criticism and self-blame may relieve some tension, but in the end you are degraded. Likewise, you may feel good about setting high perfectionistic standards, but in the end you fail because you can't be perfect. The critic tells you how inadequate you are, especially in comparison to "the best" (and you buy that nonsense). If you attack yourself, maybe others won't attack, but in the end you dislike yourself. The critic isn't honest, it exaggerates your failures: "you always screw up," "you never say the right thing," "you're totally weird," etc. (and you still don't challenge the critic). It remembers all your mistakes and sins... it calls you names, like stupid, gross, clod, bore, weakling, childish, etc. The critic may be such a natural, ordinary part of your mental life, you may hardly notice the criticism or the damage done.

 A low self-concept may be responsible for defeatist "giving up" or for obsessive workaholic behavior. A negative self-concept may result in constant self-put-downs or in constantly trying to prove one's superiority. The person with low self-esteem may be over-attentive, giving and solicitous, believing that no one will like him/her unless he/she is super nice, or he/she may be hostile and offensive, rejecting the other person first.

The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a Heav'n of Hell, a Hell of Heav'n.
-John Milton

 But your rational part can learn to recognize the critic and turn it off. How? See the next several steps. But, first, you have to detect the critic's work. So, for two or three days keep a record of every self-critical thought or feeling you have. Then search for the purpose served by the self-criticism, like this:

 Try to figure out the background and purpose of each of your critical thoughts. Does the negative thought yield a pay off? What does this fault keep you from doing? Does it help you avoid or reduce some other feeling, such as fear or anxiety or guilt or anger? Does the criticism help you accomplish something or to feel better because you had high standards or criticized yourself? What would happen if you didn't have this negative thought or trait? This diary and these thoughts should give you some explanations of how your critic got so strong by serving certain purposes.

STEP TWO: Challenge the internal critic. Then use healthier ways of achieving the critic's purposes.

 First, check out the accuracy of each critical thought. What is the objective evidence? If you see that the internal critic has been overly critical or exaggerated your fault and if you understand what payoffs the critic is getting, you are better able to discount what he/she says. Then, you will feel better. Examples of how to challenge the critic by saying more reasonable, self-tolerant things to your internal critic:

 Second, there are other ways of stopping the critic's hurtful messages. You can use thought stopping (see chapter 11). As soon as you recognize the critic's voice, yell (silently inside), "Shut up!" or "Get out of here!" or "This is the crap my mother told me!" or "No more put-downs!" Another way is to think of all the ways low self-esteem hurts you in the long run, e.g. refusing to try things or to meet people, feeling scared and inferior, being crabby and unable to express affection, etc., etc. Then say to the critic, "Go away! Look at what you cause me to do...." When you have shut up the critic, replace the negative thoughts with positive ones: "I am a unique and worthwhile person. I have many good traits...(see step 6). I'm in control and doing well."

 Third, use healthy self-help methods to achieve the same useful purposes that the unhealthy internal critic is trying to serve. Thus, you won't need the critic. Examples:

 The point is: to feel competent and moral, you must be those ways. You can be good without a nasty, lying, brutalizing critic inside.

STEP THREE: Do an accurate self-assessment. List your positive and negative traits.

 The people who emphasize their bad points and failings need to focus on their assets and positive traits. McKay and Fanning (1987) recommend listing your strengths and weaknesses in several areas: appearance, relationships, personality, morals, work (school), art, sports, daily tasks, mental functioning, and sex. This will take quite a while. Then mark or underline all the negative characteristics. The first task is to re-write each negative statement. This is to be certain that each criticism is stated accurately; for instance, take out all the emotionally laden words (see examples below). Make the statements factual, not judgmental.

 In addition to self-put down words also eliminate over-generalizing words, such as never, always, and completely; these are seldom accurate. In fact, it is beneficial to look for instances or circumstances in which you would not have the negative trait. Example: suppose a person wrote "I never stand up for myself" but she might realize that she does assert herself with her children and her friends, just not with her husband, her boss or other authorities. Likewise, a person might write, "I always say the wrong thing," but realize that this only occasionally happens when he is caught off guard or when very nervous. Clearly, accurate specific negative statements, citing your strengths as well, are more honest and less devastating than the global, nasty criticisms. Sometimes, even the solution becomes more obvious and hopeful when the problem is stated more factually. Other examples are:

 In fact, be reluctant to use any negative words that categorize or measure or judge you (or others) as a person. You may judge your behavior, but as a person you are perfect--you are exactly you! Also, avoid concluding prematurely that you can't do something or have a handicap or probably will have difficulties doing something, and so on.

 At this point, we have just cleaned up your negative statements for use in the next two steps. The positive, complimentary statements will be used in step 6.

STEP FOUR: Have the serenity to accept the things that can't be changed: Understand and accept your permanent weaknesses; accept the past.

 First, be sure you have the fault being considered. Would others agree that you have the negative trait? Are you sure you aren't exaggerating it? For instance, do you reject compliments in your weak spots? (See method #2 to test the accuracy of your self-concept.) Are you sure you aren't miscalculating the consequences of the weakness? For example, suppose you know you have a bad complexion. Are you sure it is as unattractive as you think it is? Is it correctable (medicine, surgery or cosmetics)? Suppose you are of average intelligence. Can you compensate in school by working very hard? Can you become such a caring, giving friend that your intelligence doesn't matter?

 Secondly, be sure it can't be changed. Remember any learned trait can theoretically be unlearned, even though "you can't change the past." Was your negative trait modeled and/or reinforced by a parent? Was it developed as a way of coping in the family? Did the peer group encourage this trait? Are irrational ideas (method #3) part of the problem? Is something like your "critical parent" (chapters 6 & 9) involved? All of these kinds of "faults" are correctable. Some people do lose weight after years of over-eating; "hot heads" do learn to control their tempers. It's possible. Other examples: if you have never learned to speak in public or always felt inferior to a highly educated person or always been a pessimist, you can change. Don't accept these kinds of negative traits (unless they don't concern you very much).

 Thirdly, be sure you don't confuse an unchangeable cause with an unchangeable trait. You may be stuck forever with critical parents, mean siblings, and/or rejecting peers in your past, which contributed to your low self-esteem, but you may be able to reject those old judgments by others and learn to judge yourself more favorably. You may have had other childhood traumas--deformity, poverty, illness, a learning disorder, etc.--which contributed to your self-doubts and low self-esteem. You can't change these facts of life. But you can change how you view or feel about these facts (see method #3 below). And, you can still overcome these handicaps and learn to evaluate yourself fairly and constructively.

 Lastly, there may be, of course, some of your characteristics that can't be changed: height, body build, facial and physical features, lack of abilities or talents, some diseases, and perhaps mental illness. You can "forget about" the things that can't be changed or you can look at them differently, such as accept them or make up for them. Quite often, you may realize your negative trait can be changed but it just isn't worth the effort. That may be a reasonable decision; if so, put the matter behind you.

 There are several viewpoints (or philosophies) that should help us accept ourselves and others (even the changeable characteristics): determinism (method #4 in this chapter), humanism (unconditional positive regard for everyone since every human is unique and precious), positive mental attitude (see method #9), or logical reasoning. As an example of the latter, Barksdale (n.d.) reasons that all our behavior is a result of our motivations and awareness at the moment. Since our awareness (view of the total situation) could not have been different, it would be illogical to expect us to have acted differently. Repeating one of these philosophies over and over to yourself, especially when you are starting to harshly chastise yourself, should be helpful.


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