How do you see yourself? Dealing with negative self-concepts.
Who are you, anyway?
Each day I work with people who have a variety of ways of describing themselves:
I’m a native San Franciscan.
I’m a gay man.
I’m a foodie.
I’m a survivor.
I’m an animal lover.
I’m a Latina.
And, these same people might also talk about themselves this way:
I’m a very anxious person.
I’m too clingy in my relationships.
I’m always making lousy choices.
I’ve screwed up every job.
I’m a failure.
I’ve always been depressed.
The point is that our entire history of life experiences creates and shapes our concept of ourselves. Let’s say Jack (not a real person) describes himself as a native San Franciscan, gay man, and animal lover who has never felt successful in his work life and has always been anxious. In fact, Jack describes his whole life as being a struggle with anxiety and feeling like a failure. Oh, and he is a hiker and outdoor person. All of this contributes to Jack’s concept of himself.
Your self as concept.
The point is that we have concepts of who we are and we usually live our lives around these concepts. If someone asks Jack to be on the board of a local animal shelter, he is up for the challenge – this is who he is! Our concepts of ourselves help us to do things that matter in our lives, give us the confidence to take risks, and try out new experiences.
But other concepts aren’t so helpful. Jack’s concept of himself as an anxious person can limit him. How can someone who is anxious be expected to try out rock climbing when so many dangerous things could happen? Anxious people really shouldn’t be getting on crowded trains and definitely shouldn’t take up scuba diving. Anxious people also probably should be very cautious about entering new relationships because what if something bad happens? Jack finds himself limiting his behaviors because of concepts like these.
Your self in context.
Note that I am not denying any of Jack’s self-concepts. His experience of life, his interactions with others, his biology and genetics, all of these things contribute to his very real concept of who he is. He is all of these things.
And, yet, is it possible that he can be something beyond this? That while he may indeed be an anxious person, that this doesn't always define who he is? That there could be times and contexts where he isn't anxious? Could he possibly live his life having that concept of being an anxious person but not being ruled by it?
This might be a tricky idea to consider but think about the anxiety Jack experiences. He has a concept of himself as anxious, because he experiences it a lot and in his mind he believes this concept and lives (i.e. limits) his life accordingly. But, there are actually times and contexts where Jack can step back and realize that anxiety isn’t always in the picture, that it is a transitory experience. Maybe it was when he went for a hike and noticed how much fun he was having (despite the steep and scary cliff), or when he was volunteering at the animal shelter fundraiser and found himself talking about dogs to a total stranger. The anxiety subsided and didn’t define Jack in these contexts. In both contexts he was able to notice something different.
Shifting from concept to context.
The point is to begin to see that your concepts of yourself can be useful or harmful, can come and go, and can change over time depending on the context of where you are at in life. Shifting to a stance of yourself as an observer of your experience can be a freeing experience and help you get less stuck in the negative and limiting concepts.
How to shift from concept to context.
Here’s an exercise to get an idea of yourself as something other than just your concepts of yourself:
Imagine a big house with lots of rooms, and all the rooms are full of furniture, art, lamps, rugs, etc. You can go in and redecorate the house. You can paint and move furniture around. Your concept of the house can change. You can change it from traditional to modern, from minimalist to cozy to messy. But, while your concept of the house can change, it doesn't really have any effect on the house itself, does it? The house is still a house, no matter what is going on inside.
Now imagine that the furniture and other objects are your self-concepts – things like animal lover, native San Franciscan, gay man, anxious person, failure, etc. And imagine that you are the house. You can have all of your experiences and concepts, but they don’t have to define you. You observe the objects, you sense them, you experience them, but they do not actually change you as the observer. You can be someone with a history of anxiety but be something more than that anxiety. You can be someone who experiences feelings of failure but not be defined by these.
The idea is that we can transcend our ideas about ourselves in the context of what is actually going on in the moment. Anxiety, depression, shame and other experiences don't have to define us, and we can choose actions that allow us to live in ways that are bigger than our negative self-concepts.