What do we need in order to live deeply satisfying and healthy lives? It’s not, as the marketers keep telling us, a top of the line automobile, cutting-edge technology or a face without wrinkles. It’s much more fundamental than any of these. We begin to develop it in childhood, and refine it throughout the ups and downs of our lives. It is unique; no-one else shares it with us, no matter how closely they are related. It can be damaged by life circumstances, yet it also gives us the resiliency to navigate the sorrows and frustrations found in every life story. It is a healthy self-concept.
Self-concept is made up of many things: the way we feel about ourselves, our perception of our strengths and weaknesses, and our beliefs about our character and abilities. Although the overall flavour may remain the same over time, scientists agree that our beliefs about ourselves continually adjust, in response to current experiences. Did you get the lawn mowed during that last spell of sunshine? Receive a heartfelt thank-you from an appreciative friend? Do a really good job on a project at work? Your self-concept will add these accomplishments to its database, and your feelings about yourself will be buoyed upward. When our actions align with how we ideally would like to be, we feel positive and strong. If we see our actions falling short of this ideal self, we can start to feel vulnerable and less worthy. For example, if you’d planned to help a friend move, but were caught up in a time crunch at work, you may end up bad-mouthing yourself and feeling depressed: “I’m a lousy friend, I could have done both if I’d really pushed myself”. Feedback from the outside world plays an important role as well: if your friend blames you or says you are unreliable, you can start to feel anxious and stressed.
So, how can we keep our self-concept healthy when we are only human? It’s not possible to live up to our own ideals or the expectations of others 100% of the time. What techniques will give us perspective when rejection or criticism strikes?
Aim for realistic, rather than perfect. To make sure that you are judging yourself fairly, ask whether you would expect a good friend to reach the same standards that you are setting for yourself. If the answer is ‘no’, look at modifying your goals so that you can achieve what you want in a reasonable way.
Practice right action. Whenever you do your best in a situation, achieve what you set out to do, or help another person, you are practicing right action. The resulting sense of accomplishment feeds back into your self-concept, allowing you to feel more competent, valuable and on-track.
Forgive yourself for being human. Let’s face it, you can cling to the dream of being perfect, or you can appreciate who you really are, and allow yourself to learn from your mistakes.
If you’d like to talk more about ways to gain perspective and build a positive sense of self, give me a call. Stephanie is a Registered Clinical Counsellor with offices in Parksville and Nanaimo, and can be reached at 250-937-1223/ 250-616-0502 or www.spetercounselling.ca