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Self-image and its negative

Updated: Jan 13, 2023

We just finished yet another powerful masterclass - Threshold to Excellence. This is one of my favorites as it goes into discovering the parts of ourselves which we have mostly forgotten about. These parts play a big role in how effectively we are operating as human beings. I personally had to face these forgotten parts of myself twice during last month.

First, it was when I played a competitive game and won the game as a surprise. The problem was that I won it while ignoring one very important rule of the game which rendered myself effectively to be a fraud - a part of myself which I prefer not to know about.

The second time around I was brought to my knees by covid. For two weeks I was very very weak and motivationless. Parts of me that I have carefully managed to hide and really become the opposite of this as my precious self-image. Yet these parts play a way bigger part in my psyche and determine how I operate most of the time.

Why is it important to understand how we are operating?

Obviously, as time is the biggest asset we will ever have then why spend time on reading and understanding how we are operating? Well, the answer is exactly the same as the question already points out – time. Once you know how your psychological makeup is functioning then you can save and compress time a lot.

From an entrepreneurial perspective, it starts with the question of efficiency but it does not stop there. It is very similar to understanding computers. If your know-how about computers is very weak then you will not be able to use this tool to its maximum potential. Yes, you can send emails and read articles on social media but the real power of computers is beyond your reach. If you want to create software solutions that can change the world you need a much better understanding of its workings. Exactly the same applies to your own being. If I want to use more of my human power then I need to understand how exactly I operate and only then I am able to unlock the intrinsic power of my own being and its psyche.

What do we know about ourselves?

If you ask yourself what do you know about yourself then first we can see easily what we like and what we do not like in the world around us and also in us. What are the things and experiences that we want to have in our lives and what are the ones we rather skip or avoid if possible. We also know what some of our behaviors are, like do we start conversations with new people or we will rather wait until someone else starts talking to us. Do we like sports or do we prefer reading books? We also know some of the responses to certain situations. For example, you might know how you will react when someone steals your computer from a car by breaking a car window. Some will get very angry and upset but some might be more worried about the data loss and some might just shrug their shoulders and buy a new computer in the next hour.

But why do we have such likes, dislikes, responses, reactions, values, emotions while others have very different ones? Yes, we know that we are growing into the person we are. We are influenced by our childhood, genetics, environment, and relationships that we have had since birth. But what is the logic behind this process? What is the structure that keeps all of this in place?

What is self-image?

This is not a difficult concept as we all know that we have a certain understanding about ourselves and that set of beliefs, behaviors, preferences, emotions, and thoughts forms an image about ourselves and that is how we literally see ourselves. We know that self-image is something we build with the help of situations and people around us over the course of a lifetime. Every one of us makes a series of decisions about how we want to be. Some of those are very conscious while most of them we might not be aware of.

Self-image is created in order to succeed in getting what we want in life. Because we found out already at an early age that not always we get what we want and we started to create a strategy on how to cope with that. We typically understand that success means that we get what we desire and successful people always fulfill their dreams. It follows that self-image and success are tightly interlinked concepts. If we are not successful then we need to adjust our behavior which becomes over time our adjusted self-image.

It is interesting to see that some people are happier with the self-image they have acquired compared to others. This leads to the conclusion that the way our self-image gets built is not completely under our control. In many cases, we cannot just choose whatever we want to be part of it. Some people manage to master this process better than others and are happier with the result.

In most cases, we tend to know what we like about our image and what not. Since we do not live in isolation throughout the years we are getting feedback from the people around us and we will start to see what some people like about us and what they do not like. This is a vital part of us designing our image one way or another. Some opinions are more important to us and we try to change the image according to those. We are inherently hooked to approval from people around us.

Now the problem is that it is not so easy to change whatever we like about ourselves to be something else. This is so because it has taken numerous repetitions to build our current setup and therefore it also needs almost the same effort to change whatever we have built. Behaviors form lifetime habits. In addition, quite many parts are related to our physical appearances and capabilities which are even harder to change if not downright impossible.

What is the social image?

We are adjusting our self-image in the social context. In some cases, we select certain parts but also avoid showing other parts. This way we call into being our social image. Social image is a selection from our self-image. Because of this selective quality, we are also saying that a person is wearing a mask.

Our social image/mask can be quite different depending on the social context. The main building block for any type of image of ourselves is behavior. Behavior can be described by a set of qualities. A person can behave in a politically correct, reserved way. Also, avoid certain topics and use specific words, suppressing joy or anger when their child drops a muffin to the floor. Body posture, tone of voice, clothing, emotional expression, and internal self-talk.

Any moment of our lives we are expressing behaviors in one continuous chain. If we now explore one link in that chain closely then it becomes apparent that some qualities we are aware of but some qualities we are quite oblivious to even if pointed out by others.

Why do we start changing and adjusting our behavior?

When we are small children and only just learning to interact with the world around us, we do not have all faculties and abilities fully developed. In the formative first seven years, we do not have our thinking and analyzing capability to adequately assess what is taking place.

All children start exploring the world and are curious about experiences. We do not yet have thinking apparatus but we do have well functioning emotional apparatus. Emotions express different desires, wanting something. Joy is wanting to live and experience life fully. Fear is wanting to take a step back and find a different way forward. Anger is fighting for understanding and self-respect. Melancholy is wanting to cope with the changes in life.

Now let us consider a young boy who wants something. The response for him stands for feedback and he is making decisions based on that feedback. If he does get what he wants then this feedback confirms to him that the chosen behavior is effective and hence should be repeated in a similar situation in the future. This is positive affirmative feedback and calls forth positive emotions which the child will also express in one way or another. The expression of emotions will also have a response from other people involved in the situation but for simplification purposes let us assume that the response was also positive.

Since the analytical apparatus is not yet functioning then the child is fully identifying himself with the behavior he is expressing and all related emotions. Hence in case of a positive result, he will feel that he is a good and valuable being.

But things get muddy when the child does not get what he expected to get. This automatically triggers emotions that depend on the temperament of the child and in which form the feedback is received. If the child expresses anger or sadness or fear in such a way that brings to him secondary negative feedback giving him a clear signal that you should not be experiencing the emotion you are experiencing something really important happens. Remember that the child is fully identified with how he is behaving and what emotions he is experiencing. Because of that, he will make a vital decision that something is wrong with him. He is not yet able to logically think that perhaps under given circumstances it is not possible to get what he wants. The assessment of the situation is not adequate but the doubt starts to creep in that perhaps he is doing something wrong.

When it happens once then it might not have a dramatic impact but as we know young child's wants are endless. The more the child is able to move around and use different forms of expression the more he wants to explore and every day will bring positive and negative feedback to him.

More important than the fact that the child did not get what he wanted is the response he gets to his emotions. If this is negative, it confuses the child more and more and makes him doubt that something is wrong with his emotions. And because of identification, the fear of being unworthy starts to grow.

Every person has a unique emotional sensitivity and intensity of emotional expression. A person with high sensitivity can get traumatic experience even in mildly intense emotional interaction. That is further multiplied by the importance of the person to the child who is engaged in such interaction.

Self Image Negative

We looked at the formation of self-image at an early age. The critical part of that process was negative feedback to what the child wanted and also negative feedback to emotions he expressed. Each such negative experience starts to accumulate in what I call Self Image Negative (SIN). This is the sum total of negative decisions that the child makes about himself. In other words, this becomes what the child fears to be – a person who would be getting the worst feedback and disapproval from those most important to the child. This is a very important split that is happening over the years. Self-image will be the dynamic part of evolving human beings that will be shaped throughout the lifetime of a person but Self Image Negative will be a collection of all the feared behaviors and qualities.

It is only natural that a child will strive to be quite the opposite of the Self Image Negative – he is building his self-image that is the polar opposite of SIN. Self Image Negative is like in old times in photography we used to have a photosensitive film that stored the picture in its negative format. From that small negative you could produce positive pictures of any size. Self Image Negative is mostly formed during the first 10 years of every person living on this planet and after that, it stays with us for the rest of our life. This is one of the most fearful things we are carrying with us. We are afraid that we might end up proving that we are actually what we fear the most. Now you will be saying that I do not have such a fear and I do not know anything about my Self Image Negative. True, you most likely do not know about it as when we were growing up we put the focus on creating the self-image that works for us and we were moving further and further away from that negative. This has been pushed out of our awareness and is now part of our subconscious.

What can be done about it, if anything at all, that we are going to explore already in our next newsletter. Meanwhile, I wish you all the best in coping with the craziness around us.



This is our monthly letter to share our views and understanding of what is happening around us, complemented with photos by Anu Martinson. You are welcome to share your own comments and views on the topic in the comments.

Thank you for reading! :)
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