Beyond Self-Image
mind body self image

A few years ago, I was fixated on overcoming what I saw as my "negative self-image." Basically, the problem was that I wanted to do certain things I thought would be enjoyable and fulfilling, but I was afraid of doing them. I wanted to start my own business, make more of an effort to meet people, take up more "extreme" sports, and so forth, but I would feel anxiety when I'd contemplate doing those things, and would find myself holding back.

I used to think this meant my unconscious mind had an "image," or perception, of me as someone who didn’t or couldn’t do those activities. My mind, I believed, was refusing to allow me to act inconsistently with that image. I didn’t know how I'd developed my self-image - maybe it was genetic, a childhood event, not enough Vitamin C in my diet, or something else - but the fact remained that it was there. Thus, I was focused on finding a way to improve my self-image - to convince my unconscious mind to view me as someone capable of taking up the challenges I wanted to face. If I did that, I thought, anxiety would no longer keep me from achieving my goals.

I used many different techniques for developing a more positive self-image. I tried affirmations (for example, repeating "I'm an amazing human being" to myself), visualizations (imagining myself achieving my goals), hypnosis, and meditation. However, the results I got were inconsistent at best. Fear still prevented me from taking some of the steps I wanted to take. I started to wonder whether my negative self-image was a permanent, incurable feature of my personality.

One day, I became so frustrated with my self-image issues that I growled out loud to myself: "I've had enough of all this self-image nonsense!" But when that idea crossed my mind, I had an interesting - and ultimately life-changing - experience. I started wondering, for the first time, whether I even needed a self-image. Maybe I didn’t have to perceive myself in any particular way, whether positive or negative.

Simply considering this possibility gave me sudden insights into how I was interacting with the world. I noticed that, as I went through life, much of my attention was focused on myself - how I was moving my body, how others were perceiving me, the problems in my life at the moment, and so on. Very little of my attention was focused on what was happening in the outside world, except to the extent that the world directly affected me. For example, I wasn't conscious of the natural landscape in my area most of the time. I was usually unaware that there were trees, a blue sky, and mountains around me. I paid no attention to these things because, as I saw it, they didn't affect me. The fact that there were trees and rocks had no impact on whether I was performing adequately at work, had a good intimate relationship, had remembered to pick up my dry cleaning, and so forth.

What's more, I realized I'd been placing most of my attention on myself for so long that I'd forgotten I was even doing it. At some point, I'd made a conscious decision to focus my attention inward, but over time I'd lost sight of the fact that there were other possible places to direct my awareness. Only in getting fed up with my "self-image" did I become conscious of those possibilities.

Even more surprisingly, I recognized that directing my attention at myself was the source of my anxiety. I was constantly watching and analyzing everything I did with a critical stare. It was as if my life were a movie and I were a mean-spirited and persnickety critic watching the film - the "image" - closely for something to belittle or ridicule. No wonder I was afraid of exploring new possibilities - by observing myself with such an exacting, unforgiving gaze, I was making myself too nervous to try new things.

I decided to experiment with directing my attention out into the world, and seeing how that affected my anxiety. I began focusing on details of my surroundings I hadn't been aware of before. I would notice the labyrinth of veins on a leaf, the rainbow hues of a fly's wings, and the miniature moonscape on the bark of a tree. As I let these features of the world fill my awareness, I noticed my anxiety and self-criticism growing quieter.

Using this new approach, I turned back to the pursuits I'd been afraid to try for so long. I saw that, so long as I focused my attention on the world around me rather than on myself, the fears that used to plague me didn't arise. For example, I'd wanted to try rock climbing for a long time, but I was afraid I'd be too uncoordinated to do it or embarrass myself in some fashion. Now, I simply focused my attention on the wall I wanted to climb, rather than what might happen to me or how others might see me while I was climbing it. Not only was I able to take up climbing, but I became skillful at it quickly. My focus on the wall, rather than myself, gave me a concentration and composure that helped me rapidly learn the sport.

If you feel that you suffer from a "negative self-image," and you’ve been trying in vain to make that image more positive, consider the possibility that it's the existence of your "self-image" - not the content of that image, or the way you see yourself - that's creating the problem. The despair or anxiety you're experiencing results from placing excessive attention on yourself. As you move through life, you are actually scaring yourself by observing everything you do and think with a jaundiced and critical eye.

Instead of directing your awareness inward, bring it out into the world. Try to notice features of your surroundings that escaped your attention before. As you walk through the world, focus on the intricate beauty of the landscape around you, rather than your problems and perceived inadequacies. As you talk to people, focus on the intonation of their voices and the details of their facial expressions, rather than trying to figure out what they think of you. If you keep practicing this, you'll feel your "self-image" - your obsessive focus on yourself - fading away, and with it, the anxiety you've been feeling.

Christopher R. Edgar is a success coach certified in hypnotherapy and neuro-linguistic programming. Through coaching and workshops, he helps professionals transition to careers aligned with their true callings and find more enjoyment and efficiency in what they do. Visit his website at