Woman looking at her reflection in the mirror outside in a meadow

Key Points: Many people struggle because they feel they aren’t how they would like to be. This self-discrepancy between your self-image, that is, how you see yourself, and your ideal self can cause negative emotions and low self-esteem. Discover the fundamentals behind your self-image and learn how it is shaped by your self-belief in this article. Learn to let go of a distorted self-image and move closer to becoming your ideal self!

What is Your Self-Image?

Simply put, your self-image is how you see yourself and what you believe about yourself. It’s how you’d – honestly – describe yourself to somebody else in all areas of your life. For example, you might see yourself as intelligent but a bit clumsy. Also, you might regard yourself as overweight, and as a successful researcher. And maybe you rate yourself as extroverted. These are all parts of your self-image, which consists of hundreds or even thousands of such individual facets called self-schemas. And although your self-image is closely tied to self-esteem, it’s not the same. Self-esteem emerges from your self-image, but more on this later.

Domains of the Self and Self-Schema

All the facets or self-schemas of your self-image can be categorized into larger chunks, so-called “domains.” There is no final consensus about how many domains there are, so you will find varying numbers from four to six. As I like to drill down on topics on a very granular level, dividing the self-image into six domains makes – to me – the most sense. These domains are:

  1. Physical

    E.g., health, fitness, your appearance.

  2. Psychological

    E.g., personality, emotions, spirituality.

  3. Intellectual

    E.g., intelligence and knowledge.

  4. Skills

    E.g., your social skills as well as your technical skills.

  5. Moral

    E.g., character, values, and principles.

  6. Sexual

    E.g., gender identity, sexual orientation, and gender role.

Each of these domains consists of multiple self-schemas like the examples above (“I’m a successful researcher,” “I’m an extrovert,” etc.).

Where Does Your Self-Image Come From?

None of us is born with a fixed set of self-schemas that make up our self-image. As babies, we are like a blank canvas. Then, bit by bit, our canvas is filled with experiences that form our self-image. Not all but many of our self-schemas are learned. For example, perceiving yourself as intelligent might be due to several external reinforcements. Our parents tremendously influence the self-schemas we adopt, and so do our friends, teachers, co-workers, and other people in our lives. Maybe your parents often praised you when you figured something out as a child. Or you got good grades in school, which has added to your self-schema of “I’m an intelligent person.” Also – unfortunately – comparing ourselves to others is another component of how self-schemas are created. Comparing your good grades to your classmates’ not-so-good grades might also have validated your intelligent-person self-schema.

This could, of course, also happen in reverse. If your parents never told you that you are smart, your intelligence self-schema might not be as solid. And what if somebody told you repeatedly you were stupid, even if it’s not true? One of my Mom’s friends is a classic example of this. Her dad did this to her all the time when she was a child and teenager. Today this belief is so deeply rooted in her mind that she is convinced of it herself and has made it a part of her self-image. Could she improve her intelligence self-schema? Absolutely – if she wanted to. Some people never change certain self-schemas because some of their aspects have come to serve us. For example, if you think of yourself as stupid, you might have used it as an excuse to do less than your best in certain situations. It takes another article to explore why we sometimes don’t want to let go of certain limiting beliefs and parts of our self-image.

The Gap Between Your Actual Self and Your Ideal Self

Whether we perceive ourselves as “enough” or “not enough” arises from different factors. For example, you might believe you are not good at math. But how do you arrive at this conclusion, and how does it affect you? Your limiting belief that you aren’t good at math might develop like this:

  1. Neutral, objective assessment

    Out of 10 math problems, you can, on average, solve 7 correctly. This is a benchmark that, objectively, doesn’t tell you anything besides that. You can solve 70% of math problems correctly. Period.

  2. Peer comparison

    Let’s assume you study math in a group with 99 other people. What if, out of this group, only 5 other people could solve 70% or more of all math problems correctly? You would probably think of yourself as pretty good at math. But what if 80 people in your group were better than you at solving math problems? Your abilities would still be the same, but this time you would probably rate yourself as not very good at math.

Now you have subjectively established the limiting belief you aren’t good at math as a part of your self-image. So, how does that affect you?

If being a superb mathematician isn’t part of your “ideal self,” it probably won’t impact you much. But what if you aim for a career in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) where being good at math is imperative? With this limiting belief, you would probably feel discouraged to follow this path as you don’t believe you have the skills to do so. You feel a discrepancy between how you are and want to be.

Two other main elements come into play here besides your “ideal self.” The first one is its opposite, your “dreaded self.” This is the kind of person you fear being like. In this case, you dread being “a loser” at math. The other one is your “ought self” – the way you “should” be in contrast to how you “want” to be. And for simplicity’s sake, we only regard your perspective on yourself – not how others might see you or expect you to be.

Our “ideal self” and “ought self” may overlap sometimes. In our example, wanting to be good at math and having to be good at math seems to be identical to reaching your desired goal. However, if you don’t really enjoy math but are only fascinated by the concepts of, let’s say, physics, your “wants” and “oughts” are different. In this case, “being a physicist” is part of your “ideal self.” But what about being good at math? In this case, it is part of your “ought self.” Your “ideal self” is based on your hopes, wishes, and aspirations, whereas your “ought self” arises from the obligations and responsibilities you think you have. Here is another example that might shed more light on the “ought self:” Let’s say you enjoy driving way too fast on the autobahn (I live in Germany, so this is a common scenario here). You know, though, that it is risky and might cause danger to yourself and others. So, being a sensible, responsible driver is part of your “ought self.”

The wider the gap between your “actual self” (the way you see yourself) and your “ideal self” (how you want to be), as well as your “ought self” (how you should be), is, the more distorted your self-image becomes. The wider the gap, the more intense the feeling of “I’m not enough” becomes. Of course, this affects your self-esteem immensely. So, how can you close this gap?

Shift Your Identity: "I Want to Be" vs. "I am"

Shifting your identity towards your desired self is the most powerful strategy in aligning your “actual self” with your “ought” and “ideal self.” There are two components to it, and they only work in tandem.

It’s like everyone tells a story about themselves inside their own head. Always. All the time. That story makes you what you are. We build ourselves out of that story.

Patrick Rothfuss, The Name of the Wind

Change Your Perspective

Changing how you think and speak about yourself is the first step in shifting your identity. If you want to lose weight, stop thinking or saying, “I’m overweight. I want to lose weight.” Like this, your success is in the future, and in the present, you are struggling. So, if your desired weight is 60 kg or 132 pounds, approach it like this: “I’m the kind of person who does what it takes to maintain a weight of 60 kg or 132 pounds.” Why is this helpful? Well, now you no longer look at yourself as an overweight person who does things that keep you from losing weight. Your focus is now on maintaining your preferred weight. This is a powerful mindset shift, and it brings you closer to alignment with your “ideal self.” You might argue that you haven’t reached your ideal weight yet. True, but think about what someone does to maintain their perfect weight of 60 kg or 132 pounds: They find out how many calories they can eat to stay at this weight and only eat this much. They exercise regularly to keep in shape. And they feel good about themselves when they stick to their plans because they get the expected result. If you think of yourself as somebody who does these exact things instead of seeing yourself as “overweight and wanting to lose weight,” you are switching from a passive role to an active one. Now it’s no longer “I’m overweight” vs. “I want to be thin,” but it’s “I do what overweight people do” vs. “I do what a thin person does.”

Change Your Habits

This shift of perspective alone doesn’t bridge the gap between your “actual self” and “ideal self” yet. If you don’t do the things your ideal self would, you will still feel frustrated and suffer from low self-esteem. But once you start doing these things regularly, your self-esteem will increase, and your “actual self” will fuse with this new identity. So, for example, once you start implementing everything a person of 60 kg or 132 pounds does and keep doing it, it will become a part of who you are and shift your self-image to a more positive one, closer to your “ideal self.” Repetition and reinforcement are crucial for your success.

So, find out what “kind of person” your “ideal self” is and what this kind of person does. Research the habits you need to adopt, stick to them diligently, remind yourself daily that you are this kind of person, and observe yourself aligning with your “ideal self” more and more each day.

And not to forget: Examine whether everything your “ideal self” comprises comes from what you wish and desire. Don’t mistake your own “ideal self” with the “ideal self” somebody else thinks you should become.

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