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Self Image: Part 1

I constantly prompt people to assess their strengths and weaknesses. Without realistic assessments people can’t grow, and will either deny the need to grow, or will be unable to recognize which areas require growth. However, with every life tool there’s risk. Many people who assess themselves and draw final conclusions, instead of using those assessments as a stepping stone for growth.  They make assessments and create in their minds an image of who they are.
For instance, some people conclude that they find it difficult to wake up early in the morning. This affects their Davening, as well as their job opportunities. That assessment should motivate them to direct their growth efforts to waking up earlier. Other people will draw a different conclusion. “I’m a person who can’t wake up on time. This is who I am, and I can’t change.”
What people who’ve defined themselves as people who can’t wake up (or any other limitation) have done, is to create a self image in a manner that limits their opportunities. They’ll reject any opportunities that require them to wake up early, limiting them in countless ways. In addition, they’ll present themselves to others as being resistant to opportunities  and change.
Creating self images, prevents us from achieving everything that we can in our lives. This article focuses on those self images, as well as on how we present ourselves to others. There are several self images that limit people’s opportunities.
1) The image is not  true. In many cases these people don’t have the limitation that they present to themselves (and to others). They choose to describe themselves as having those limitations, until they convince themselves that they are that image. Their goal is to lessen their expectations of themselves. By believing that they can’t do something, they also don’t have to try, and therefore, they don’t have to feel guilty about it.
When boys are told that they aren’t “good” at learning, or any other negative comment, they, readily, believe it. People often assume, because assuming is convenient, that those claiming that they’re unable to learn, actually “researched” the issue. In reality, most people’s self images are drawn too quickly and subjectively.
Many people state their opinions confidently, and make others believe that their views have been thought through. I’ve sat with teenagers many times and they’ve told me that they’ve spent a lot of time thinking about religion, and that a certain Halacha is not correct. (This means that they believe the Halacha makes no sense and can’t be what Hashem wants.) I ask them how much time they’ve spent researching the issue. They usually avoid answering my question, knowing that “a lot of time” thinking about religion, probably means less than 10 minutes. I press them further, and ask them whether they incorporated the numerous,  other relevant, sources, which I list to them. The answer is almost always, no.
I’ve found that many people convince themselves that their attitudes are more thought through, and more based on fact, than they really are. The old saying, “Stop mixing me up with facts. I’ve already made up my mind,” is something of which most people need to be reminded.
2) The personal images are exaggerated. They’re unfairly imposed on people, because they “fell short” in an attempt to achieve their goal. For instance, they may have failed in their first job, first Yeshiva, or something more serious, their first marriage. It would be unfair to create an image of themselves based on a single incident, even if the incident spanned a significant amount of time.
Nevertheless, people often become so “worn out” from their first attempt, that they search for a way of not trying again. Some people are never motivated to grow, and constantly look for a way out of “working on themselves”. They’ll try something once, and fail, and are satisfied that they now have proof that they can’t succeed, and will never have to try it again. What they’re doing is creating an image of failure, which does more damage than they can imagine.
When people fail the first time, they imagine that if they don’t succeed today, they may succeed tomorrow. They hope, even if their hope for success is through swallowing a “magic” pill, that they’ll eventually succeed. By defining themselves as people who “can’t”, they seal their future to never succeed.
3) The images are obsolete. At one time, their self image was accurate, but, over the years, they’ve changed. There are many people whose self images indicate that they aren’t sociable or likable. However, after they’ve spent hours with someone who cares about them, they become quite likable to others. In some cases their personalities become one of their greatest assets.
In other cases, they still think of themselves as being unlikeable. I’m astounded at how they’ll speak of themselves as failing in social areas because insignificant, non defining social incidents, are “proof” that they can’t succeed in the social arena. Their self images continue to haunt them long after they shouldn’t.

Creating a negative self image limits their possibilities for growth. However, living life with false confidence, believing that they’re always right, is also unhealthy. The goal is to achieve a balance between embracing a negative personal stereotype and misplaced confidence.

Self esteem, which is closely intertwined with self image, plays a role in people’s ability to balance between these two attitudes. Having a healthy self esteem allows people to appreciate that they may have done something wrong without drawing the negative conclusion that they must be bad. They should conclude that, similar to most people, they make mistakes and they may even make bad decisions. This doesn’t  define then as bad people. (In a previous article on self esteem I offer my definition of a good person. The article is available on request.)

 To be continued…..

Rabbi Shmuel Gluck is director of Areivim, a teen crisis intervention center. R. Gluck’s articles are widely published in the Torah Chinuch world. For previous articles or for speaking engagements you can contact R. Gluck at Areivim: 845-371-2760 E-mail: [email protected].

(Rabbi Shmuel Gluck – YWN)

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