I have said this a couple times on Facebook recently, but I have been really struggling with self-image lately. Let’s walk through that a little bit, because I think there’s wider application.
This week Mission: Zer0 has been very self-esteem focused. Battle Cry talked about some ways to reinforce your inner strength with real affirmations. The Word With Friends talked about the fact that failure and flaws create diversity and are positive. Tomorrow’s Flashback Friday will discuss what exactly the apostle Paul meant by “comfort.” But what all of that leaves out is the basic: what do I do when all this affirmation just isn’t working?
The Worry List
Most of us can give the laundry list of reasons we, personally, suck: I’m too tall, too short, too skinny, too fat, too smart, too dumb, too shy, too extroverted, or I’m bad at math, bad with numbers, bad with people. Each person has their list, and if you write that list down it sure gives you a justification to have a really abysmal self-image.
A common issue with fixing a bad self-image is that we end up chasing symptoms: if we’re bad at planning we assure ourselves that having a to-do list will help and then when we fail at keeping up with that list we flog ourselves for being so unorganized that we can defeat the fix. If we’re bad at math we tell ourselves we’ll take a course on YouTube to fix it, and then we feel even worse when it still doesn’t make sense. You can never fix your self-image by patching symptoms; you have to get to the root cause.
I think most of us are self-aware enough to recognize that fear sits at the core of our self-esteem problems, but we often have trouble answering the question “fear of what?” This is incredibly common in anxiety sufferers: they can tell you in great detail the fears that drive their anxiety, and they will all say that they fear when “there is nothing to fear.” Sadly, that explanation chains you tighter to your anxiety, because it isn’t true. So how do you free yourself?
First we have to identify what the fear actually is. To do that, let’s recap a bit on fear. Now I have talked and written about fear a number of times before, but let’s talk about practical function of fear in the amygdala for a second. To do that we’re going to go through the tablecloth example.
18th Floor Balcony
Say that you are walking down the street and a man in a blue checkered shirt attacks you savagely and then flees. This event and the feelings associated with it are stored in your brain in order to look for any similar events in the future so that you can prepare to avoid them. All the details of the encounter are stored, because your brain doesn’t immediately know which pieces of information are appropriate.
Now, 6 months later you go to meet a friend for lunch and as you round the corner to the booth they are sitting at you notice that the tablecloth is the same pattern as the shirt of the man who attacked you. Now, you may not consciously notice it, but your brain notices it. You will immediately get an uneasy feeling. You may experience discomfort, jumpiness, or outright fear, and you won’t understand why. But the “why” is that your amygdala recognized the pattern and the feelings of being attacked and all that followed, and it directs the rest of your body to react as though danger is imminent.
This is a really basic example, but it happens all the time. Women who are abused by a man when they are young feel innate unease around men; they feel unsafe, or insufficient, or angry. If a child has a teacher laugh at them or berate them they will carry an innate dislike for authority figures. These fear responses must be identified and worked through to overcome them.
But the other dangerous truth about the amygdala is that it does not solely run off of past experience; because our neocortex allows us to fantasize future events our amygdala gets a new toolkit of ability to predict bad outcomes based on combinations of old data and how they might appear in the future. The human brain is a ruthlessly efficient pattern recognition system. This means that the amygdala is armed to generate fear responses to risk scenarios that have never happened before, and this includes not only physical danger responses, but also mental and emotional ones. And this is where self-image fears come in.
Did you ever have that Literature / English class in high school where the teacher wanted students to read a chapter aloud? They always started off asking for volunteers, but invariably none came, so they resorted to electing people. Each student would get a sentence to read aloud. This created two very awkward scenarios: for the speaker it created the pressure of being able to read the sentence and keep the words in the right order and with the right inflection so that it made sense and sounded OK, and for the listeners it created that cring-ey moment where you had to listen to someone struggle through a sentence they weren’t prepared to read. Those two experiences are why no student ever volunteered in the first place: they created a specific set of social fears in the brain.
Those fears spread out into other scenarios, like when a teacher or lecturer asks the audience to answer a question and, like, 1% of people will actually raise their hand. The rest of us don’t want to risk looking stupid if, and when, our answer isn’t right. We keep our hands down as a way to protect our self-image from the possible beating that comes with being wrong publicly. And “publicly” is the key to our self-image fears!
Should Be Loved
The major difference between our brains and those of most of our mammal relatives is the advanced development in the social areas of our brains: it is the complexity of our relationships and interactions that differentiate us and drive us. As much as some would fight the idea, no person is an island. We are social creatures and our brains are physically wired and optimized for social behaviors and social interactions. We need people.
But we also recognize that people are at the top of the food chain and are wily and unpredictable beings, so we also fear people. We fear what they can do to us physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually. Back to the post from a few weeks ago, we can fear people in any of our dianoia, kardia, psuche, soma, and/or sarx. And that, brothers and sisters, is scary! It means that our brains are constantly seeking how to protect us, and that… that is where our self-image fears come from: trying to keep us safe in social situations.
The Feel Again
It’s this very truth that founds the philosophy Maxwell Maltz created in his book Psycho-cybernetics. He insists that your brain is a computer programmed to prevent you from moving out of your comfort zone, because there be dragons out yonder.
Take me, for example. The reason that I feel so woefully insufficient is that early in my life I made a lot of social mistakes. I didn’t like or play sports, so I didn’t relate to guys, which got me teased. I was smart, but I didn’t have great recall so I didn’t test well. I didn’t have a lot of friends, so I tended to say really off-the-wall things that got me weird looks. All these things taught my amygdala that I was an outsider. And because I fed that instinct, because I never confronted it, I stand here over 30 years later suffering the effects of it. I don’t make friends easily. I don’t maintain relationships well. I freeze when someone asks me a question unless I am prepared for it. I constantly rate my performance as less than anyone else’s.
This is how these fears work: some event, however big or small, spurs a set of bad feelings so our brain creates armament — walls — around those kinds of events so they can’t happen, or can’t happen again. We cannot fix those kinds of problems by assaulting the outlay of that fear, we have to assault the fear directly. And to assault fear you have to send your brain through retraining.
Into The Ocean
I often say that “you were brainwashed into this situation, so you need to brainwash yourself out.” And so it is with self-image problems: resolving them is a staged process that requires time, dedication and reinforcement. If you think you are ugly you can’t just decide that’s not true; you have to spend some time convincing yourself. You, likewise, can’t jump to asking someone else to rate your looks. You need to go through small, iterative associations to build up to the point that you can find a person you trust enough to start working through it with actual people.
This is true whether your esteem hit comes from a physical aspect, a cultural one, a mental one, or an emotional one. You have to set up a process of small steps to build up to confronting the actual problem. I’m not a therapist, so I don’t think I can help with finding that process or those steps, but I can say that in my life I have resolved quite a number of character flaws using this strategy. It has served me well.
If your issue is feeling bad that you can’t talk to people start by talking to yourself aloud. When that’s comfortable, start talking to your phone or a pillow. When that gets comfortable talk to a relative. From there you talk to a random person. From there you are equipped to talk to anyone you want to talk to. You’ll have built up a series of positive associations in your amygdala to tell your brain that these events are positive experiences and worth the risks.
That’s how brainwashing works. That’s what Philippians 4:8 is all about. That’s how you fix it when affirmations aren’t working.
And so that is my exhortation for any of you who, like me, are struggling with self-image problems: nail down what the underlying fear behind it is and set up a progression of baby steps to build up to confronting it. Set the plan to brainwash yourself!
Father, I hope that I’m not baring my soul here for nothing. I’m trusting that I’m not the only one who has these kinds of problems, this kind of fear. Please let any who do suffer hear Your words here and find some path to resolution that we all might live more freely in You. I pray for strength, resilience, openness, and comfort to all like me who need it. In the name of Your mighty Son, Your Word, Your chosen Christ and my brother, my King, my Savior, and my Teacher Jesus I pray. Amen!