Emotional Health

Take Control of Your Self-Image:
Feed the Good Wolf

“Once upon a time, there was a Native American grandfather who told his grandson, “Grandson, there are two wolves inside of me. One wolf is white, good and altruistic, generous and kind, and the other wolf is black, mean and greedy, violent and angry. The two wolves are in a constant fight within me.” The grandson, with wide eyes, says, “But which one will win, grandpa?” And the grandfather says “The one which I feed.”

How much power do we have to overcome and change a negative self-image? The story above illustrates the power of choice that each of us has to alter the way we treat ourselves.

Of course, like all fables, this one is deceptively simple, yet profoundly true. Many of us carry within ourselves ideas and attitudes that predispose us to be harsh and critical. Some of them have been ingrained through a history of abuse and neglect, and then perpetrated by self-neglect.

These self-sabotaging constructs have become so ingrained that you don’t question them: they have become part of an automatic way of thinking about yourself and responding to situations. Like the dogs in Pavlov’s lab, whom were taught to salivate at the sound of a bell that meant dinner was about to be served, you have learned to respond almost “autonomically.” The autonomic nervous system includes responses that occur without cognitive processes—like when our pupils constrict in bright light.

So, when you hear criticism or fail in some way, you respond instantly with thoughts and feelings of worthlessness. Your internal judge says, “of course I failed again.” But these ideas, though deeply embedded and difficult to dislodge, can be modified. Much as they have historically flooded you and seem out of your control, you can learn to monitor them, modify them, defeat them, and ultimately replace them with more loving thoughts.

The first step is learning to identify when you are employing the negative constructs that you employ without thinking about them. Psychologists have a name for thoughts and feelings that are so familiar that they feel like a part of ourselves: they call them ego syntonic orego harmonious. This means that you do not question them—they are in tune with your fundamental ego (self) identity, and feel familiar and even safe. Thoughts that don’t “jive” with our self-image are called, in contrast, ego alien. They don’t feel like a part of you—they feel uncharacteristic, or “not like me.”

Here is a simple and very common example:

Jeanette has a very ambivalent attitude toward shopping for clothes. She wants to maintain a chic and attractive wardrobe, but she can’t stand the process of trying on new items. The harsh lights of most dressing rooms, the three way mirrors, the watchful salesgirls, all make her self-conscious about her body flaws. She looks in the mirror and sees herself as fat and even disgusting, especially if she tries on something that doesn’t work.  She even has a term for these feelings: “fat attacks.”

Rather than sticking with it until she finds something she likes, she often flees the store, or worse, winds up buying the first thing that fits ok. When she gets home, she is disappointed and dejected. She decides she will never look good, because, essentially, she’s just not good enough. This just perpetuates her cycle of self-abuse, since she winds up taking back her purchases, or never wearing them. She decides that sticking with her old clothes is her only option, until she loses weight or gets in shape. She ends up saying to herself, why bother. What’s the point?

Body image negativity is a good example because it’s one of the most widespread, pernicious, and intractable problems I know of. Many patients—and friends—suffer from an attitude of ruthless self-criticism when it comes to their bodies. They look for flaws, see them in high definition and assume that everyone else does too.

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