How to Challenge Your Self Concept
“You are what you believe yourself to be” -Paul Coehlo
We all tell ourselves a story about who we are.
This story is called your self concept; it's what you believe about yourself.
This encompasses social roles, thoughts, appearance, behaviors, actions, family, career, religion, personality traits, who you are in comparison to others, as well as to your past and future selves.
We might be women, mothers, sisters, daughters, friends, aunts, doctors, lawyers, teachers, entrepreneurs etc…
That we can handle. That’s all ‘fact’.
But we also inhabit this world in ways that are not so cut and dry.
We are shy, outgoing, loud, quiet, bold, meek, daring, hesitant, successful, failing, hardworking, lazy, beautiful, ugly, unhappy, joyous, cup half full, cup half empty, overweight, thin, normal, abnormal, intelligent, not so smart, brown hair, blonde, curly haired or straight, old, young, wealthy, struggling, active, couch potatoes and everything in between.
Some of these labels are positive and very helpful in our lives.
I’m creative and hard-working.
I’m a thoughtful and caring friend.
I’m great at my job.
Wonderful - keep thinking those thoughts!
Unfortunately, many of the beliefs that form our self concept aren’t only negative, they’re not even true!
But it feels like they are.
You know the ones, the thoughts and beliefs that keep you down, keep you second guessing yourself.
I’m just not a go-getter.
I’ve always been afraid to take chances.
I get excited in the beginning, but then never follow through.
But remember, these sentences are just thoughts you’ve held onto so tightly and believed for so long that they just feel like the truth.
Maybe people in your life have reinforced these beliefs.
Telling you repeatedly that you’ll never add up, you’ll never be as smart as your sister, your life will always be a struggle, you’ll never lose weight, you’re just not organized, you’re a terrible driver, it’s hard to love you….
And when we hear these things enough, we begin to internalize it and take it on as our identity.
And then a funny thing happens.
Our brains go right to work finding evidence that it’s true.
HELLO CONFIRMATION BIAS 👋🏼
Confirmation Bias is that tendency we all have to seek out or recall information in a way that confirms our pre-existing thoughts.
Your brain wants to be right, so it will search high and low to find examples and evidence that support your current thoughts and beliefs.
If your self concept is that you are a successful business woman, your brain will hang on to the time your boss complimented you on a job well done, praise from coworkers, or how you always manage to make the sale.
Conversely, if you think of yourself as a struggling mother, your brain will find all the ways this is true… you forgot to pack the kids a snack, you were late to pick up, you burned dinner again.
It's pretty amazing actually.
Our brains act as a filter, interpreting the world through a lens that confirms our beliefs and de-emphasizes evidence that disproves it.
And the more evidence we have for something, the more we believe in it's truth.
YOUR SELF CONCEPT IS NOT PERMANENT
Here's the good news, luckily none of these thoughts are permanent!
Regardless of how long you’ve thought them, how deeply you believe them, or how ‘true’ they seem to be.
When you bring awareness to your inner story and to your current self concept, you open up the door for understanding and growth.
In this way you get to keep what serves you and disregard the rest.
Here’s an example from my own life.
I always thought of myself as someone who is not very sporty. Zero hand eye coordination, awkward and slow.
What a story to tell yourself! But I’ve always thought, well, it’s just the truth.
My family still LOVES to reminisce about my sporting adventures.
One particular basketball game often comes up where I was guarding the opposing player by jumping erratically around her while simultaneously biting my nails.
Unbeknownst to me, I was actually on offense, and should have been trying to get the ball not awkwardly guarding this player who was understandably confused by my unique approach.
Over the years of re-telling this (and various other family favorites), and through all of my evidence gathering (see, you couldn’t hit the birdie over the net in gym class, you couldn’t even catch the frisbee in the park…) I began to believe it.
And I took it on as a truth: I am someone who is terrible at sports. All of them. No exceptions.
And I thought this for years. Until in my late teens I finally thought, I’m sure there is something out here for me.
And I found, of all things, Step Aerobics. Side note! Where did step classes go? Weren’t they the real best??
And I LOVED it. And you know what, I was coordinated, and my body understood the moves, and I had FUN doing it.
And my self concept began to change a little…. Ohhh…. I’m coordinated and I have fun being active.
And then I started going to the gym and running a little. And I began to think of myself as someone who runs.
So because I was a runner, I ran the NYC marathon.
And then I was someone who took on big challenges, so I did the NYC triathlon.
And then I was coordinated, and up for a challenge, and loved to be active, and then I found yoga. And with that I found my way to an unshakeable belief in myself that I’m someone who prioritizes and importantly, enjoys, movement. Every single day.
And that has changed my life.
You get to believe anything you want.
And once you choose what you want to believe on purpose, then your mind will find the evidence to support it.
And then that thought becomes your truth.
WHAT IS YOUR SELF CONCEPT
A lot of times we don’t even know what we think about ourselves.
Though of course what we do recognize is often negative.
And we just believe it’s true.
And so we go through our lives from this lens that we’re not good enough, or smart enough or that we don’t have the right body, or car, or family and our brains are seeking out the evidence to confirm that it’s true.
And our brains are smart, so they find it. And then we believe it even more deeply.
What if instead, we got really curious about who we are?
What do you think might change?
TO DO: Grab a piece of paper and write I AM at the top of it.
Below write out all the things that you believe about yourself.
Good, bad and indifferent.
Remember, your self concept encompasses social roles, thoughts, appearance, behaviors, actions, family, career, religion, personality traits, who you are in comparison to others, as well as to your past and future selves.
Don’t censor yourself, get it all out there so you can take a really good look at what your brain is creating evidence for.
HOW TO CHALLENGE YOUR
"It’s not who you are that’s holding you back,
it’s what you think you’re not"
Take a look at what you wrote down.
What comes up as you look through all these things that you believe about yourself.
It’s ok to be uncomfortable or surprised at what’s in there.
We can handle discomfort.
HINT! Try to go through with curiosity and an open mind.
Isn’t it interesting that I think this….
Wow, I wonder how long that thought has been hiding in there...
What can I learn from this?
TO DO: Grab another piece of paper and categorize what you’ve written into these 3 columns
1 Helpful: Some will be immediately recognizable as helpful, supportive thoughts. GREAT! Keep thinking them
2 Understand More: Some thoughts may not elicit an immediate response from you. They might be neutral or maybe you’re not ready to process them. That’s fine, put them aside for now.
3 Unhelpful: Some (many?) will jump out as critical and negative. We can work with these.
BELIEVING THE STORY IS OPTIONAL
“A thought is harmless unless we believe it. It’s not our thoughts, but our attachment to our thoughts that causes suffering. Attaching to a thought means believing that it’s true, without inquiring. A belief is a thought that we’ve been attaching to, often for years.” - Byron Katie
Let’s start small.
TO DO: Select two or three thoughts that jump out for you.
They don’t need to be your deepest, darkest fears and worries, but something that feels important enough to understand better and perhaps revise so they are more productive and supportive.
TO DO: Write each one on a separate piece of paper (yes, we are using a lot of paper today ;)
Recognize that just because you’ve thought it for so long, doesn’t mean that it’s true OR that you need to keep believing it. Believing the story is optional.
And then challenge it.
Write out a version of it’s opposite that feels believable to you.
IMPORTANT! You must believe the new thought.
So, if your current self concept is that you’re overweight, it will feel inauthentic to all of a sudden start believing you’re in amazing shape.
Find a more neutral thought to work on.
For example, This is my body today. These two legs get me where I need to go. My strong arms can carry my child. I accept my body as it is today.
It might not feel incredible, but it feels better than the original. AND you can create evidence for it. Small wins = big gains.
TO DO: Once you have your new thought to practice, write down all of the evidence you can think of to support that thought instead.
Doesn’t matter how small or seemingly insignificant. Write it down. And keep adding to it as often as you can - daily if possible.
You get to decide who you are and how you show up in this world.
Create evidence for the person you want to be.
And the more evidence you create, the more you will believe it, and the more you will act from that place of strength, confidence and wisdom.
Imagine what's possible when that non-sporty version of you finds your Step Aerobics class.
Sky's the limit.
HINT! Check out Byron Katie’s, The Work, if this kind of thought work and questioning your beliefs resonates for you.
Create evidence for the person you want to be, here's how:
Step 1 - Grab your journal or a few pieces of paper
Step 2 - Write I AM at the top of one sheet and then write all of your thoughts and beliefs about who you are
Step 3 - Categorize what you’ve written into 3 columns: Helpful, Understand More, and Unhelpful
Step 4 - Challenge two or three thoughts that aren’t serving you
Write down what you want to believe instead
Write down all the evidence you can to support the new thought
KEY!! Practice believing these new thoughts and update your sheet regularly with the evidence to support them.
In this world where you can think anything you want about yourself, what do you want to think?
“You are what you believe yourself to be”
It's your choice.
Have a beautiful week friends.
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