What does the phrase “unhealthy self-image” mean to you? Most likely, you picture someone who thinks she’s fat even though she’s at her ideal body weight, a cringing wallflower, or a (potentially) vibrant conversationalist who’s too intimidated to speak up. And it’s true: an unhealthy self-image can manifest itself through these types of behaviors. But according to author and child and adolescent psychiatrist, Warren B. Seiler Jr., self-image problems also manifest in ways you haven’t considered – ways that might even apply to you.
“Individuals with unhealthy self-images aren’t always meek and weak and easy to manipulate,” points out Seiler, author of the book, Battling the Enemy Within: Conquering the causes of inner struggle and unhappiness (Victory Laine Publishing). “In fact, they can be attractive and successful, but underneath it all they simply don’t have an inner sense of well-being – and for many of them, learning that their self-image is unhealthy would come as quite a shock.”
Seiler, who’s been a child and adolescent psychiatrist for more than 30 years, has worked time and time again with individuals who erroneously blamed their problems and stumbling blocks on outside factors. In reality, though, their unhappiness was deeply rooted in how they viewed themselves. “Often – on the surface – individuals who have an unhealthy self-image are attractive, thriving and popular,” Seiler notes. But underlying their social and monetary success is a marked lack of inner peace and comfort – they simply don’t experience any real joy in life. “I’ve noticed that these people often use shortcuts like alcohol, drugs, the relentless pursuit of continued success and the acquisition of material things as a means of experiencing inner peace,” he adds. “This strategy might work for a while, but ultimately the only way to banish anxiety and uneasiness is through the hard work it takes to develop a healthy self-image.”
So, what exactly does a person with an unhealthy self-image look like? How can you tell if you’re one of them? And most importantly, how can you go about working toward a healthier life? Read on for some of Seiler’s insights, beginning with qualities that often accompany an unhealthy self-image:
1. You’re tightly wound. Would you say that you often experience an inner sense of well-being? Or are you more likely to be anxious, uneasy, stressed out or upset? If you answered “yes” to the second question but not the first, chances are your self-image isn’t where it needs to be. But wait, you object. I value myself and my well-being pretty highly! The last thing I want to do is “settle.” Why else would I be running myself ragged if not in pursuit of happiness?
“Well,” Seiler responds, “You’re obviously working long hours and piling too much on your plate because you’re looking for a sense of inner peace that you don’t currently possess. You’re overburdened, overstressed and on a hair trigger because you’re trying to build up comfort through external as opposed to internal means.” Here’s the bottom line: to the degree your self-image is healthy, it automatically causes you to experience inner peace, comfort and happiness.
2. You’re fiercely independent. There’s no arguing the fact that our society idealizes the rugged individualist – you know, the person who blazes his own trail with no regard to naysayers, who bucks convention, and who looks to no one but himself for help. After all, this person has got it figured out, right? Maybe not. According to Seiler, the belief that being truly independent means not needing help or validation from anyone is patently false – and it’s a symptom of an ailing self-image. “Believe it or not, true independence is a state in which you recognize your responsibility to strengthen your weaknesses – to seek advice and counsel from whatever good source is available,” Seiler explains. “People who falsely believe that they need only themselves to function are usually afraid of and incapable of genuine commitment. They’re unable to look honestly at themselves; they lack the maturity to recognize and confront their strengths and weaknesses.”
3. You’re quietly destructive. Destructiveness isn’t always dramatic. It doesn’t have to include imploding buildings, or even a house that’s been trashed in a fit of anger. Destructive behaviors can be quieter, or even “normal,” such as drinking just a bit too much, using too many mood-altering prescription drugs, overeating, overworking, being overly critical of a spouse and failing to be responsible in school or at work. “Even if they haven’t articulated it to themselves, these people know that everything isn’t ‘right’ in their lives,” says Seiler. “They can sense that somewhere a piece is missing. And so they attempt to alleviate that feeling (which is actually the neurotic guilt that is caused by the simple presence of the unhealthy self-image) with behaviors that are ultimately self-defeating.”
It’s a vicious cycle: these destructive behaviors bring about pain and emotional discomfort, which temporarily eliminates the underlying sense of neurotic guilt. As this unhealthy neurotic guilt begins to rise again, the cycle of self-destructive behaviors repeats itself. This process of self-destructiveness may repeat itself over and over again (sometimes forever) unless the individual recognizes and confronts it. Unfortunately, these self-destructive behaviors often hurt others, too – not just the individual who’s engaging in them.
4. You underachieve – sometimes subtly. Sure, some folks with unhealthy self-images underachieve in the traditional way – they procrastinate, they never seem to accomplish much, and they’re stuck in dead-end jobs. However, even “superstars” can be underachievers. The areas they neglect just aren’t as evident. Here’s an example: a senior financial analyst has reached the pinnacle of his career, but he’s also overweight and is embroiled in a messy divorce. Although he has been successful in his career, he has underachieved in terms of physical health and family relationships. Why? On some level, he doesn’t think he’s worth putting that much effort into.
“Individuals with a healthy self-image aren’t egomaniacs, but they do know their own self-worth, and they capitalize on the assets they’ve been given – and that includes ‘soft skills’ like relationship-building,” Seiler points out. On the flip side, people with an unhealthy self-image view themselves as bad, rotten or worthless, so why would they shed blood, sweat and tears to improve something (in this case, themselves!) they don’t think is worth all that much in the first place?
5. You’re overly aggressive. There are two ways to go on the offensive. You can look at the terrain ahead of you and map out the route that allows you the easiest passage – and causes the least disturbance to your surroundings. Or you can just barrel full steam ahead like a football lineman, running roughshod all over everyone and everything. Both get you to your destination, but only one earns you true respect. Does it surprise you to learn that people with unhealthy self-images don’t understand this distinction? “Individuals with unhealthy self-images simply don’t grasp the difference between being aggressive and being assertive,” Seiler explains. “They often believe that by lashing out at or dominating others, they’re building themselves up.” In reality, though, they’re just accumulating more and more guilt, which prompts even more aggressive behaviors.
6. You’re missing the Good Samaritan gene. It’s a dog-eat-dog world and to some extent you have to look out for yourself. But that doesn’t mean you can’t take a few minutes to lend a helping hand along the way! Say you’re rushing into work (late) and you drop your briefcase in the lobby. Keeping in mind that we are all a combination of both healthy and unhealthy self-images, a coworker with a predominately healthy self-image will stop and help you gather up your papers. A coworker without a predominately healthy self-image will probably walk on by – and maybe even snicker at you as you scramble around to gather up your disheveled files.
“Individuals with unhealthy self-images sometimes get their kicks through the misfortune of others,” asserts Seiler. It’s not that these people lack empathy. They, along with sociopaths and con artists, are able to understand what another person is feeling quite well. The distinguishing factor is they lack kindness to go along with that empathy.
In other words, they are not able to treat others according to their needs and are likely to spin others’ misfortunes to their own ego’s advantage: at least I’m better off than that guy!
7. You don’t want the best for others. Ever had a “frenemy” – you know, the friend who puts on a show of being “there for you” but still manages to pepper the conversation with stinging little jabs and backhanded compliments? Well, turns out Mom was right when she told your 7-year-old self to ignore your friends’ teasing: they’re just jealous. “It’s impossible for a person with an unhealthy self-image to relate to you from a place devoid of jealousy or malice,” explains Seiler. “Whether they know it or not, they’re looking for validation – and every time something goes well for you, they feel threatened. Hence, they try to minimize your good fortune instead of just being happy for you.”
Chances are, you identified with at least one or two of the above indicators of an unhealthy self-image. If so, don’t jump to the conclusion that you’re a terrible person – these qualities are present in all of us, whether it’s to a large degree or a small one. However, do be honest with yourself about your faults – and about where they originate.
“What most people fail to do is take personal responsibility for the way they are and for changing themselves,” says Seiler. “They want to blame everyone and everything out there. I’ll be honest, finding the willpower to quit making these self-defeating mistakes is very difficult. The process of weakening and ultimately eliminating the unhealthy self-image gets harder before it gets easier.”
But you’ll find that if you force yourself to act in a healthy manner, it will become less and less difficult … and eventually, this healthy process will reinforce itself to the point that you begin to transcend life’s difficulties with optimism and confidence.
5 TIPS TO ACHIEVE A HEALTHY SELF-IMAGE
Maybe now you have realized (or maybe you’ve always known) that you suffer from a negative self-image. What to do? Here are Dr. Warren B. Seiler’s suggestions to help you improve your view of yourself.
1. Accept the fact that no one is perfect and we all have a self-image and conscience, each of which is composed of healthy and unhealthy parts.
2. Recognize that the “enemy within” is an adversary composed of the unhealthy self-image and conscience, protected by narcissism and pessimism, and further fueled and aided by the poison of bitterness.
3. Learn what genuine love, true forgiveness, bitterness, optimism, pessimism and narcissism really are and how they work for or against us in combination with both the healthy and the unhealthy self-image and conscience.
4. Explore the spiritual realm and how (if it truly exists both externally and internally) it works in union with and as an integral part of our physical self and emotional/psychological self.
5. Understanding the concepts identified in numbers 1-4 will give you a major head start in the development of a healthier self-image. Increased joy, happiness and inner peace will automatically follow within you and in relationship with others. Physical fitness is always accompanied by a sense of satisfaction and pride that occurs only because of the hard work, pain and suffering you choose to undergo. The same is true for emotional/psychological and spiritual fitness.
Battling the Enemy Within will put you on a course of self exploration that will provide you with the understanding and tools necessary to successfully accomplish the often painful work of what is suggested in the book title. Winning this battle time and time again results in an increasingly healthy self-image. As with physical fitness, emotional/psychological and spiritual fitness are a never-ending pursuit.