We all know the story of Snow White, the evil queen and the mirror. “Magic mirror in my hand, who is the fairest in the land?” the Queen says every day. The mirror always replies: “My queen, you are the fairest in the land.” The children’s fairy tale is not only one of the greatest stories ever written, but for the mindful reader it also reinforces the idea that we all search for a positive self-validation—either through our own self-opinions, or through the eyes of others. It is the foundation of our self-worth.
Indeed, the story incredibly well summarizes the notion of the Self-Image (SI)—that is, what we see in the mirror doesn’t always reflect the reality. How we view ourselves and how others view us, quite often portray two different people. Undeniably, though, SI is not only an essential part of who we are, but the ability to develop it, based on our strengths, is a major contributor to our self-esteem. Let’s see why.
Psychology tells us that SI is the mental picture of ourselves, generally of the kind that is quite resistant (but not impossible) to change. The idea of SI is an important one— not only as a link to confidence but also as an expression of our self-knowledge. The ability to properly define ourselves means that we will also consciously understand our values, attitudes, opinions and our decision-making processes. And that we can improve and change them if necessary.
Simply put, without self-knowledge, we can’t learn to adapt and survive in life. If we want to amend certain behaviors (for example, smoking or being unsocial), we need to know how/why they originated in the first place. Similarly, if we want to start loving ourselves again, we have to begin with the understanding of what makes the “man in the mirror” special and unique. Because we won’t be able to fix what we don’t know!
So what makes up our SI? In fact, it is a combination of several things. More specifically, three main assessments play a role into forming the concept—what we think about ourselves; what others think of us; and what we think others think of us. Not surprisingly, what we think of ourselves is influenced by our individual circumstances—our parents, the environment we grew up in, our cultural background. What others believe about us can be very subjective as well and depends on various things—such as, if these people are our friends or not, if we have done something to contribute to their positive or negative opinion of us. And finally, our perceptions of how others view us may sometimes be simply a product of our imagination– but they can also influence our self-esteem.
And because all the three elements are prone to errors and bias, probably the most objective (as much as possible in our highly subjective world) way to clearly see ourselves is through self-knowledge. In other words, certain people’s opinions can be used as an occasional self-check but do not rely on them to tell you who you are. You have your own brain to figure this one out on your own.
The wise men of science tell us that negative SI is dependent on basic factors, such as cultural background, parents, relatives, friends, where and how we grew up. To make things slightly more complicated, recent research  has shown that people that are close to us can influence our idea of the self. In other words, it is the concept of the “expansion of the self”—allowing the opinions of a close to us person (parent, sibling, friend) to become part of our self-image. Simply put, other people’s assessments can help shape our personalities. They can have a great impact on what we think and how we view ourselves.
And this is in addition to our perceptions of other’s perceptions of us! What all this evidences is that the origin of our SI is multi-dimensional and multi-layered—this is why it takes a little more effort and persistence for us to change than simply flipping a switch on a previously held belief.
There are few steps outlined below, though, that each of us can take to help the man in the mirror create a positive SI and gain back her/his confidence. SI is much more than just our bodies, it starts in our minds, with how we think about and how much respect we have toward ourselves. And this is where we need to focus–not on whether we have gained a couple of pounds on our recent vacation, nor on the fact that we don’t like our hair or nose. Such mundane things can never be a sustainable source of self-worth.
- Get to know yourself better—know your strengths and weaknesses, what motivates you to get up in the morning. It also means to push yourself to achieve more every day, to challenge yourself and explore your limits.
- Have an open relationship with yourself – you should never be ashamed of your weaknesses. Embrace them. This way, others won’t be able to hurt you by telling you things about yourself that you already know. Because only a complete self-acceptance—of the good, bad and the ugly—can result in a healthy self-esteem.
- Stop comparing yourself to others – nothing damages our confidence more than the “why-others-have-more” mentality. The grass is not always greener on the other side. The only person you need to compare yourself against is…you. Are you better off today than a year ago, than last month, than yesterday? This is how we should measure our personal progress.
- Respect yourself and learn the power of “no.” Compromise is not always the best solution, even with the people we love. Respect for the person looking back at us in the mirror will ensure that this person gets, in turn, respected by the world for what they have to offer.
- Focus on positives – replace negative words, such as “don’t, won’t, can’t” with more favourable ones: “do, will, can.” Instead of focusing on what you don’t have or can’t do, think about what makes you special and unique.
- The final and most important condition – have a willingness to change and to improve your self-image and esteem. The person you are today is not the same person you were a year ago. Don’t allow the negativity of the past affect your future.
In the end, why is this all so important?—Because building a positive self-image is one of the most important things we can do for our mental and physical health, in addition to our personal and professional future. And we can do it all on our own.
Be mindful that although this is not an overnight metamorphosis, taking small steps can yield great rewards for those who have patience, persistence and most of all—practice.
Simply put, “think highly of yourself because the world takes you at your own estimate.” (Anil Sinha)
 Goldstein, N. J., & Cialdini, R. B. (2007). The spyglass self: A model of vicarious self-perception. Journal Of Personality And Social Psychology, 92(3), 402-417