Episode 125: Self-Image

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There’s a difference betweeen our self-image, what we think of ourselves versus our public-image, what we think others think of us. Too often we are guided by others and the fear of what they might think of us instead of being intrinsically motivated. In this episode, we’ll explore how our internal values shape our self-image and contrast it with the external pressures of public opinion. We’ll talk about the various “roles” you carry as a part of your identity and question if these roles are productive for you or hinder your ability to feel confident.

Check out this episode!

So often when people think of confidence or when they picture confident people their minds tend to go in the direction of their image. This can create a lot of misunderstandings and thus misguided goals and desires for us as we strive to create a confident life.

We adopt or create stories to go along with this self-image and it’s important that we clear up what those stories are, where they came from and if they’re still serving you. This weekend my girls and I watched a silly, very cliché rom-com and the main character has this idea of what her perfect life would be. She saw this headline in a magazine and it became her ideal image for her life. She was no longer happy, content, or thriving in her own state or her own current self-image in her mind she now needed the other title and story to be happy. 

And as a I was pondering this silly, meant to be very fictional movie as I tend to do with all things I felt so sad that while this is fictional the pattern of wishing you were somewhere else or someone else is very common and I want to speak to this today to help some of you out.

Self-image – is the mental picture or perception an individual holds about themselves. This image encompasses many different things including your physical appearance, your abilities, your perceived personality traits, your feelings and your evaluations of your own qualities, the beliefs about your worth and value. Self-image is how we see our overall identity.

As mentioned our self-image is impacted by the things we see, hear, and experience in our outside world. Everything we encounter – a story that someone told about someone in some part of the world – impacts us. Everything we encounter has the ability to influence us because we are master story tellers. We hear someone talk about a person that we might not even know and we create a story about them through our self lens. Please don’t interpret this as selfish – it’s how our primitive brain is wired – we filter everything through our own perception first then based on our self-image and emotional maturity we can then turn our thoughts outward and be other focused but initially everything we hear runs through the me filter first. 

How does this impact me?

How is this like me?

Are they secretly sharing this to send me a message?

How do I feel about this?

How should I respond to this?

What do I think about this?

We run everything through this filter and it’s important to understand our self-image because it impacts our ability to receive information and use it in productive ways rather than as a means of self-sabotage.

And we all know people that take everything personally. No matter what you say or bring to them you already know they’re going to make it about them in some way, shape or form. You could bring good news and they’ll turn it around to themselves either to pat themselves on the back and up your story with one of their own or the opposite and they vocally diminish themselves which then turns the conversation on them and you find yourself trying to offer thoughts and compliments to help them feel better. Either way it’s frustrating because it limits the capacity for connection. You no longer want to share anything because they won’t really hear it anyway. You don’t want to talk with them because it’s exhausting. 

But it’s a common thing we experience and sometimes that person is us and it happens because they or ourselves haven’t spent time thinking intentionally about self-image. When we don’t take responsibility for owning and creating our own self-image we’ll look for it outside of ourselves to people that cannot give you what you need.

Even those me-centered people who fish for compliments or are passive aggressive looking for others to “make them feel better” even when they get what they think they want -it’s not filling. It’s not lasting and it invites their insecurities to run the show which feels terrible and is not recommended.

So in order to start thinking about our self-image in positive and productive ways we need to separate out two kinds of images that we often get confused about and mistakenly put one over the other in unproductive ways. 

We have our self-image – what WE think of ourselves.

Then we have our public-image – we we think OTHERS think of us and how they see us. 

Most of us spend way too much time focused on our public image while neglecting the self-image.

We have this mistaken belief that when our public image is glowing then we’ll feel confident.

But other’s cannot give you what you need. I talk about this all the time because what you’re seeking is not out there. No matter what they say or think about you – ultimately it has to be you that believes it that creates the feelings that you desire.

You can find examples of this in your own life. Think of a time when your public image gained a positive reception from others.

Maybe a job you did, or your various roles (mother, wife, husband, friend, etc), or  a project or a talk or whatever and people thought good things of you. They had a story about you. Your public image seemed ideal to others but on the inside you had thoughts like, “if they only knew…” or “it’s because they didn’t see me 10 minutes ago”. 

It’s like that analogy of the duck on the pond. Ducks just seamlessly glide across the water and they look so peaceful and serene. Their public image is one put together, flawless, they make it look so easy. It’d be easy to look at the duck and think, “wow, they have it all together. They don’t even cause a splash.” But then you’ve seen videos of them underwater and their little feet are moving like crazy to keep them afloat.

What others see and say doesn’t capture what you know and feel.

So it’s interesting that we spend so much of our time and efforts focused on creating this public image instead of focusing on what we want to think and feel about ourselves.

Now public image is an important aspect of our lives. We don’t want to operate from the idea that how we are perceived in the world as unimportant and calloused. But we don’t want to let others and what we think their ideas for us  be the ultimate guide for our lives.

We’ve all been impacted by others and what we think they think we should do or how we should act but I want to invite you to take them less seriously than we might be currently doing. I want you to think of them as just stories. Some stories are helpful and inspiring and others you put back on the shelf because they’re just not for you.

Let me give you an example. My husband is currently serving as the bishop of our church congregation and there have been times when individuals have commented to me about my role as a quote, “bishop’s wife”. I find this incredibly fascinating because they have a story about a role that they think I should be undertaking. 

They think I should be doing something differently, showing up differently, acting differently, serving differently.

And this really is incredibly fascinating for me to hear and witness because there is no manual or rule book that states anything of the kind. For those that know me and have been here for a while know that I’m very intentional about what I do, say, or how I show up so I always find it interesting to hear their “stories” about me in this role.

More often than not, it’s because I’m doing something different than how they may have shown up when they were in that “role” and it doesn’t match but this is where and why self-image is so important because you can step back and decide if that’s a story that represents you and your values or if it’s a perpetuation of a social tradition. There’s a lot of things we do that we might not want to continue perpetuating. So in these moments, I’m so grateful I’ve done and continue to do the work of self-image so that I can receive these comments and observations without taking a hit to my self-image or worth.

A beautiful, just lovely client that I worked with years ago struggled during a transition from this same role. There were people commenting that she didn’t need to continue doing certain things because she was no longer quote, the “bishop’s wife” – and I have to say, that’s not a term or an aspect that I see as a productive element of my identity. I don’t introduce myself as such. I support my husband whole heartedly and I love being associated as being married to Steven. But we have to be careful with the titles we identify with and uphold.

I say this because we don’t do this with other roles or jobs we undertake. I’ve never heard (yet) someone say, “I’m so in so, I’m the primary pianists wife”. But there’s something about this other title and we want to just be mindful of that. Are we creating or perpetuating a story that some roles are more important than others? Are we creating or perpetuating a story that this role carries certain responsibilities that change when you no longer are in that role?

And this is what my client struggled with. People told her to stop serving, stop visiting people – that’s not your “job” anymore. And I truly find things like this unhelpful and unproductive. There are certain roles that come with responsibilities that do stop when we are no longer in that role. A store cashier cannot open the register or run the register once they are no longer a cashier. 

But my client who wants to serve and share her light should be able to do so not because of a “role” but because of who she is.

This is where we want to focus on. Be mindful of the fictional titles that we uphold because they come with self-created rulebooks that cause stress, strain, and limitations.

David Brooks introduced a brilliant concept that helps with our self-image in his book, The Road to Character. He talks about our resume virtues and our eulogy virtues.

Our resume virtues can be associated with our public image. It’s what we’d put on our resume. It’s the titles and roles we ascribe ourselves. It’s the accolades and the public works that we do. And these are important. But they are not what should be our guiding light.

Our eulogy virtues on the other hand are who we are intrinsically. It’s our inner motivation and our self-image.

Our eulogy virtues are who we’ve let ourselves become as a whole human being. Not just on the surface but our whole being.

This should be interesting to note because at the end of your life people don’t really care what job you had or what degree you earned. They care about what kind of person you were. They mention the way you treated others and their shared memories with you.

A while back I went to two funerals just a day apart from one another. At one of the funerals the service was so inspiring and it just filled your heart with love and admiration for this individual and how they spent their lives reflecting their eulogy virtues. The second one, I didn’t know the individual. I was asked to play the organ for them but it was a remarkably different feeling. The person spent their life focused on their public image. They were highly successful at work and in their craft but to the detriment of their personal relationships. 

We’re taught in society that we need to focus on our public image. You need to wear what the public thinks is in fashion. You need to get a job that the public thinks is respectful. You need to have an income that the public would approve of. You need to show up in a way that the public approves of. You need to have a body that the public thinks is beautiful and acceptable. 

But all this does is create a life of insecurities and never measuring up. 

Rather you want to focus on your self-image and the kind of person you want to be. This creates meaning and fulfillment despite what other voices may periodically have to say. 

I wanted to share that example of my client for a couple of reasons. 

  1. There are certain roles that some people hold you to that are fictional and made up at least in the manner in which they’re holding you to them.

There is no such book of rules or manual for the “bishops wife”, the “primary pianists spouse”, the “therapist’s son”, the “football coaches daughter”, and on and on…

Make sure you’re mindful of the roles you’re agreeing to perpetuate. Don’t automatically take on responsibilities that others assign you to without your intentionally and express permission.

2. There will always be people offering rules to you. These usually come in the form of a “should”. You “should” be doing someting differently… or you “shouldn’t” be showing up that way.

Again, people have opinions and stories about everything. Your job is not to adopt their story but to run in through your beliefs and values to see if it is something that you want to take up or lovingly decline.

3. Don’t let your focus be centered on your public image at the expense of your self-image.

Other people think thoughts all the time – their thoughts are not about you. Instead of spending time in their head – what do they think of me? Spend more time in your head – what do I think of me? Who do I want to be? Am I doing what I’m doing because of a perceived role that I’m currently in? Or am I doing it because that’s who I am? Which means that when the role “ends” you don’t stop doing that – you continue because it’s who you are.

Let me give you another example,

In the role of a “mother” – and I’m putting that in quotes because that title and role has a lot of thoughts and expectations around it. Many people have a lot of “should” thoughts about this one.

As a mother, I want to care for my kids. I want to do nice things for them. I want to give counsel to them to keep them safe. 

These responsibilities that I’ve chosen to carry will not stop when they move out. I will always care for them. I will always do nice things for them. I will always give counsel from love.

I will do this because it’s part of my self-image. It’s what I ascribe a good mother to be for ME. It’s not a checklist. It’s who I am. It’s who I’m choosing to be. It aligns with my values. 

So think about this for you. What roles are you undertaking on purpose? 

What roles are part of your identity? 

What fictional roles are you carrying that maybe aren’t serving you? 

What fictional roles are you perpetuating and what are the responsibilities associated with it?  Is this a weight you want to continue to carry?

Why do you do what you do?

Is it because of a public image concern? Or is it because it’s who you are?

We see so many people that show up just with great gusto while they have a certain role but when the role is ended or over – they stop almost completely. When we focus on our public image it’s really easy to get burnt out. When we focus on our self-image that fire just burns even brighter.

In the book, The Wonder Drug – written by two medical doctors that build a scientifically backed case that service really is the ultimate cure to most ailments – it’s a good book – they write that burnout is when what you do carries no meaningful purpose. It doesn’t evoke happiness. It’s more like doing things because you think others think you should.

They write that life is tiring no matter what. But there’s a difference between “good tired” and “plain tired”. Plain tired is doing things without intrinsic meaning. It’s doing things because you think others think you should. Good tired is intrinsically motivated. You’re still doing but you’re doing as a means of connecting – either to yourself and your core values and or to others which creates meaning and fulfillment. 

Public image is just that – it’s what you think the public thinks about you.

This is important to a degree. We want to show up and present ourselves in a way that invites others to connect with you, to open opportunities for growth and service. But to do so in attempts to avoid others negative thoughts is futile. 

It’s serving because you think you “should”. 

Instead focus on your self-image and what brings you joy – joy isn’t happy – happy is fleeting, it’s hedonic. We want to focus on eudaimonia – or human flourishing  – joy. You want to be tired at the end of the day but not from carrying the weight of a public image but rather from showing up from your values and your self-image.

So all of this really begs the question:

Who are you?

What do you want to believe about you?

What do you value?

How can those values help you guide your day?

What roles do you take up on purpose?

Simone de Beauvoir, a brilliant existentialist philosopher taught that we take up roles. You choose to take up certain roles in your life.

You take up the role of being a woman, of being a mother, of being an artist, of being a citizen, a friend, an employer or an employee.

What stories accompany those roles?

Do you like the stories and responsibilities with those roles? Do they support your self-image or are they public image based?

When you know who you are you won’t be as bothered by others not knowing.

Other people will say things to you.

That’s a guarantee – people (at least in mortality) say things they’ve learned, adopted, created but it’s not about you. It’s about them and what they think, who they are, what stories they’ve picked up.

When your self-image is strong – you can let them carry their own stories and lovingly continue to show up as the human being you want to be. The one who at the end of the day can be “good tired” for giving your all in purposeful and meaningful ways.

Separate out public image from your self-image.

Making an intentional effort to spend more time engaged in defining your self-image instead of the public image will help you develop a healthy, positive and productive relationship with yourself and those you care about. This practice helps you develop emotional maturity and leads to a more outpouring of compassion. It helps you be able to challenge limiting and negative beliefs. It helps you respond to others rather than reacting. Ultimately it helps you develop inner strength and confidence.

Always keep in your pocket the discerning question: Would this thought/feeling/action be supporting my public image or my self-image?

You’ve got this my friends, have a beautiful week!



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