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Friday, 24 September 2010

See a lion in the mirror

[The following article written by me was published in Deccan Herald, Bangalore, on May 2, 2009]

If you realise that you are stuck with a self-image that is not serving you well and is detrimental to your wellbeing, how do you correct it? The first step is to identify your existing self-image and then to come to terms with it. Only then can healing begin

I have a poster in my office which I find extremely powerful. It has the picture of a golden cat with white stripes, looking into a full-size floor-standing mirror. What it sees is a big, powerful lion staring back at it! The caption says,"What matters most is how you see yourself". Imagine that! Just imagine how powerful the cat must be feeling as it looks into the mirror in the morning before stepping out for the activities of its day, believing it is a lion that rules the jungle. To get the full impact of the visualisation, now imagine how it would feel, had it looked into the mirror and seen a mouse stare back! Would it even have the energy to go out and look for food? Would it have the courage? Probably not. It would be too scared even of the other mice, so how could it possibly think of killing them!

The difference in both the scenarios is just how the cat sees itself. And, that, is the difference between those who believe they rule the world; and those who believe they are powerless. It is all a matter of how they see themselves.

But how they see themselves, or you see yourself, is not merely a matter of looking in the mirror and telling yourself that from that day on you are going to see yourself as a lion, or a horse, or a CEO, or a winner, or a leader or whatever else you please. Unfortunately this self-image gets imbedded deep into our psyche when we are children, and it requires a lot of hard work on our part to change the self-image that we grow up with.

As a child, when you have been told by your parents, teachers, grandparents, and the other grown-ups in your life that you are not good enough, you internalise that message subconsciously. Then as an adult when you step into the world, you go into your workplace, your marriage, and your other relationships believing that you are not good enough. You spend your time trying to prove to yourself, and to others, that you are indeed good enough.

Life-long impact

So, how does this have an impact on your performance at work? You end up being diffident and doubt your capabilities. You constantly seek validation and reassurance that you are doing the right thing. You never believe your contribution is valuable to the organisation. You are happy being a follower rather than a leader. You can never assertively demand a raise or promotion that is due to you (because you don't really believe you deserve it). You spend your time trying to do what your boss, or colleagues, or even subordinates, think is right, rather than evaluating for yourself what you believe is right.

How does this have an impact on your marriage, or other significant relationships? You can never take charge of your relationship. You are again dictated by doing what your partner wants you to do. You keep seeking reassurance from your partner. You never believe you are capable of taking charge and taking decisions for your life, and that of your family. You start treating your partner as the superior person in the relationship which upsets the balance of the relationship and is never helpful. If you see your relationship as a seesaw then the seesaw must always be horizontal for the relationship to be meaningful. Relationships work best when they are balanced. If you feel you are the lower one on that seesaw, the other partner by the very nature of the seesaw, will be the upper one. The moment you start believing you are 'not so low', the other partner is forced to be 'not so high'. Balancing this seesaw is the key to having a meaningful relationship. If you start off with a poor self-image the task of attaining this balance is so much harder.

Impact on relationships

How does this have an impact on your other relationships with your parents, siblings, friends, even kids? You constantly try to please everyone, and may soon find your self living life on everyone else's terms rather than your own. You will never be able to take a stand against any perceived injustices in your relationships because you believe that you are not 'good enough'. So you will constantly do whatever your parents demand and expect of you, to keep them happy. Your siblings and friends will always dictate what they want, and you will cater to their every wish, even if you don't agree with it, because of your over-enthusiasm to please them (and thus establish your worth). Your kids will pretty soon imbibe these inequalities in your relationships with others, and pick up the same cues. Before you know it, they will be the higher ones, on the seesaw between both of you.
So, if you realise that you are stuck with a self-image that is not serving you well and is detrimental to your well being, how do you go about correcting it? Or, is the damage done irreparable?

The first step is to identify what your existing self-image is. Put a name to it. Acknowledge its existence and analyse whether it is serving you well or not. Figure out how you got it. Trace its origins. Then identify which parts of it hold relevance for you as an adult, and which parts you can discard. This process is not always easy. It can, in fact, be quite hard. It involves deep introspection, either on your own, or with the help of a counsellor. It involves revisiting the not-so-pleasant memories of your past, reliving their pain, and realising how they made you who you are today. It involves acknowledging their irrelevance (and often, that means accepting — painfully — that the parents and other adults you trusted did not always do things that benefited you). This makes your existing self-image much more tangible. It is then easier to shed, or discard, just as it is easier, to throw out discrete pieces of rubbish lying on the floor, than it is to rid the floor of a whole layer of dust that has been settled there for years. If you are just dissatisfied with your self and your life, there is really not much you can do about it till you are able to concretize the dissatisfaction — till you are able to say it is because you feel ignored, or you feel undervalued, or you feel walked over, or you feel cheated. Once you know what it is, and where it originates from, your work is much easier.

You are then left with the relatively simpler task of building the self-image that you want, by consciously deciding what it is, and making a plan to internalise it for yourself. Building something new is always a joyous experience, unlike throwing something away which is painful, and often full of memories, remorse and regret. So enjoy the journey of rebuilding yourself, and your self-image.


  1. Please read

    I felt when our country used to be this way, we had less problems in kids and produced more leaders in art, music, education, etc. In today's world, kids are getting misguided by parents and schools. They start their "research" on the Internet at an early age when they don't understand the concept of "plagiarism". Like the anonymous "over confident" child in DH trying to patent her idea without discussing with an adult is absolutely ridiculous. She may not even know the rules for patenting.

  2. This has given inspiration for me to get out of my image. I have to do lots of things to find out myself. Thanks

  3. Thank you so much for this. Your words have truly inspired me.