Fixing Families

Tools for walking the intergenerational tightrope

Do the Self-Image Make-Over

Out with the old in with the new

It's likely that your self-image is way out of date. It's like a suit or dress that you've long outgrown, a carry-over from when you were ten. You're not good at sports, not smart, not capable of being the extrovert and mingling with strangers - ideas burned into your brain when you were young and overwhelmed and constantly measuring yourself against the small group of folks around you. But you've changed.  But now you've got an adult brain, have learned bunches from experience, and have lots more ways of handling new situations. It's time for the self-image make-over.

But how to do it? Here are some guidelines to get you started:

Make a list. Just take a minute and write down your basic assumptions about yourself and others. How would you describe yourself to someone? What your strongest personality trait, your greatest weakness, your greatest talent? What is your basic view of others - how trustworthy, dependable, caring are they? What are your core beliefs about the purpose of life, the way the world works. Be honest, try and go beyond the first 5 or 6 ideas that immediately come to mind.

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Evaluate. Okay, look at your list. Are there any items that no longer apply? Are there assumptions that you need to challenge?

Sam, for example, may realize that it's finally time to stop comparing himself to his jock brother and only think of exercise as the stuff of star athletes. It's now time to be more realistic (and healthful) and realize that he probably can find some moderate type of physical activity that he enjoys and can do regularly. Even though Ellen may never really enjoy "bookish things" she can learn to be more patient with herself, resist the urge to give up learning new things before she even tries. While Tom may never be the life of the party, there's no reason for him to keep feeling like a nervous eight-year-old at social events.

Make a plan. Once you've nailed down the specific aspect of your self-image that you want to change, come up with a plan. Think small. Think slow. Sam can't expect to run five miles by next week, but he can take a walk around the block after dinner. Ellen may not be able to reprogram her computer, but she can manage to put her checking on Quicken. Tom may not have witty stories to enthrall the masses, but he can show up at a party and have conversations about more than just the onion dip.

The trick here is not to worry about making big changes as much as getting experience in making any change at all. By taking small steps and going against your own grain you are stepping outside the walls of your self-image. By taking any risk, doing anything that feels a bit awkward, you become more comfortable with the whole notion of taking risks, and your confidence and ability to take bigger ones will increase. Slowly, but permanently, your self image will expand.

Expect resistance. Not from others but from yourself. There are old parts of you that will wonder just what you're doing and dig in their heels. Expect excuses to pop up - you're too tired to exercise or to go to the party. The old checkbook balancing routine, while a pain, works fine enough. Expect to hear yourself telling yourself that you're wasting your time, that you're really not that smart, that organized, that outgoing - a replay, no doubt, of the real messages you probably heard when growing up.

Get Support. It's hard to do it alone. Let those close to you know what you're trying to do, let them know how they can help. Sam may take out a trial membership at the local health club and sign up for group exercise sessions instead of doing push-ups alone in his basement. Ellen may want to have her sister sit next to her and look over her shoulder as she enters her data the first time. Tom may want his wife to come check on him at the party just to make sure he's doing okay.

Persevere. If you've put years into becoming the person you are, you can't expect changes, even small ones, to happen overnight. You're not only learning to move against your own habits and instincts, you're literally etching new thought pathways in your brain. With continued practice these new pathways will replace the old; new habits will replace the old, worn-out ones. By changing what you do, you literally change who and how you are. Just give yourself time.

Who you are now is a culmination of all that has passed. Who you can be will be the culmination of all that the new experiences you try, all the beliefs you're willing to question, or the risks you're willing to take.

There's no time like the present to start.

Bob Taibbi, L.C.S.W. has 40 years of clinical experience. He is author of 6 books and over 300 articles and provides training nationally and internationally.

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