It’s amazing how inflexibly we tend to think about ourselves. Early in the therapeutic process, and before I train my clients out of this way of thinking, I hear a litany of the same kinds of statements: I’m shy; I don’t take criticism well; I’m competitive; I’m sexually dominant; I’m not good at confrontation.
What these statements have in common is that they reflect a certain kind of essentialism—a belief that there are intractable elements of our core self that are just givens.
Thinking about character or personality in categorical terms can be useful. It helps make us comprehensible to ourselves. It gives us a basis for comparison between ourselves and others. But it also plays to our most reductionistic urges, enabling us to ignore contradictions and complexity in favor of rigid distinctions. And in doing so, we lose a lot of relevant data about who we are and who we might become.
Rigid negative self-concepts are the easiest to pathologize. They often feel like self-criticism, rather than an accurate perception of reality. They’re defined by statements like this: I’m not good at making friends; I’m difficult to get along with; I’m high-maintenance; I’m moody; I have no will power. They become self-fulfilling, enabling us to behave in ways consistent with these beliefs, thereby becoming more and more of the thing we believe ourselves to be.
Research supports the idea that negative self-concepts are unhealthy. In fact, there seems to be a link between a rigid negative self-image and the propensity for diagnoses like depression (Sperduit, Martinelli, Kalenzaga, Devauchelle, Lion, Malherbe, Gallarda, Amadao, Krebs, Oppenheim & Piolino, 2013). The more intractable negative beliefs about the self become, the more alternative beliefs are crowded out, and the more hopelessness seems justifiable.
But this rigidity cuts both ways. Rigid positive self-concepts are also problematic. In part, this is because they refuse to accommodate contradiction. If you’re a person who’s always happy, you may be devastated when you go through a brief period of depression. If you’re the person in your relationship who always has to be in control of details, you may not know how to give over control during times when the demands on you max you out.
Positive self-concepts, like negative concepts, tend to crowd out possibilities. Whenever we definitively articulate what we are, we’re making the opposing trait unavailable to us.
Encouraging cognitive flexibility may be part of the solution (Sperduit et al., 2013). There are a number of ways that therapists—and individuals—aim to do this. One is through the simple challenging of these categories; we search for contradictions to break down the presumed truth of rigid self-definitions. These contradictions are often called “exceptions.” So, if you define yourself as an uptight person, you might make a list of times you weren’t uptight. If you see yourself as shy, you might think of times when you felt comfortable in social situations.
Another way to foster a more fluid concept of identity is to take a narrative or solution-focused approach that enables people to “re-author” their stories (Holyoake, & Golding, 2010). This approach theorizes that the stories we tell about ourselves and our history tend be biased (non-objective) and tend to limit our future possibilities. In order to re-author our stories of our identity, we need to first complicate them. In addition to finding exceptions, we can find places in our stories that are too simple. Perhaps we let another person’s perceptions color our own. Perhaps our memories of the holidays growing up are colored by our mother’s memories rather than being true to our own experience. If we thought of ourselves as overweight as a child, we might notice in pictures that we actually looked pretty health and solid. Whatever the case, we find sticking points, in which the rigid story doesn’t hold up.
In addition to complexity, we introduce doubt. Doubt doesn’t just function in a negative way, it can breed a healthy skepticism about understandings that are too narrow. It can create room for future possibilities. In thinking flexibly about ourselves and avoiding rigid categories of self-understanding, we can start to open up space for alternatives.
Holyoake, D-D & Golding, E. (2010). The ‘uncanny sense of self,’ solution focused practice and a theoretical re-thinking of ‘the self’ in psychotherapy. Asia Pacific Journal of Counseling and Psychotherapy, Vol 1(1), Feb, 87-96.
Sperduit, M., Martinelli, P., Kalenzaga, S., Devauchelle, A, Lion, S., Malherbe, C., Gallarda, T., Amadao, I., Krebs, M., Oppenheim, C. & Piolino, P. (2013). Don’t be Too Strict with Yourself! Rigid Negative Self-Representation in Healthy Subjects Mimics the Neurocognitive Profile of Depression for Autobiographical Memory, Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience 7(41), doi: 10.3389/fnbeh.2013.00041