There are three words in the English language that represent a basic framework of your psychological self-concept—and how you use them on a day-to-day basis can determine the course of your life.
When you put yourself as the agent and a belief together to form the statements “I am” or “I can,” what follows the statement creates a set of self-associations that forms the foundation of your current identity and who you are in the process of becoming. To put it simply, those statements cause you to form a mental picture of how you see yourself:
Neuroscientists have shown that the reason these statements are so powerful is because self-associations directly influence our behavior. Labeling yourself as stupid can decrease your performance on a task.1 This happens because our brains generate self-confirmatory biases—meaning that if you think something is true, you are more likely to act in a way that will bring about the results of what you believe. If you say to yourself I am stupid, you are likely to not try as hard because you don’t believe effort will make that much difference. When you don’t succeed, you then say to yourself—See, I am stupid. You have confirmed your belief not because it was actually true, but because you acted as if it were true—and your actions are what brought about the so-called evidence for your belief.
Your self-concept influences your decision-making process all day long, even when you aren’t aware that it is happening.2 You make decisions about day-to-day events such as what to eat for lunch, whether to say hi to a stranger, or whether or not to go to the gym, in large part based on how you see yourself. Your self-concept has an even bigger effect on the life-altering decisions you make, such as where to apply to school, who to ask on a date, whether to apply for a new job opportunity, or whether or not to ask for a raise.
Because your decisions and actions are directly tied to how you see yourself, the way you use these three simple words—I, am, can—determines the majority of your life experiences. The good news is that you have the ability to change these statements to align with experiences you would like to create. Following are three steps to help improve your self-concept.
1. Be Aware
Changing your self-concept starts with noticing your inner dialogue. As important as your I am and I can statements are, they are so much a part of daily experience you may not even be aware of how frequently you use them in a self-defeating way. Simply making the effort to write them down for a week can increase your awareness. Be particularly aware of your daily conversations with others; we tend to describe ourselves in conversations by using statements that start with “I.”
2. Be Compassionate
Self-compassion has been shown to be an important part of changing your inner dialogue and how you view yourself.3 It is common for people to use negative self-statements as a way to motivate themselves to be better in some way; however, self-criticism is never as effective as self-compassion. If your notice that your “I” statements are often followed by negative, self-critical comments, try rephrasing them by pretending you are talking to a small child or your best friend.
3. Be Intentional
Choose to make I am and I can statements that you know are in your best interest—even if they don’t feel true at first. Beliefs, for the most part, are simply thoughts that we have assigned truth to because we have thought them over and over again, and then collected self-confirmatory evidence. You have the ability to create new beliefs, by consciously choosing more positive self-statements and then looking for evidence of their truth in your life. Follow your new self-statement with an action that is consistent. Instead of saying to yourself, I am bad at relationships, make a new statement that is more in line with an outcome you want such as, I am getting better at my relationships. Then choose an action that is consistent with this new statement such as buying a book on improving relationships or hiring a relationship coach. When you act as if something is true, you start to take the actions that make it true.
1. Sara L. Bengtsson and Will D. Penny. 2013. Self-associations influence task-performance through Bayesian inference. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, vol 7, 1-14.
2. Greg Corrado and Kenji Doya.. 2007. Understanding Neural Coding through the Model-Based Analysis of Decision Making. The Journal of Neuroscience, 27(31): 8178-8180.
3. Schanche, Elisabeth. 2013. The transdiagnostic phenomenon of self-criticism. Psychotherapy, Vol 50(3), 316-321.
Dr. Jennice Vilhauer is the director of the Outpatient Psychotherapy Treatment Program at Emory Healthcare, the developer of Future Directed Therapy, and the author of Think Forward to Thrive: How to Use the Mind’s Power of Anticipation to Transcend Your Past and Transform Your Life.