Leslie Becker-Phelps Ph.D.

Making Change

When self-image conflicts with positive thinking

We want to feel good, but often get in our own way.

Posted Aug 25, 2009

I think I can safely say that we all like to feel good about ourselves-though this comes easier to some of us than others. According to psychologist William Swann, we are so motivated by this that we tend to view ourselves in a positive light; he calls this self-enhancement.

Have you ever noticed, for example, how most people think of themselves as slightly better looking, somewhat brighter, and as having more common sense than the average person? According to Swann, we are inclined to see ourselves in these ways; to use self-enhancement-even when it's less than accurate.


As I described in my previous posting, Finding the right path to change, Swann has also identified another inner source of motivation, self-verification. Self-verification refers to our tendency to validate our existing views of ourselves-positive or negative. This helps us to feel stable and secure in how we view ourselves, which then allows us to feel confident in how we think and act in our lives.,,kkjj

When we believe that we are good at something, self-enhancement and self-verification come together as powerful motivators. So, if you think you are a talented golfer or singer, you invite and believe praise from others, see all the ways you excel, and minimize your limitations. In these ways, feeling good creates a momentum of its own.

But what happens when self-enhancement and self-verification conflict? For instance, if you question your skills as a parent, what happens when a friend commends you on your parenting? According to Swann, you might feel good at first, but your "honest" negative self-appraisal will inevitably win out. You will look for ways to prove that your friend is just being nice; and your drive for self-enhancement will take a back seat to self-verification.


Yet, we can challenge our drive to self-verify. We all know people who have done this and successfully changed. For example, sometimes people who have been overweight for years begin eating healthy and steadily losing weight; and others who have habitually been submissive begin to assert themselves. As a psychologist, I have been blessed to see, and be a part of, many people changing for the better. But I've also seen people give up. Sometimes the challenge is too great, and they revert to their old ways. So, I have often asked myself, what enables some people-and not others-to change?


Swann's theory provides at least a partial answer to this important question. One factor has to do with how you view those characteristics you want to change. The more central a characteristic is to how you see yourself, the more difficult it will be for you to change. If you define yourself as a person who hates the limelight, you are likely to have great difficulty conquering your phobia of public speaking. Such attempts would go against how you define yourself as a person-and whether you like it or not, you would be overcome with an urge to self-verify who you are (someone who prefers to be in the crowd rather than in front of one). However, if you sometimes enjoy the attention of others, your self-perception will not be as strong an obstacle to overcoming your phobia of public speaking.


In addition, the more certain you are of a particular trait, the more strongly you will hold onto that belief about yourself. For example, you will have a much harder time committing to stop smoking if you are deeply convinced you do not have the willpower to do it. On the other hand, even a little chink of uncertainty provides an opportunity for you to kick the habit.


Swann's ideas and their implications all make perfect sense to me. And the longer I let his ideas settle into my own thinking, the more I can see self-justification and self-enhancement not just in myself, my friends, and my patients, but also in the world around me; especially in politics... but that's another matter...


Dr. Leslie Becker-Phelps is a clinical psychologist in private practice and is on the medical staff at Somerset Medical Center in Somerville, NJ.