A self-image is a lot like a work of fiction in that it is heavily edited before being presented to an audience. It is seen first by an audience of one—oneself—and then the public audience of friends, family, co-workers, and even strangers.
One of the ways we maintain a consistent self-image is by repeatedly telling ourselves stories that reinforce it. Another way we do it is by repeatedly telling other people stories about ourselves that reinforce it. We are, as Jonathan Gottschall puts it, storytelling animals. It’s our nature to pull together our experiences and perceptions into a coherent linear narrative. That’s how we make sense of the world. And that’s how we create the fictional characters we claim to be.
It isn’t as if we’re intending to lie about who we are. It’s that we are invested in being—and being seen—in a particular light. So we edit out the parts of our lives, past and present, that don’t fit the role we’re playing.
While it’s true that image is the primary issue of the three Feeling Center types, they aren’t the only people who construct and nurture their own self-image and the image they present to the world. We all do it.
What’s Your Self-Schema?
A lot of our efforts to maintain a consistent self-image are habitual and automatic, so we aren’t even aware of them. In the process of developing generalizations about ourselves, we form cognitive structures called self-schemas. These self-schemas then organize and guide the processing of information that is self-related. That means they determine what we pay attention to and how events and experiences are encoded in our memories. Self-schemas are biased on their own behalf. If something fits our self-schema, for example, we are likely to pay more attention to it and to remember it more easily. We tend to dismiss what doesn’t fit our self-schemas.
We don’t have just one self-schema; we have several, depending on the different roles we play in life. But there are some aspects of our self-schema that are consistent across all of them. If you know your Enneagram type, you know what many of those are for you.
Self-schemas are self-perpetuating and very difficult to change. You have to be open and willing to explore the possibility that you are not your self-image. Your self-image is a fictional character you have been developing—usually with some help from the people closest to you—for most of your life.
When something happens that significantly messes with our self-image, the result can be denial or a crisis of identity. But while such an experience can present a danger to our self-schema, it is also an opportunity to step out of character and address the audience directly (authentically).
Is that Really True?
There are a couple of simple steps you can take to become more aware of how you are perpetuating your self-image.
- When you catch yourself telling stories, whether to yourself or someone else, you can stop and ask yourself if they are really true–or if they represent the “whole” story.
- You can make a list of things you believe about yourself, and then for each one, ask yourself if it is really true. Be ruthless.
Trying to uncover the truth of who we are can be like chasing a moving target, difficult to hone in on. But it’s a liberating experience that’s well worth the effort. The reward is that we get to break free of the confines of the structure that has defined us and dictated what is possible for us.
Each one of us has many more dimensions than the scripted characters we have been playing.