Your self-concept just means how you see yourself. It is related to your self-esteem. And it might not be (and probably isn’t) something that you give much thought to day-to-day.
Our true perceptions of ourselves take some work to get to know. We have to be paying attention.
One way that they might be highlighted is through reflection, or self-evaluation exercises we undertake as part of personal or professional development.
But probably the most obvious way our self-concepts are laid bare is through describing ourselves to people. (New people, because our friends and family already have a pretty good idea of our traits.) This means that paying attention to the words we use about ourselves during such encounters is enlightening – and sometimes also a bit frightening.
The most dangerous self-concept, and one I notice all the time, is the dogmatic ‘I am’. A person that uses the dogmatic ‘I am’ sees their personal qualities – even useless ones – as immovable.
Our personal qualities are not immovable. I first learned this five years ago. Henry Ford got it right when he said ‘whether you think you can, or you think you can’t – you’re right’. Self-descriptors are self-fulfilling. We talk our futures into being with our thoughts and words.
Here’s a thought from the book, Three Magic Words:
“You are not the same ‘I’ you were ten years ago, nor are you the same ‘I’ you were a week ago. You are always the product of your thought and represent at any time the sum total of your thought to that moment.”
You’d never know it from the way we act sometimes, but we all have the ability to look at where we are, where we’ve been, and decide where we want to go. When we use the dogmatic ‘I am’, we are saying who we have been, and not where we can go. We may unthinkingly limit our creative potential.
As with limiting beliefs, our dogmatic ‘I am’s’ might obstruct positive change and personal growth. And so our self-concepts require brutal examination.
using ‘I am’ about your personal qualities
Social convention requires us to use over-simplifications in describing our personal traits (‘I’m direct!’; ‘I’m an optimist!’). It isn’t appropriate to go into our complex ego mechanisms during the early encounters with people.
The lack of precision isn’t a problem unless we hold the same views of ourselves as the ones we are sharing. In other words, the important issue is do we believe what we say.
Just the other day, someone asked me whether I was impulsive. ‘Nope; not really,’ I said, and I really did think so at the time.
The truth, as I acknowledged to myself afterwards, is a little more nuanced. I have behaved scandalously impulsively in the past, and still do sometimes. But I have done my best to adopt a more thoughtful and considered approach to making decisions.
Has your character changed at all in the last five years? When are you ever a certain quality without exception? How does it help to see yourself as something fixed? How does it help to see other people that way?
Where is the acceptance and possibility in that?
Let’s take some common ‘I am’s’:
- an executor
- a planner
It is a little odd to think of it, but the above are all self-identifications that may actually be limiting you in some way.
Perhaps you’ve consciously developed your self-concept so that it is empowering across every single life area. Personally, I see room for development across a few different areas. And so I still pay close attention.
using ‘I am’ to describe your emotions and state
Using the dogmatic ‘I am’ about your emotional state might be an even larger problem.
Let’s take depression as an example. A person who is identified with their depression doesn’t even see themselves as being depressed. But if you asked them, they might say ‘I am depressed.’ There would be no acknowledgement of the depression being a temporary state. It is the permanence of ‘I am’ – it’s pervasive, final quality – that means shifting that lower state even more challenging.
Avoiding the dogmatic ‘I am’ can change our experience of the present moment. It’s extremely practical to say ‘Rezzan is feeling stressed right now’, rather than ‘Rezzan is stressed’. Immediately it helps switch the brain to the Observer self. And from there, things are always a lot less stressful.
It is the same with ‘I am overwhelmed’ versus ‘I feel overwhelmed’. Or ‘I am ashamed’ versus ‘I feel ashamed right now’. It is a step removed from the negative emotion or feeling. It is critical for our wellbeing to be able to do this.
The same applies to overly identifying with any physical conditions that we have.
instead of the dogmatic ‘I am’
What might be some more realistic, truthful swaps for our dogmatic ‘I am’s’?:
- ‘I can be xyz.’
- ‘yes, sometimes.’
- ‘more before than I am now.’
- ‘less and less.’
- ‘it’s the direction I am going in!’
Start noticing the sweeping statements you make about yourself. They indicate a lack of freewill and choice.
When our self-concepts are so inflexible, we risk winding up just caricatures of ourselves. Far better to – at least in our minds – not see the qualities that have been defining our pasts, or the emotional states defining our present, as representative of ourselves in totality.
Because really, ‘I am’ is a complete sentence.