Maybe you’ve heard the quote “Your relationship with yourself sets the tone for every other relationship you have.” This is a powerful concept, and I wonder how many of us think about the relationship with ourselves when we analyze our lives and the people in them. What if this is true? What if how you feel about yourself, the relationship or lack thereof, is the foundation for every other relationship in your life? Not just the romantic ones but family, friendships and interactions at work?

Self-concept is defined as a person’s understanding or belief about their personal attributes. These beliefs affect how a person interacts with the outside world. A person’s self-confidence, as well as other attributes such as self-worth, self-love, and self-respect, are impacted by how intact our self-concept is. An impaired self-concept adversely interferes with a person’s ability to find happiness, meaning that the relationship we have with our self can invariably prevent our ability to achieve our overall desired level of satisfaction within our lives.

As I thought about this topic, I remembered a Dove campaign from a few years back. In it, women were asked to describe themselves to FBI trained forensic artist Gil Zamara, who sat behind a curtain and drew a portrait of them based on their descriptions. A random stranger was then asked to describe the same woman to Gil, to see how their description and the sketches would differ.

The results proved what the campaign intended. The sketch based on the stranger’s portrayal was more attractive, happier, relaxed, and more accurate. In that moment as the women looked at the side by side sketches they were flooded with emotion, realizing the harsh and distorted ways in which they viewed themselves. I assume in that moment, they thought about how this perception had likely impacted parts of their lives in significant ways.

A positive self-concept gives a sense of meaning, wholeness, and consistency to a person. A healthy self-concept has a high degree of stability, which generates positive feelings toward self. The components of self-concept are identity, body image, and role performance. How one thinks about oneself (self-concept) affects how one feels about oneself (self-esteem).

Although forming self-concept is a lifelong process, how a child feels about themselves in the early years (positive or negative) can set a pattern for the rest of their lives. Children who are listened to and whose accomplishments and mistakes are both recognized and accepted, tend to evolve into more confident adults. A parent believing in their 10-year-old daughters’ abilities predict her sense of control over her life at age 30. The opposite is true when children are criticized, neglected, or abused. As children are developing and dependent on their caregivers, their perception of reality depends on other people. In other words, how a child sees themselves is formed with significant assistance from those around them: parents, siblings, and peers.

There is also the impact of school success or failure as well as positive or negative social experiences that can adversely hinder self-concept during childhood and adolescence. These positive or negative academic and social experiences may bring about self-doubt or conversely boost positive self-image. Having an overall negative self-concept in adolescence has been associated with depression, anxiety, drug use, and eating disorders.

So what does a healthy relationship with yourself look like? Having a healthy self-relationship means having the ability to value yourself at every given point in life and allow yourself to be vulnerable. One must embrace their strengths and weaknesses and work towards having a peaceful mind. It means simply considering yourself every day by acts of self-love, self-care, goodwill, and value.

It’s helpful to keep in mind that you can improve your relationship with yourself no matter what point you are starting at and that progress is not linear. Therapy can be an important tool in this process, gently fostering an awareness of where a critical self-concept developed and was reinforced, and allowing a more compassionate and realistic self-concept to emerge. Through this work we see clients experience changes in their thinking, in their emotional life, in their behavior, and in their relationships. Although it will take consistent effort and time to build a healthier relationship with yourself, know that you’re absolutely worth it.

Rebecca Bowers, MA, LMFT
Individual and Family Therapist
Lakes Center for Youth and Families