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Why You Might Not Be Who You Think You Are

What we think about ourselves might not be a full or accurate picture.

Key points

  • Our self-perceptions and self-schemas might not provide a full or accurate picture of who we are.
  • Adverse experiences, such as trauma, can impact how we view ourselves.
  • Research suggests that how we see ourselves matters, so it's worth challenging harmful self-perceptions and negative self-talk.
Ahmet Misirligul/Shutterstock
Source: Ahmet Misirligul/Shutterstock

When you ask Nadia what she thinks about herself, there are some positive personality traits that she will share with you, but along with these, she may also share, “I’m lazy.” Growing up, Nadia was a free-spirited child who preferred to focus on what she was passionate about at the moment over her responsibilities in life. At times, this meant not turning in school assignments, forgetting to do chores or tasks asked by her caregivers, and missing work deadlines. As others interacted with Nadia, they interpreted her behaviors as a tendency to be lazy and often criticized her for it. After years of hearing that she was “lazy,” Nadia believed it.

As we go through life, like Nadia, we come to believe things about ourselves, whether or not they are true. How we perceive ourselves and who we perceive ourselves to be often is formed through years of experiences and receiving messages about who we are from others. These perceptions often develop without our awareness, despite the immense impact they can have on us.

As we navigate life, our brains form schemas that help us organize information and make sense of ourselves and the world around us quickly (Ettinger, 2018). This includes self-schemas, or cognitive generalizations and beliefs about ourselves that impact how we think, feel, and behave (Markus, 1977; Markus & Wurf, 1987; Myers, 2014). Some examples of self-schemas might be "I’m outgoing,” “I’m shy,” “I’m intelligent,” “I’m overweight,” “I’m athletic,” “I’m unsuccessful,” or even perhaps, “I’m lazy.”

A Limited or Distorted Picture

Although schemas can be useful in understanding our world, unfortunately, they may be incomplete and, at times, distorted (Ettinger, 2018). This is also true of self-perceptions in that they might be limiting and not give us the full picture of who we are. In fact, self-schemas may paint a picture of us that is inaccurate or even harmful.

For example, in Nadia’s life, through her experiences and the messages received by others, she came to believe that her challenges in fulfilling her responsibilities were a consequence of her “lazy” personality. This fostered a negative view of self that led to feelings of worthlessness and hopelessness. When Nadia began working for a nonprofit organization that did work that she was passionate about, everything changed. Nadia found that deadlines and work tasks weren’t a challenge for her any longer. For Nadia, this experience began to challenge her former beliefs about herself. You see, Nadia had lived her life believing that she was lazy, not realizing that perhaps there was more to the picture than she and others believed.

As we experience adverse, painful, or traumatic experiences in life, it is not uncommon for negative perceptions and a negative sense of self to develop. In fact, in response to adverse experiences like trauma, negative self-talk, and low self-esteem can develop (Octavia et al., 2019; Slaninova et al., 2015). This can lead to several emotional, psychological, and relational consequences in an individual's life.

As a trauma therapist, I have seen firsthand how trauma can lead to a distorted picture of self in individuals who are immensely courageous, strong, perseverant, and resilient. Often, we are more than our self-schemas allow us to believe, particularly if they have been formed through adverse or traumatic experiences.

Seeing the Bigger Picture of Us

As described by Leary and Tangney (2012), our ideas about who we are and who we will become can have an important influence on our self-worth. Put concisely, the way we see ourselves matters. Yet, we might not be who we think we are. Exploring what we think about ourselves, why we believe these things, and how we want to view ourselves are meaningful endeavors. Some things we can do to support ourselves in our journey of self-exploration might include:

  • Taking a stance of curiosity: Give yourself permission to be curious about who you might think you are, what experiences or factors informed these beliefs, what you might be missing about yourself, and who you want to become.
  • Challenging negative self-beliefs and self-talk: As we recognize negative self-beliefs, it can be helpful to challenge them and take a strength-based approach. For example, instead of thinking, “I’m such a failure; I always make mistakes,” someone might alternatively say, “Everyone makes mistakes. Making mistakes doesn’t make me a failure.”
  • Questioning the accuracy of our own self-perceptions: When we consider what we think about ourselves, sometimes it can be helpful to ask the question, “Just how true is this belief?” Remember that who you think you are might be an incomplete picture, especially if that picture has been defined by adverse experiences or harmful messages given by others.
  • Allowing ourselves to be beautifully complex: We are more than our strengths, growth areas, successes, and mistakes. Giving ourselves permission to allow our strengths, successes, and challenges to coexist can be freeing and empowering.
  • Meeting ourselves right where we are: It can be helpful to meet ourselves right where we are with self-compassion and self-acceptance (for more on this, see "Meeting Yourself Right Where You Are").
  • Seeking support: We don’t have to do it alone. There are therapists who can support us on our journeys of self-exploration, growth, and recovery.

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APA dictionary of psychology. (n.d.). American Psychological Association.

Ettinger, R. H. (2018). Psychology: The science of behavior (6th ed.).Redding, CA: BVT Publishing.

Leary, M. R., & Tangney, J. P. (2012). Handbook of self and identity (2nd ed.). New York: Guilford Press.

Markus, H. (1977). Self-schemata and processing information about the self. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 35(2), 63–78.

Markus, H., & Wurf, E. (1987). The dynamic self-concept: A social psychological perspective. Annual Review of Psychology, 38, 299-337.

Myers, D. (2014). Social psychology (11th ed.).New York, NY: McGraw Hill.

Octavia, Shierlen & Jaya, Edo & Asih, Sali. (2019). Does negative-self-schema link the relationship between childhood trauma and psychotic symptoms in a community sample of Indonesians?. Konselor. 8. 10.24036/0201983105885-0-00.

Slaninova, Gabriela, & Stainerova, Martina. (2015). Trauma as a Component of the Self-concept of Undergraduates. Procedia, Social and Behavioral Sciences, 171, 465–471.

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