Exactly where do our self images come from?
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By Steven Campbell  May 2, 2014 12:00 am

We have learned “we behave and act not according to the truth, but the truth as we believe it to be,” and that this truth is wrapped up in our thousands of self-images. These self-images determine how we see ourselves, and they are in turn based on what we tell ourselves about ourselves.

This is equivalent to the Norbert Weiner’s “Garbage-In, Garbage-Out” principle. When we accept statements about ourselves, whether they are true or not, the brain accepts them as absolutely true whether they are or not.


Exactly where do our 

self-images come from?

Are some of us born feeling naturally great about ourselves, and others not so great, depending upon our family, our culture, our wealth or poverty? Well…we know such traits as your physical appearance and your temperament were acquired from your genes. But everything else is learned, including your self-images. You were not born feeling great about yourself…or badly about yourself. That was all learned.

Let’s remember, we do not have one self-image but thousands. How I see myself as an athlete, as a teacher, as a husband, as a cook, as a skier are all self-images and all of them have been learned. Let’s learn how.

I was raised with sisters – two older and one younger – and it is commonly known girls mature more rapidly than boys. My sisters were no exception, and they seemed to excel at everything, and all of them got A’s in all their classes.

I, however, did not. My mind was not much on school and was easily distracted by the imaginary worlds I would often create while I sat at my desk. As a result, subjects like math held no interest to me. In fact, I don’t think I passed math once in elementary school.

Our family was right out of the 50s, scripted out of the television program “Father Knows Best.” Dinner was promptly served at 5:30 p.m., grace was said, and everyone would discuss his or her day. While we listened and talked, I was busy making magnificent castles with my mashed potatoes and hiding the brussel sprouts in my pocket to be discarded later.

At the end of dinner, my father would slowly push himself away from the table, look at me rather somberly, rise to his full 6-foot height, and say in his deepest, most melodious voice, “All right, Steven, let’s go do your math.”

Now what was really happening here? The research has discovered that 85-90 percent of what we communicate is not through what is said, but how it is said…through our body language and tone. So my self-talk was incorrectly interpreting those signals as saying, “My father believes that I cannot understand math.”

So, as soon as my father began his tutoring, my brain would go blank. Why? Because my self-talk was telling me that if I could not do math, why even try? After all, my father was the grownup, the authority and the father who thought (although he never did) his son would never understand math. My self-talk therefore told me the same thing.

The frustration that my teachers exhibited only added to this, along with the F’s I got on my math tests.

In addition, I myself then added to my own self-talk (we all do this) by saying that I must not be very smart. “If I can’t understand math, I won’t be able to understand anything else.” And what did my brain do? It agreed. “OK, if you say so! You’re not very smart and you certainly cannot understand math.” 

This self-image lasted for the next 35 years.

And then…when I was 42…I found myself teaching at a college, and when their math teacher left, they asked me to teach a math class. Believe it or not, over the years, math became my favorite subject. Why? Because as soon as a new college student heard university math was in his curriculum, he looked like a deer caught in a headlight. 

His fear was almost palpable. And I knew exactly what he was feeling, as I had felt the same myself.

As a result, I became obsessed with understanding how the brain worked and learns, and began developing ways of teaching math that were unthreatening, fun and actually worked. And my students began loving and learning math, which became their favorite subject, from me – the one who “was never very smart.” I ended up writing two college textbooks on computer software and, you guessed it, math.

Now what happened? Did I suddenly become smart in math when I reached my mid 40s? Obviously not! I had always been smart. But when I said for all those years, “I can’t do math,” my brain was recording this, whether it was true or not or good for me or not. No questions asked. This corresponds to the fact our brain is a literal mechanism and accepts what you tell it without argument.

Everything you say to yourself about yourself, whether it is positive or negative, whether it is true or untrue, is accepted by your self-image as absolutely true. It simply records what you tell it. It was for this reason that I had trouble with math, not because I was unintelligent, but because my self-talk told me that I simply could not understand it. My brain accepted what it was told, and it became a part of one of my self-images.

What is the application? Be careful what you say to yourself, for your brain not only believes it, it acts on it.


Steven Campbell is the author of "Making Your Mind Magnificent" and conducts "The Winners Circle" every two months at Sonoma Mountain Village in RP. He can be contacted at 480-5007 or steve@anintelligentheart.com. For more information, go to www.anintelligentheart.com.

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