How do you see yourself in your mind’s eye? Do you think of yourself as kind and likeable, or generous and caring? Are you pretty, fat, thin, sporty or curvy? Do you like yourself? Are you easy to love? All these factors, and many more, are part of your self-image.
This mental picture that we form of ourselves is moulded by our experience, starting in childhood with our parents. If our caregivers are kind and respond to our needs in a caring manner then we start to think of ourselves as being worthy of love. If they praise us when we do well in a test we conclude that we are intelligent. When they smile at us we come to believe that we are pretty.
In childhood we know nothing about the world so we accept our parents’ evaluation of us and make it our own.
What is our self-image?
Our self-image is the way we see and think about ourselves. It includes our physical appearance, our mental and emotional state, our personal history, and our relationship to the world around us. Our self-image is constantly changing as we experience new things and grow older.
How does our self-image affect our lives?
Our self-image can have a big impact on our lives. The way we see ourselves can affect our mood, our behaviour, and our overall outlook on life. If we have a positive self-image, we are more likely to be happy and successful in life. On the other hand, if we have a negative self-image, we may be more likely to experience anxiety, depression, and other problems.
Damage to Self-Image in Childhood
Unfortunately, as we well know, not all parents are able, or willing, to provide the validation that their child requires in order to build a healthy and positive sense of self. The following are some examples of situations where a parent’s behaviour can damage their child’s self-image.
Alex and Claire love both of their children. Their elder daughter has a sweet nature but their second child is very difficult. Claire is exhausted trying to keep up with her extremely naughty and hyperactive son. This does not leave her much time for her daughter, who spends lots of time alone and feels bad when her mum has to do something for her.
“I must be as quiet as possible and never ask for anything because mummy is too tired,” she thinks to herself. She grows up thinking of herself as a burden on others and struggles to ask for help when she needs it.
Becky’s mum is an alcoholic. The two of them live with her old grandmother. Becky grows up thinking that her job is to keep the family’s secrets and care for both her grandmother and mother, who she believes would not cope without her. She feels guilty when her mother gets drunk because she thinks she should have done something about it.
Becky grows up believing that she is only of value when she cares for others.
Ben is a narcissist and he makes his family’s life hell. He is particularly harsh on his son, the family scapegoat, teasing him mercilessly about his ears, saying that they are bigger than Dumbo’s. He also tells him that he is stupid and a big disappointment.
The three children in the examples above all form the foundation of their self-image based on their parent’s behaviour and feedback. This perception of themselves will impact their friendships and future intimate relationships. It will also be their baseline when it comes to understanding the world around them.
Damage to Self-Image in Adulthood
Narcissistic psychological abuse does not only damage children. It also devastates the self-image of adults who have the misfortune of ending up in a relationship of any sort with someone with this personality disorder.
Let us consider Annabelle’s story. She grew up in a happy family, loved and cossetted by doting parents. A pretty and vivacious brunette, she had lots of friends and a bright future ahead of her. All this changes, however, when she meets David, who sweeps her off her feet. Before she knows it she is married and pregnant with her first child.
During pregnancy Annabelle puts on a few kilos. David comments about it constantly, telling her that he hopes she will go on a diet immediately after giving birth. When their child is born she struggles to lose the weight. Her husband tells her he is no longer attracted to her because she let herself go and refuses to have sex with her. He also constantly criticises everything she does, from taking care of the baby, to the meals she cooks or the state of the house.
After several years of constant psychological abuse Annabelle’s original self-image is shattered and she rebuilds it in the shape dictated by her narcissistic husband.
The Tragedy of a Distorted Self-Image
The ultimate tragedy is that people who have endured this type of abuse filter everything that happens around them through this damaged self-image. This means that even when someone is nice to them, their mind will interpret it negatively, reinforcing the existing image they have of themselves.
The following two scenarios illustrate how it works.
Peter is Ben’s son. He is gifted at maths and scores highly on an important test. His teacher praises him and says that he should consider becoming an engineer. Peter does not answer. He knows that he is stupid so clearly there must have been something wrong with the test. There was no way that he could possibly have got that grade.
Annabelle goes to a Christmas party. She meets an old friend who exclaims that she looks great and that nobody would have known she had just had a baby. Unfortunately, Annabelle has been totally brainwashed by her husband, so she thinks that her friend is mocking her. She goes to the bathroom and cries, thinking that she has become so ugly that even her friends are making fun of her.
Ben and David are narcissistic predators who have indoctrinated their victims to adopt their vicious depiction of them and make it their own. This has resulted in Peter and Annabelle abusing themselves by proxy, torturing themselves over and over again.
How can we improve our self-image?
There are many things you can do to improve your self-image. Here are a few suggestions:
Challenge negative thoughts about yourself. When you catch yourself thinking something negative about yourself, stop and question it. Is it really true? Are you being too hard on yourself?
Focus on your positive qualities. Make a list of all the things you like about yourself, both inside and out. Whenever you’re feeling down about yourself, refer to this list and remind yourself of all the great things about you.
Accept your imperfections. We all have flaws and nobody is perfect. Accepting your imperfections can be a liberating experience and help you to focus on the things that really matter in life.
Treat yourself with kindness and respect. Speak to yourself in a positive, encouraging way. Be gentle with yourself when you make mistakes and learn from them instead of beating yourself up.
Focus on your personal growth. Rather than dwelling on your flaws, focus on the progress you’re making and the person you’re becoming. Every day is a new opportunity to grow and improve, so make the most of it!
Improving your self-image takes time and effort, but it’s worth it. When you have a positive view of yourself, it can lead to a happier and more fulfilling life.
Conclusion – All is not lost
When I was a child I went through an experience very similar to Ben’s. However I was lucky and I met some people who did not give up on me. It took many years for me to see myself through their eyes, but slowly it happened. I went to therapy and bit by bit I rebuilt myself. Nowadays I still hear the echoes of my father’s jeers but I no longer pay any notice.
He is dead and buried.
For Further Reading:
Check out the following posts if you are interested in understanding the impact of narcissistic abuse on victims –
- Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs)
- Alienation (after trauma)
- Codependent or codependency
- Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (CPTSD or C-PTSD)
- Learned Helplessness
- Linen Cupboard Metaphor
- Narcissistic FOG
- Negative Self-Talk
- Parental Alienation
- PTSD – Post-traumatic stress disorder
- Trauma Bond
- Trauma Trigger
- Can You Get PTSD From Narcissistic Abuse? The Toxic Impact of the Narcissist
- What Happens after a Narcissist Maliciously Destroys Our Self-Image?
- The Devastating Impact of Childhood Trauma on Substance Abuse in Adulthood
- Shame – the legacy of a toxic childhood
- The devastating impact of emotional abuse – how to recognise the signs
- The Long-Term Effects of Narcissistic Abuse – How Narcissists Damage Their Victims
- Narcissistic Abuse: The Signs and Why It’s So Damaging
- The Narcissistic Abuse Cycle: How to Recognize It and Break Free
- Narcissist Manipulation Tactics: How to Safeguard Yourself from Emotional Abuse
- Understanding the Cycle of Emotional Abuse – The Red Flags of a Toxic Relationship
- Overcoming Narcissistic Abuse: Inspiring Quotes from Survivors
- The 10 Stages of Healing After Narcissistic Abuse
- 7 Types of Narcissistic Abuse with Practical Examples
- What is Narcissistic Abuse Syndrome and how can I get better?
- 13 Warning Signs of Narcissistic Abuse: How to Deal with It and Get Help
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