Self-image is a problem shared by millions of people every day. Take women, for example. They are bombarded by relentless messages that they are too fat (or too thin); too plain; with inadequately full, shiny hair; or with un-perky, non-voluptuous breasts. (Men face messages too about their lack of muscles, excess paunch, thinning hair, or short stature – but nothing like the volume (in both senses) that women receive.)
Self-image is also a big problem for people – both women and men – who live with mental illness. It’s not always physical self-image. Sometimes we get messages about how we should think and feel from all the ads on TV and in magazines and on the internet that feature happy people interacting joyfully with their friends and families. The subliminal message is that if your life isn’t like that, the advertisers’ products will make it so that it is.
Of course, nowadays there are also ads that feature depressed or bipolar people, but they end the same way. Get online help or psychotropic meds and you’ll turn into one of those happy, joyful people living life to the fullest. For many of us, that’s not the way it is. There are treatment-resistant disorders, for example, and complex problems like OCD, PTSD, and schizophrenia that aren’t mentioned at all. (PTSD is sometimes addressed in the context of veterans helping one another, which is good, but the ads for this usually offer moral and financial support, rather than a more trauma-conscious solution.)
I’ve been through my own battles with self-image, and not all of them related to things I saw in the mirror. When I was a child, I endured bullying that made me feel unworthy and unable to fit in. As a teen, I saw myself as plain and unlovable. I even doubted my parents’ abundant love, thinking they loved me only because, as I was their daughter, they had to. Later, my self-image consisted of being a depressed person. That’s who I was and all I could see of myself.
When I was working, I saw myself as an imposter. I had a “respectable business lady disguise” that I could put on when desperately needed, but I knew it wasn’t accurate. Then, when I lost my job, I saw myself as a failure.
Still later, after my most severe breakdown, I defined myself as my husband’s “sick, crazy, crippled wife.” I know those are terms we’re not supposed to use, but that’s what my brain was telling me. (The “crippled” part was because I had mobility issues that necessitated two operations on my back, and thereafter used a cane.) I used it as an excuse not to go places, see people, or do things. Actually, my husband used it as an excuse too, though he didn’t phrase it that way. (Now he doesn’t.)
In short, my self-image was someone who was broken – and not “in the best way possible,” as Jenny Lawson says.
Years of therapy and medication have largely gotten me to the point where my negative self-images are no longer constantly haunting me. They still rear their ugly heads on occasion, but now they aren’t all-pervasive. My husband helps too. He says, based on photos, that I was cute when I was in high school and he would have dated me. (I still have my doubts about that.)
What I’m getting at is that a person’s self-image can and does change over time. I think I am more accurate now in thinking I am no longer cute, except maybe when I smile; still mobility-challenged but not so self-conscious about it; and, I would have to say, a “recovering” bipolar person.
We’re getting to the point where we don’t all or always think that what we see in the mirror reflects our worth or our true self. We’re learning not to believe our own or others’ negative messages about our appearance – though there is certainly still a long way to go.
What I’m not sure of is that we’re making much headway on redefining our self-images regarding our mental health or lack thereof. Despite all the positive affirmations we see and hear in so many memes and elsewhere, do they really sink in and change our thinking? Or is the only way to do that bound up in time, treatment, and the support of our family and friends? I’m just glad that it is possible to change, whatever the mechanism. My life is much more settled and happier now that I no longer see or define myself as I once did. That’s something I want to hang on to.