6 Ways to Build a Healthy Self-Image

woman looking in mirror and not judging

From filtered social media posts to that not-so-nice voice in your head, it can be hard to maintain a positive self-image.

“Our culture promotes wanting-ness. It’s not enough to be who we are. We constantly receive the message that we can always do or buy something to make us or our lives better,” says Scott Bea, PsyD. “But you have to value self-acceptance to be self-accepting. You need to practice self-compassion to accept your basic humanness. You can be flawed, but it doesn’t mean you’re a bad person.”

In this Q&A, Dr. Bea shares six ways to build a healthy self-image and the benefits of having a positive view of yourself.

Q. What is self-image?

A. Self-image represents how we view ourselves and our attributes, capacities, challenges and potential.

Whether people have a more positive or negative view of themselves depends on many things, including our personality and input we receive when we’re young. Our brains also have a negative bias. We tend to be more aware of what is wrong. For example, people can easily list what’s wrong about them. And that list tends to be longer than what’s right.

Q. What is a healthy self-image?

A. It’s a complicated question. But in general, it’s about self-acceptance. You can have areas you want to work on, but you should have a basic, solid set of values and ethical core and accept your humanness. You want to notice and play to your attributes.

For example, I’m a psychologist. But beyond that, I don’t know much about anything. What I know is rather insignificant compared to what I don’t know. And there are many things I’m terrible at. But that doesn’t mean I have to have a negative self-image. Focus on valuing the part of you that is skillful, valuable and consistent with what you value.

Q. What are the benefits of having a positive self-image?

A. There are many benefits, including:

  • More openness to experience: If we have a sturdy self-view, we can try new things. And if something doesn’t go our way, it doesn’t destroy us. Self-acceptance prevents you from being unduly injured by a negative new experience. It also allows you to grow and makes you more resilient in the face of life’s stressors.
  • Better social relationships: If you have a positive self-image, you have a sense that you have something to give. This helps you bring more to the table in your relationships, which makes them stronger. Just show up to give your gift, and it’s hard to mess it up.

Q. How can you get a positive self-image?

A. To build a healthy self-image, I recommend:

1. Remember what it was like to be a kid

When we were young, we didn’t know anything was wrong with us. Then other people and things, such as parents, teachers, clerics, peers or social media, made us feel like there was something wrong with us. For example, when you compliment a child on their cute outfit or how smart they are, their response is often “I know.” But if you told that same kid, “Shame on you,” they wouldn’t grasp what that meant.

Go back to those times when you were a kid. While you might have been taking your play seriously, you weren’t too undone by the consequences. You were more willing to try new things, run experiments and laugh at yourself. Cultivate that playfulness, and don’t take yourself too seriously. Express humor. Notice what’s funny and comment on it.

Self-image is subjective. There are no absolutes to it, and it is moldable. It’s not fixed across your lifespan. So take the chance to alter it, no matter your age or stage in life.

2. Experience and express gratitude

Gratitude journaling and activities like that can be beneficial. Try to notice what you’re grateful for and what role you play in those things. You’ll start to see your effectiveness in the world and in the lives of others. These actions contribute to a positive self-view.

3. Praise others liberally

Did you notice something good in another person? Praise it. People who are secure in themselves can easily celebrate the wellness, success and positive experience of others.

Praising others can build your sense of self-sturdiness, so do it at alarmingly high rates.

Praise anything you see. Watch how it transforms people and then how that makes you feel. You’re giving your gift through praise. And a willingness to give our gifts contributes to a healthier self-image. It feels good to give a gift.

4. Have a plan for self-growth and enact it with determination

If we don’t make a dedicated effort to grow, it may happen anyway. But if we’re dedicated, the growth will happen a lot faster and in a way that is more powerful and robust.

For instance, I’ve had patients who started meditation courses. Even if they had meditated on occasion before, now they were purposefully incorporating it into everyday life. It’s a tremendous growth experience.

Anything that is systematic and requires some dedication to personal growth can help your self-image. Maybe you want to learn a new musical instrument or plant a garden. Perhaps you want to make a consistent effort to reach out to people you haven’t talked to in a while. Create a plan, commit to it, schedule it and act on it.

5. Take social media breaks

Take breaks — even longstanding ones — from social media. One thing that’s injuring people these days is social comparisons from online images. Learning to eliminate our judging, evaluative mind helps with a good self-image.

Some of my patients decide to take a complete break from social media because it fuels insecurity and envy. They often see the payoffs immediately. On social media, people tend to portray themselves in their most favorable states and not their unfavorable ones. So it can make us feel diminished in our humanness if we’re looking at it too much.

Keep in mind that you have to go through some discomfort whenever you change something. So be prepared for some FOMO (fear of missing out) when you get off social media.

6. Notice your sensitivities

While everybody experiences unkind, unpleasant or negatively judging words, some people are more sensitive to them than others. Some have also had more difficult experiences, such as childhood trauma or abandonment, which create a greater mountain to climb. Still others have an advantage from their DNA or upbringing, so they don’t quite face the same challenges. It’s not an even playing field.

First, notice how you think about and describe yourself. If you use mostly negative words, that hints that you have your work cut out. But does that mean you have to become a remarkably better human being, or do you need to regard yourself differently? It might be the latter.

How we think about ourselves may be a habit from childhood. Shaking that off and growing something different requires consistent effort across time. That’s how it is when we’re trying to change our brains. Try to make a determined effort and not be afraid of that.

Q: Why is self-acceptance so important?

A. To understand self-acceptance, look no further than “The Wizard of Oz.” Dorothy is not happy with the life she’s leading in dull black-and-white Kansas. She’s dreaming of something greater. So she goes on this journey, collects three fellows who have a similar notion of missing something and needing more. And, of course, it almost kills them trying to get it.

At the end of the movie, she says, “If I ever go looking for myself again, I won’t go looking any further than my own backyard.” It’s a return to the person she had always been — a journey of self-acceptance. She is restored to black-and-white Kansas with a renewed appreciation for it. There is a lot of wisdom in that: If we could come back to the person that we’ve always been with a new appreciation, then the better we function, the more effective we feel and the sturdier our self-image is.