The Chicken or the Egg? Which comes first?
Self-concept (or self-schema) is far more important than given credit for. It is often believed that what we accomplish determines how we feel about ourselves, but it is quite possible the opposite is true.
Clinical Study Findings:
In an 8-week clinical intervention study with 29 cocaine and opioid-dependent clients, Avants, Beitel, and Margolin (2005) found a correlation between a shift in self-schema and drug use and other HIV risk behaviors. The self-schema (the specific beliefs about the self) of addicted individuals was found to be extremely negative, consisting of words such as "selfish, aggressive, evil, impulsive, irresponsible, manipulative and unmerciful". When activated, one's self-schema triggers an automatized repertoire of behaviors, actions, plans, and scripts.
As addicted individuals are more likely to view themselves as "bad" people, the addict self-schema (the way the individual views themselves in light of their addiction) maintains addiction behavior. Assisting addicted individuals in substituting a negative self-schema for a positive self schema provides the foundation for meaningful change and is correlated with change in drug use and HIV risk behaviors.
Real Life Application:
If you have resolutions pining on your doorstep or patterns and behaviors you wish you could alter but have been unable to do so, consider the relationship between your perception of the goal and your self-concept. What words do you use to describe yourself in relation to the as-of-yet not accomplished the goal?
Viewing yourself negatively for not yet achieving the goal maintains the likelihood that you will continue the current pattern. It's not enough to attempt to send the negative self-schema to oblivion; its void must be filled with something, or the negative self-schema will re-emerge. Exchange the negative self-schema for a postive self-schema. To do this:
- Become aware of your self-talk. Example of negative self talk: "If I take on ___ goal, I may fail, and it says something negative about me that I haven't accomplished it / I may fail."
- Practice positive self-talk with yourself and rephrase. Positive self-talk isn't largess; it's acknowledging your humanness. Break your goal into smaller steps if necessary. Positive self talk: "I'd like to reach this goal, and I recognize that any challenge to do so doesn't reflect negatively on me. Instead, it reflects positively that I am undertaking it, and little by little, step after step, I will get there".
- Act towards your objective.
- Reward yourself upon reaching your objective through positive self-affirmation. Part of developing a positive self-schema acknowledges that reaching a goal is not a "should", but something worthy of feeling good about.
Avants, S. Kelly, Beitel, M., and Margolin, A. (2005). Making the shift from 'addict self' to 'spiritual self':Results from a Stage I study of Spiritual Self-Schema (3-S) therapy for the treatment of addiction and HIV risk behavior. Mental Health, Religion & Culture, 8(3), 167-177.
Text and Real Life Application authored by Sara Washburn, Picture by Sara Washburn