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by James Waldroop Ph.D.
and Timothy Butler Ph.D.

Directors of MBA Career Development at the Harvard Business School. Twenty years relevant experience. Business Psychologists, Psychotherapists, Executive Coaches to many Fortune 500 companies, helping individuals work to their highest level of potential.


Coming to Terms with Your Self

Your 4th Essential Career Development Step



Our Two Mirrors. We all see ourselves in two mirrors: external and internal. Our external mirror, which is formed by all the people around us, provides a reasonably accurate picture of  ourselves over a long period. But our internal mirror - our self-image - can be wildly inaccurate over long periods of time.

If our self-image is 'better' i.e. more positive than our external mirror's image we adjust our overly positive self-image downward to where it is more accurate. Because it's hard to hold on to the idea that you're the fastest runner when you keep coming in last.

But if our self-image is 'worse' i.e. more negative than our external mirror's image some of us dismiss the positive image from the external mirror and hold on to the distorted negative self-image. This negative difference between what we are and what we think we are, between what we are and what we do, is negative self-image.

Negative self-image involves your sense of who you are as a person. When you feel that you are inadequate you experience shame. Distinguish between guilt and shame. Guilt is what you feel about something that you've done, shame is what you feel about what you are - about your self. This shame is the fourth core cause of failure behavior.


We call this psytech tool 'The Ego-Maker.'

You must make yourself shame-hardy. To do this first know the causes and realize the consequences of negative self-image.

CAUSES OF NEGATIVE SELF-IMAGE: Waldroop and Butler give us eight origins of self-perceived inadequacy. Of these the first five were originally described by Erik Erikson, 1902-1994, psychiatrist and author of 'Childhood and Society' in which he explained that each individual grows through eight developmental challenges. Failure to successfully resolve any challenge distorts self-image.

  1. Erikson's First Challenge: Year 1.
    To trust - or to mistrust - other people
    Productive. You develop basic trust.
    Dysfunctional. You develop basic mistrust.
  2. Erikson's Second Challenge: Years 2 and 3.
    Exploring the world
    Productive. You develop autonomy and confidence.
    Dysfunctional. You develop self-doubt and feelings of shame.
  3. Erikson's Third Challenge: Years 4 and 5.
    Taking initiative, expressing feelings and fantasies
    Productive. You learn to control your behaviors while still showing initiative.
    Dysfunctional. You learn to feel guilty about your feelings, your fantasies, your impulses seeing them as bad, deserving of punishment, and needing to be  withheld, restricted and hidden from view.
  4. Erikson's Fourth Challenge: Years 6 to adolescence.
    Self-confidence or inferiority?
    Productive. You become competent, confident in your ability to master new subjects, to fit into environments outside the home, to learn and heed the rules of an organization.
    Dysfunctional. You develop a sense of general inferiority vis-ą-vis your peers. This can cause these failure behaviors: 'You Say You Coulda-Been' and 'The Talented Acrophobe.'
  5. Erikson's Fifth Challenge: Years: Adolescence.
    The identity challenge. Your own identity or your group's identity?
    Productive. You gradually separate both from your family and from the group. You have a firm sense of self.
    Dysfunctional. You develop role confusion. You need your peers' approval, even of your own career choice. Your identity is diffused.
  6. Depression:
    Yours is a world into which the sun does not shine. You live in an unseen weeping grayness of despair.
    Your depression may have genetic or biochemical origins but it can be successfully treated, either by medication or by psychotherapy. Get help.
    Self-perceived inadequacy is one aspect of depression.
  7. Envy:
    In today's modern society we travel extensively and we watch a lot of TV. We see standards of living that are far beyond our means. This forces you to compare yourself and your life directly with the unrealistic benchmarks you've seen. If you are at risk you may develop the 'I want it' syndrome. If your self-image is vulnerable to comparison with others this will distort it further.
  8. Impatience:
    The faster pace of life in modern society enables the fortunate not only to have more but to have it earlier in life. If you are impatient you may in addition develop the 'I want it - now' syndrome. If your self-image is also vulnerable to such time-based comparison with others more fortunate than you this will distort it even further.

These eight causes of self-perceived inadequacy are powerful - yet subtle, insidious and difficult to identify and to combat. They can have an enormous impact on us.

CONSEQUENCES OF NEGATIVE SELF-IMAGE: Self-perceived inadequacy impacts the individual and the organization.

Individual Impact: Negative self-image can contribute to any of the twelve failure behavior patterns that keep you from getting ahead. In particular it is a:

  1. Dominant Factor in the Acrophobe and the Coulda-Been
  2. Partial Factor in the Rebel and the Pessimist/Worrier
  3. Occasional Factor in the Peacekeeper.

In addition if you're always on guard in case you do something that may expose your self-perceived inadequacy you have less time, energy, and enthusiasm for doing what you need to do to get ahead. You lack cojones. Your result is far less success.

Organizational Impact: The effects of negative self-image can also spread within an organization:

  1. Loss of Initiative: By constantly discouraging risk-taking the individual who fears exposing a flaw of which s/he is ashamed can project that behavior and it spreads from that individual to fellow workers.
  2. Group Cynicism: Such an individual may shift the blame for his/her negative self-image to the organization stating that the company does not care about our new ideas. That can trigger the difficult disease of group cynicism which destroys morale.

Solution to the Problem of Negative Self-Image: To heal your self-perceived inadequacy you must develop a tolerance for shame. This process of healing your negative self-images is a process of acceptance. You must learn to accept your own shortcomings, your own history, your poor judgments and your painful errors.

Waldroop and Butler give you the means to do this. For these exercises they suggest that you imagine yourself as two people: you - the client with the self-perceived inadequacy, and you - the your executive coach carrying out the analysis. Four 'flaws' contribute to your self-perceived inadequacy - your negative self-image:

It is the fact that you consider these elements of who you are to be flaws - not because they really are flaws or not, or because other people consider them to be flaws - that is crucial. It is your own thinking that makes them relevant.

  1. 'Flaw' #1: What Do You Hide? What don't you do because you don't want other people to see? Think back. Last year. Past five years. Before that. Remember when you felt ashamed and embarrassed. What caused your shame?
  2. 'Flaw' #2: What Do You Avoid? Out of fear of looking foolish. Think back. Last year. Past five years. Before that. What do you not do because you might be embarrassed?
  3. 'Flaw' #3: What Do You Delay? When do you procrastinate? Thinking if you never do it, you'll never be judged. Putting off the 'evil day'. Until the deadline routs your reluctance.
  4. 'Flaw' #4: When Do You Feel Depressed Without Knowing Why? What is it in your work, in your career that caused your depressive episodes?

Work through these exercises slowly and gradually. Do your analysis in stages. One 'flaw' at a time. And then not for long. And by yourself. Your objective is to identify the cause of your shame. And to experience your shame - again. Your shame is what causes you to hide, avoid, delay, to feel depressed without knowing why. Your shame is your enemy. Feel it. Understand it. Conquer it. Become shame-hardy.


The ability to see honestly and to feel fully, and then to accept and forgive yourself, is a central challenge of mature adulthood. Your goal is not to be a person who is invincibly self-confident, but rather to be able to act effectively and find satisfaction despite inevitable disappointments and failures, in others and in yourself.

When you can bring any disabling elements of your self-image into full consciousness, understand them, and in so doing diminish the corrosive effect they have on your ability to develop ambition, to be effective and to enjoy your accomplishments you become a higher performance person.

OVERTAKE® says: Your thought patterns influence how you feel about, and how you react to life. Thinking influences feelings and behaviors most of the time. Unfounded bad feelings, anxious feelings and inappropriate actions are often a result of distorted thinking. Conversely, positive and appropriate feelings and behaviors are the result of rational and functional thinking.
These ideas are not completely new. Epictitus (c. 50-120) stated that "people are disturbed not so much by events as by the views which they take of them." Shakespeare in Hamlet said: "Things are neither good nor bad, but thinking makes them so."
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), a method of psychotherapy developed by Dr. Aaron Beck at the University of Pennsylvania in the late 1970's, is a relatively simple, straight forward, step-by-step method of identifying and altering the thought patterns which influence how you feel about, and how you react to life. CBT sorts out distorted thinking.

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