3 Ways Your Self-Image May Be Holding You Back

Photo by Joao Silas on  Unsplash

Photo by Joao Silas on Unsplash

In 10 years, what kind of person will you be, what will you be doing, and what will you have?

I may seem counterintuitive, but the answer to that question is not somewhere “out there,” that is, you can’t look to evidence out in the world to tell you how things are going to be. Rather the answer to this question largely depends on who you envision yourself becoming, doing, and having, based primarily on what you believe you are capable of achieving. First, we tell ourselves the “story” of what we can and can’t do, then we look for clues outside of ourselves to confirm our assumptions, and finally, we set out to ensure our self-fulfilling prophecy comes true. Whether you lead an organization of thousands or you are simply focused on your own personal priorities, how you see yourself and those who depend on you for leadership has everything to do with how things will turn out.

I know this from experience. I know this not just from the successes I have had because I could see myself achieving them before I even knew how, but also from the failures I have experienced simply because I didn’t believe I could make it. I am clear that nothing great in my life came about without first envisioning it as a possibility in my mind, and then creating it in the physical realm as I set out to make it happen. By contrast, I am also painfully clear that most, if not all, of my failures in life came about as a result of the limitations I had place on myself by ruling out goals that I thought were too audacious for me to achieve or even deserve.

I have learned that most of our automatic, default mode thinking leads us to envision on an unfavorable future. and in many cases the worst case scenario. We do this because we want to prepare for and avoid this unfavorable future, and in most cases this way of thinking does help us to do just that. However, there is a big difference between avoiding the worst case scenario, and bringing about the best case scenario, and our default mode of thinking alone can never ensure the latter. In contrast to the default mode, however, we all have the ability to shift into “intentional mode,” where we can decide what we do want our future to look like, plan for how to get there, and work backwards to make it happen. Instead of merely reacting and avoiding the worst, we can be proactive and focusing on pursuing what we deem to be best. As a result, I know that when I’m intentional about imagining and dwelling on a brighter future, I end up seeing it in my mind’s eye and immediately begin to pick up on all kinds of ideas and resources that will help me achieve it in no time.

Now, I appreciate you hanging in there with me so far as I pointed out the obvious! But let me point out something a little less obvious, if behavior is anything to go by. While everyone “knows” believing in yourself is a key to success, the fact is that “just knowing” this stuff won’t make a difference unless you take action on it. “Knowing and not doing is not knowing,” as the saying goes. So, how do you get in action in the direction of revisiting your vision of what the future holds for you and those you care about or lead? One of the best ways to do this is to examine your assumptions about who you are and how you define yourself, and the way your assumptions about your identity affect your assumptions about your capability. This is important because we tend to base our identity on external characteristics, and we make assumptions about the meaning of our identity based on things we have been told, read, or social cues we have picked up from others. As a result, we end up subconsciously behaving in ways that we assume others expect us to behave, often to our detriment. Below are some tangible ways this plays out in our daily lives, and actions to take to begin addressing the limitations we place on ourselves:


·         You achieve what you think a “person like you” can achieve. If you don’t entertain the possibility of being, doing, having something in the future, you will subconsciously rule it out and you will not only be oblivious to the ideas that would move you in that direction, you will likely sabotage your own progress if you suspect that up might be moving in that direction. Let me demonstrate this with a rather extreme example. Do you see yourself as someone who would rob somebody at gunpoint? I hope the answer is “no.” But what if you really need money? What if you are about to get evicted? What if in the midst of your desperate situation, you have a disturbing image of you robbing someone? I’m sure you would immediately banish the thought and find ways to avoid that scenario at all cost. Why? Because you see yourself as the type of person who would never do that! Now, on the flip side, do you see yourself taking a luxury vacation aboard your own yacht? Do you see yourself in your boss’s boss’s job? Can you envision it and dwell on it as a real possibility? If you can’t see yourself there, you will never take any action that involves the remote possibility of moving toward that kind of wealth or influence or success. Why? Because you see yourself as the type of person who could never have those thing! As long as that’s the case, when good things start to happen, you will chalk them up to luck and won’t follow through to take it to the next level. 

Action: Ponder who you are going to be, what you are going to be doing, and what you are going to have and dwell on being there every day until it not only feels comfortable but inevitable.


·         You act the way you think a “person like you” should act. When my kids were growing up, we used to read a book to them called “The Great Me and Little Me,” which essentially introduced them to the idea that they could choose to act like the best version of themselves or the worst. Just understanding this distinction helped them look more objectively at who they were “being” and course correct. As adults, we get to make this choice as well and we get to either a vicious cycle or virtuous cycle of our self-image determining our actions and our actions reinforcing the same image. This is something most of us know. The real secret, however, is that “who you are” is just a character you have created based on the meaning you have given to your past actions. But, until you act, the truth is that you aren’t anyone except who you decide to be in the next moment.

Action: Decide to make a course correction whenever you catch yourself not acting like the best version of yourself, regardless of what you have done or not done in the past.


·         You surround yourself with people you think are “like you” and end up becoming the average of those people. This is the result of our tendency to prefer to be right than to be happy. There are many aspects of life that this applies to but let’s use finances as a simple example. If you don’t see yourself as someone who will ever be wealthy, you hang out with people who will commiserate with you and join you in resenting those who have achieved a certain amount of wealth, and lamenting the fact that the game is rigged, and so on. As a result, you don’t learn about or adopt the new behaviors or habits that will help you break the cycle of being in debt and not having any wealth. On the other hand, if you embrace the possibility of becoming wealthy or successful in any other area of life, you won’t be intimidated by or jealous of those who are a few steps ahead of you. You will seek them out and learn from them and you surround yourself with people with a growth mindset, while mentoring those who are trying to get where you are. As another example, if you see yourself as someone not worthy of respect, then you will surround yourself with people who don’t treat you with dignity, and maybe tolerate or even seek our relationships in which you are disrespected and you concerns are not heard. This is because, again, we generally would rather have our beliefs about ourselves confirmed even if it makes us miserable, than be happy but wrong about who we thought we were.

Action: Make a list of people who are further down the path that you intend to travel and reach out to them and ask them to coach and mentor you. Look for areas of life in which you care more about confirming your beliefs about yourself than you care about being happy and fulfilled, even if that means having to re-evaluate your identity.


This is certainly not an exhaustive list of things you can do, but these are the three main areas to can examine to get started with unraveling how your identity and beliefs about yourself affect your capabilities and potential achievements. Although I may go further in depth into this topic I the future, for further reading in the meantime, I suggest checking out the concepts of self-verification theory, impostor syndrome, and stereotype threat.

The final point I’d like you to consider is that, if you are hesitant about setting aspirational goals for yourself or envisioning yourself achieving the extraordinary because you are afraid of being let down and disappointed, I’d urge you to listen to my recent podcast titled “A Powerful Practice for Eliminating Fear of Failure” to begin to address that.

About the Author: Amir Ghannad is an international keynote speaker, author of The Transformative Leader, leadership consultant, culture transformation champion, and founder of The Ghannad Group. He has made it his life's work to guide leaders and equip them with the tools, skills, and the mindset necessary to create extraordinary workplace cultures that deliver breakthrough results. Download his free e-book, titled 5 Practical Steps to Make Your Culture Transformation Stick by clicking here.

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As always, have a great week! May you Boldly Declare, Courageously Pursue, and Abundantly Achieve the Extraordinary!

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