Over the years, I have heard people say that our thoughts about our self affect what other people think of us. I’ll admit that in the past I was skeptical of this claim.
An Example from My Own Life
For example, someone once told me, “You are beautiful if you think you are beautiful.” At that time, this claim struck me as silly and false. It suggested that my thoughts about myself could manipulate other people’s thoughts about me somehow–as if by some magic trick, I could make people think what I wanted them to.
I quickly dismissed such an idea. That would be nice, I thought, but no way.
It Can’t Be True, Can It?
This idea was simultaneously so outrageous and so intriguing that it stuck with me through the years, and occasionally I would hear other people say similar things to it like,
You are what you think you are.
People see you the way you see yourself.
The more I heard statements like this, the more perplexed and frustrated I became.
Why did people say things like this which seemed so outlandishly false? I can’t control people with my thoughts, I thought.
To be honest, these statements also worried me a lot because like many people, I often found myself thinking cruel thoughts about myself. If how I thought about myself affected how other people thought of me, I was in trouble.
Students, Teachers, and Self-Fulfilling Prophecies
I remained skeptical for a long time about the connection between my thoughts about me and other people’s thoughts of me. And then one day early in my teaching career, I had an epiphany about students, teachers, and self-fulfilling prophecies.
I had read about self-fulfilling prophecies in my education classes in college. The beliefs that teachers have about their students have a significant effect on whether or not the students succeed in the class. In fact, teacher’s beliefs about students can become a type of prophecy of students’ future in the class.
So, for example, if a teacher thinks that a student is stupid or lazy or incapable of learning anything, it is likely that a student will come to believe those same things and act accordingly.
If, on the other hand, a teacher thinks that a student is intelligent, a good worker, and capable of learning anything, the student will likely come to believe those same things and act accordingly.
I noticed the truth of these observations in my teaching.
When I communicated to students that I knew they could succeed, I noticed them visibly relaxing. They became more confident and were willing to try in class and ask for help if they needed it.
This almost always led to their success.
An Epiphany and a Worry
One day it dawned on me: “If my beliefs about my students greatly affect their success, do my beliefs about myself affect my success?”
It seemed to me that this had to be true. I realized that in one way, we are our own teacher, and we consistently communicate to ourselves, day-after-day, beliefs about our potential for success or failure.
It also seemed to me that many of our actions are governed by our beliefs about our self.
For instance, if we tell ourselves over and over again that we are bad at running, we will probably stop trying to run.
And if we tell ourselves over and over again that we are bad at socializing and people don’t like us, we will probably stop trying to make friends.
If we tell ourselves over and over again that we are stupid, we will probably stop trying at academic endeavors.
And if we tell ourselves over and over again that we are ugly, we might stop taking care of ourselves.
As I thought about this, I recognized a pattern.
Our thoughts about ourselves lead to certain actions. Our actions communicate who and what we are to other people. Therefore, our thoughts about ourselves can actually affect how other people see us.
That was my epiphany.
It was also my worry because I thought, “What if I don’t believe in myself? What if I don’t think I can succeed? What if I don’t think I am smart or beautiful? What if I think the exact opposite of all of those things?”
Eventually, I had another epiphany.
I realized one day that most of the messages in our culture tell us that we only have worth if we meet external standards—e.g. If we have a certain kind of beauty or achieve a certain amount of success.
Other cultural messages—especially some distorted religious messages—tell us that we are fundamentally and horribly flawed.
So, many of us walk around feeling that we will never be good or worthy until we meet this external checklist of impossible accomplishments. Even worse, we often feel like even if we do achieve these things, we do not deserve love, or we cannot overcome our fundamental flaw.
No wonder so many of us walk around repeating to ourselves a constant litany of our shortcomings. And no wonder we often begin to act on these beliefs in a way that increases our own personal suffering.
A Way Out
But there is a way out.
What if we have been misled all along? What if our worth is not something we achieve by meeting a list of external standards? What if we are not fundamentally horrible and flawed?
And what if, instead, we are fundamentally full of wisdom, creativity, compassion, and love.* What if we have unlimited potential to develop these beautiful gifts in our life?
If this is true, then we actually have the right to believe in ourselves 100%.
We have the right to constantly communicate encouraging and loving things to ourselves that result in encouraging and loving actions. These loving communications have the potential to affect how other perceive us, too. (You can read more about this here.)
What I Believe Now
When I hear phrases now like “You are what you think you are”, I take them as a good reminder.
I know that I can’t control what everyone thinks about me, but there are some things I can control. For example, I can control what I think about myself. And I can make the choice to consistently recognize and honor my true nature and the true nature of others.
I can be my own best teacher, and I can believe in the best parts of myself. And I can make sure that through my beliefs and actions, I consistently show people the best part of me, and this helps me to reach out to the best part of them.
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*Even though I believe our fundamental nature is full of love, creativity, compassion, and wisdom, I also believe that this nature often gets covered over or forgotten.
This process of covering over or forgetting can be called sin. It can be called forgetting our true self. It can be called clinging. Whatever it is called, it is important to note that our true nature is always there, waiting for us to find or remember it again.
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