Dr. Val Farmer
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Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

How Teens Can Change Poor Self-image

March 16, 1998

Alana - not her real name - is an unhappy teenager. She has a negative self-image and it shows. You can see it in her eyes, in her appearance. Her dress, body posture, lack of eye contact and general nervousness communicates an apologetic message: I'm not important. Ignore me.

Alana is a scared rabbit. She hangs back in conversations. Her loneliness in a crowd is painful.

Beneath Alana's scared exterior is anger. For those few who get to know her, she unleashes a scathing commentary on all she sees wrong with others. She builds herself up by finding fault. She is impatient, irritable, jealous and suspicious. She carries grudges. She is a bad sport.

When Alana does make a friend, she becomes demanding. Her critical attitudes - her depression, hostility and negativity - have turned off those who do take an interest in her. When a friend shies away, she turns judgmental.

Alana is alert for signs of rejection so she can reject others first. She is quick to blame other people for how bad she feels. Life is full of hurt. She wallows in self-pity.

Do you feel the way Alana does? You can change the way you feel by the way you act. Here is how you can do it.

1. Communicate a new image. Find a role model and learn from her. Learn the nonverbal language of poise and self confidence. Let her advise you in a straightforward way about appearance, makeup, dress, hairstyle and social skills. If there is no one obvious in your life, seek out a counselor to help you.

Your appearance shows how you feel about yourself. Practice making eye contact. Smile. Smile some more. Your eyes and your smile are the place to start. Lift your chin and carry your head up.

Speak up. Put strength into your convictions. Your tone of voice sends a message too.

Change comes slowly and in small steps. Do the easy things first. Spend time practicing your new skills. Add new skills as you go. Face your weak points head on and change the way you approach people. Make some reasonable changes and then relax. Your attractiveness to others will come from your attitude about yourself.

Judge yourself by your own standards and beliefs. Approval and acceptance from peers is fickle and unreliable. Let new friendships unfold slowly. Ease up. The belonging you are looking for will come in time.

2. Self-confidence is based on success. Acting the part isn't enough. You need to feel special. You can do that by developing your talents, skills and interests. Follow your interests in the classroom or extracurricular activities. Join a group or a club. Be specific and pay the price of success by doing the hard work it takes. Focus. Play to your strengths. You’ll gain new friends by being involved in new activities and groups.

3. Find out who you are. What do you like? What do you stand for? Where are you heading? Having ideas about life and your future will take your focus off your social problems. Be a planner. Be a dreamer.

Imagine yourself in a future self and a future life. Make it happen now. Find an adult to share your goals with, who is excited for you and to whom you can be accountable. Share your changes with someone who cares about you.

4. Get rid of negative thinking. You've been hurt. Let go and get on with things. People who have been cruel to you have some lessons to learn. It isn't your job to get even or to find justice. The best revenge is living well.

Keep track of your automatic negative thoughts. Interrupt them. Change them. Dispute them. Be careful about the way you talk about others. You will scare people away until you learn to be more upbeat and positive. Again, counseling will help you understand the harmful messages you are giving yourself and how they fuel your resentment of others.

5. Get involved with others. People can't resist love. Show an interest in others. Learn about them. Try to understand them. Meet their needs. Be considerate and thoughtful. Take that intense spotlight you shine on yourself and put it on others.

By showing concern and being helpful to others, you improve yourself. You'll learn how human others are. Good feelings come from being needed, just like when you do something well.

Volunteer. Tutor. Find someone less fortunate than yourself and give them the lift that you yourself would like. Giving service to others will give you a human connection until your new friendships fall into place.

"If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I?" -Hillel, Hebrew philosopher.

Don't be so hard on yourself and others. Be generous. Focus on your changes and plan your future. Get help. There is a way out of your unhappiness. The world needs you and what you have to offer. Start today.