What is self-image?

Self-image is more than what you see when you look in the mirror. It is defined as “the idea, the conception, or mental image one has of oneself.”

Your self-image is how you view your entire being, from your thoughts, feelings, actions and capabilities. 

Is self-image the same as self-esteem?

Not entirely. The two concepts of the ‘self’ are somewhat different. 

Self-esteem tends to go a little deeper than self-image. Self-esteem is your overall sense of respect for yourself. 

Your self-image plays a role in your self-esteem – after all, how you see yourself significantly impacts how you feel about yourself. 

Interesting fact

Your self-image is based on your own unique perceptions of reality that is built over a lifetime, these perceptions will continue to change as you learn and go through life. 

The dimensions of self-image

Suzaan Oltmann, an independent distributor at one of South Africa’s FET Colleges, defines the dimensions of self-image as follows: 

The three elements of a person’s self-image are:

  1. The way a person perceives or thinks of him/herself.
  2. The way a person interprets others’ perceptions (or what he thinks others think) of him/herself.
  3. The way a person would like to be (his ideal self).

The six dimensions of a person’s self-image are:

  1. Physical dimension: how a person evaluates his or her appearance
  2. Psychological dimension: how a person evaluates his or her personality
  3. Intellectual dimension: how a person evaluates his or her intelligence
  4. Skills dimension: how a person evaluates his or her social and technical skills
  5. Moral dimension: how a person evaluates his or her values and principles
  6. Sexual dimension: how a person feels he or she fits into society’s masculine/feminine norms 

(Oltmann, 2014)

Why self-image is important

Your self-image can play a significant role in your success and motivation throughout your life. Having a low self-image can lead to failure and missed opportunities as you doubt your capabilities. 

A healthy self-image can help you to achieve great things as you navigate through life with an assertive and positive attitude, believing in yourself to accomplish your goals. 

Self-talk and self-image

Our self-image stems from our thoughts which influence the way in which we view ourselves. Self-talk is the conversation you have with yourself. 

Our thoughts, or the way that we talk to ourselves, are typically a combination of negative and positive thoughts. 

We all have an inner critic. This inner voice can often drive us to reach our goals (for example, when we remind ourselves not to eat something unhealthy). However, this inner voice can sometimes do more harm than good. 

The impact of negative self-talk on your brain and body

The neurophysiology of negative self-talk 


Negative thoughts indicate to our brains and bodies that we are going through a period of stress. 

This results in the increased release of catecholamines (neurotransmitters released during stress) such as norepinephrine, epinephrine and dopamine. 

Prolonged exposure to these hormones can create negative psychological and physical outcomes and create a negative feedback loop. 

When your inner voice is always negative, this can prolong the stress hormone exposure which can physically rewire your brain and in turn, your mental and physical wellbeing, this is known as neuroplasticity (the ability of the brain to change throughout your life).

The negative feedback loop 

Prolonged exposure to catecholamines can create negative psychological and physical outcomes. The prolonged-release of these neurotransmitters can affect your mood and create a negative feedback loop between your physiology and emotions. 

These changes may result in chronic inflammation of your organs and the way the body and mind operates – leading to changes in behaviour, sleep issues, metabolic (weight gain) and cardiovascular disturbances.

How negative thoughts impact your health

Negative thoughts can lead to chronic stress, upsetting your body’s natural hormonal balance. 

Chronic stress can deplete the brain of the chemicals it needs to feel happy, as well as damage your immune system.

It can also lead to decreased lifespan, high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, infection and digestive disorders. 

Interesting factScience has now identified that stress shortens our telomeres, the “end caps” of our DNA strands, which causes us to age more quickly

The impact of positive self-talk on the brain and body

The neurophysiology effects of positive self-talk 

As we know, our minds are malleable. Meaning our self-talk and self-image has the potential to mould and sculpt our consciousness and our physical wellbeing. 

Source: “Because of all the research and clinical testing being done and studied regarding the “mind-body” connection, the power of positive thinking is gaining documented scientific credibility and being used and harnessed to improve health on all levels.

What flows through your mind (thoughts and neurotransmitters) sculpts your brain in permanent ways.

Source “What we think and what we feel has the potential to directly affect our bodies.”

Studies have shown that thoughts alone can improve vision, fitness, and strength.

Some other positive effects of positive thinking include: 

  • Faster recovery from cardiovascular stress
  • Better sleep 
  • Stronger immune system (fewer colds)
  • Greater sense of purpose and overall happiness
  • Greater sense of connection to others

How to break the negative feedback loop & improve your self-image

As humans, we are hard-wired to focus on the negative in an attempt to survive, helping us to stay vigilant in a somewhat stressful environment. This leads to something known as a ‘negativity bias’. 

“Our “negativity bias” means that we spend too much time ruminating over the minor frustrations we experience—bad traffic or a disagreement with a loved one— and ignore the many chances we have to experience wonder, awe, and gratitude throughout the day.”

Some tips to offset the negative feedback loop and negativity bias

  1. Be present – Pay attention to your sense perceptions as a mindfulness technique (what is your hand doing right now, why is your foot tapping?)
  2. Stop your thoughts from running away – Become aware of your thoughts without turning them into a runaway train – “What am I thinking? What is the conversation in my head?” Repeat this a few times.
  3. Challenge negative thoughts – This will reduce their emotional intensity and feelings of stress and panic. So ask yourself “Is that thought really true, right now in this moment? What is the likelihood of that really happening?”
  4. Control the next thought – You can’t control a negative thought from popping up, but you can replace it with 3 positive ones. 

Practical examples of positive self-image activities


A positive self-image takes hard work and commitment. It’s an ongoing journey to improve your mental and physical wellbeing. You need to stick to it and keep going through the bad days and the good ones. 

Helpful hint – Many people will stop effective practices such as yoga, meditation or deep breathing when they feel their self-image and thinking have improved. The trick is to always keep going because you never know when something might happen to trigger negative emotions and send you back into the negative feedback loop. 

1. Journalling

Journal your thoughts, your experiences and whether you feel like you dealt with them in a positive way. Take notes and notice trends in the ways that you talk to yourself. 

2. Identifying triggers of negative thinking and stress

Recognise what people, places and things lead to negative emotions and thinking. 

You cannot change certain situations, but you can change how you react to them and prepare yourself to handle them better. 

Come up with strategies as to how you will better deal with your triggers.

3. Meditation

Your self-image can become a habit when you practice loving yourself on a daily basis. 

4. Deep breathing

This can be an incredibly simple yet effective technique to change your thought patterns. When you notice a negative thought, you feel stressed or anxious, simply take 5 to 10 deep breaths. Breathe in for 4 counts and out for 5. Repeat this. 

5. Self-appreciation breaks

Take a deep breath, slow down and ask yourself this important question: what are 3 things I can appreciate about myself?

These can even be little things like personality traits or strengths. You can do this every morning or every evening. 

6. Yoga

Yoga makes use of deep breathing and calming and fluid movements that can help lower your stress.

7. Mindfulness

Practise being mindful of your thoughts, your space, your senses and the present moment. 

Source: “Mindfulness also involves acceptance, meaning that we pay attention to our thoughts and feelings without judging them—without believing, for instance, that there’s a “right” or “wrong” way to think or feel in a given moment.”

8. Mantras

Mantras are commonly used in meditation and can have some powerful effects on your self-image. By saying a positive self-esteem mantra throughout your day, this will aid in rewiring your negative feedback loop. 

Here are some examples: 

  • I embrace my happy feelings and enjoy being content as I love and appreciate myself.
  • I deserve to be happy and feel good every day about all areas in my life.
  • I feel secure in who I am, and do not need to compare myself to others.

You can permanently rewire your subconscious mind to accept these affirmations.