I’ve been qualified for a handicapped parking placard for as long as I’ve been able to drive, but I drove for nearly 20 years before I got one. During that time, I’ve watched people with far less challenging disabilities than mine use them, and I’ve heard people with no disability at all boast about using them to get a better parking place. I’ve limped past both.
Friends who went to NASCAR races with me admonished my stubbornness. “Why the hell do we have to park way out here?” they asked. “Because he’s too stubborn to get a handicapped placard,” my wife would answer for me.
I resisted the handicapped placard, because I didn’t see myself as handicapped. Sure, if I paid attention to such things, I would have noticed the obvious, but no one really treated me any differently, so I wasn’t forced to acknowledge the obvious. Ironically, I convinced myself that parking in one of those reserved stalls would alert the world that I had a handicap, as I limped by. Such is the power of self-image.
Obviously, my self-image was overly optimistic, but far too often, self-image is overly pessimistic. We see ourselves as failing before we even try. We feel inferior to others, though we’ve never really looked for our own worth. We become our own worst enemy, because we let doubt and negativity cloud our thinking.
I believe that we often develop negative self-images when we focus on our weaknesses and past failures instead of our strengths and potential. Everyone makes mistakes and has weaknesses. We doom ourselves to negative self-images if we fail to realize that failure and weakness are parts of being normal, and that we need to learn from our past and put it away, while focusing on our strengths and potential.
So, how do we optimize and nurture our self-image?
- Develop selective memory. Decide which memories are positive and affirming, and hold onto them. Learn all you can from the negative memories and then throw them away. When I reminisce about college fraternity date parties, I don’t dwell on the five rejections I received for my first date party; instead, I focus on the incredible first date I had a few months later with the lady who would become my wife. (Fortunately, I’m not easily discouraged.)
- Feed strengths and starve weaknesses. We often give our weaknesses more attention than they deserve. Sometimes, we even focus on them, to the detriment of our strengths. Discover what you are good at and do more of it.
- Blend humility with appreciation. A healthy dose of appreciation puts weaknesses where they belong – out of the spotlight. When you are feeling down, take the time to be thankful for your blessings. This isn’t always easy, but it’s almost always necessary.
- Associate with positive people. We all have those people who leave us feeling refreshed. They refuse to let us wallow in self-pity and help us direct our thoughts to positive areas. Spend more time with them and less time with the whiners and those who encourage whining.
- Eliminate negative self-talk. Most of us have a silent, but active internal dialogue that we’re often only faintly aware of. Stop and think about it. What are you telling yourself about yourself? If our self-talk repeatedly tells us that we are unworthy of success and happiness, we start to believe it. If there were a little creature sitting on your shoulder constantly criticizing everything you did, you would smash him within minutes. Why let him live inside your head?
I use the heck out of that handicapped parking placard now, not because my self-image surrendered, but rather because it became stronger. Now, I could give a rat’s rear-end about what judgments people might make about the way I walk or where I park. I owe that attitude to a positive self-image that I’m careful to nurture, and I hope the same for you.