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Poor self image

07/26/02 12:00AM By Willem Lange
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(Host) Commentator Willem Lange has been a lifelong sufferer from poor self-image, and has some tips on overcoming this self-defeating emotional problem.

(Lange) I was doing my usual triage next to the wastebasket in the post office when I came across an envelope with the return address of a newspaper that carries my column. Usually these contain letters from readers who've sent them to the newspaper. But this one was slim, with a single sheet inside. Uh oh...

Now, isn't that a strange reaction? It was as strong as it was automatic. I knew this was bad news; and to be objective, it wouldn't have been unprecedented.

"Dear Will," it began, "I have long been an admirer of your writing..." Now I knew it was bad news. "...but even more so lately." Say what? It wasn't a Dear John, after all? It was a sincere compliment. But I found myself reading between the lines. Wasn't he being pretty formal? And if he liked them "lately," what was wrong with them before?

Those of you who don't suffer from a condition known vulgarly as SSI will find my reaction strange; those who have it know exactly what I mean. SSI stands for "poor self-image. It's the feeling many people have that, no matter what they may do or become, they'll always fall short. What's more, they'll deserve to. The syndrome fulfills its own negative prophecies.

Garrison Keillor calls us "aggressively shy people," those who expect to fail and are affirmed when we do. He recommends Powdermilk Biscuits as an antidote. And who knows? They might work if they existed.

Some helpful adult once told me, "God knows your inmost thoughts." Pretty near ruined my life, because my inmost thoughts aren't always completely proper. It's taken a long time to learn that's okay. But I still don't feel it's okay. And never will.

The dangerous part of this is, we may begin acting in ways that affirm what we feel. When we stick our necks out, we run the risk of disappointment and pain. We can avoid them by halfhearted efforts. If we succeed, we can be pleasantly surprised; if we fail, we can fantasize what we might have done if we'd given it everything we have.

There's some evidence that SSI may be to some extent genetic. Researchers have found that infants who are sensitive and easily stimulated tend to avoid noise -- usually caused by other humans. They withdraw from human contact, which is for them a negative experience; and during periods normally devoted to social growth, their dropping out becomes dropping back.

It can help to get older and experienced, and to get good at a few things. It helps to put that infant sensitivity to work recognizing when you're at it again. It helps to make the toughest phone calls first -- to learn to say no - to avoid situations that you know will be downers.

There! If you're a fellow sufferer from SSI, that'll fix you! If it doesn't, I'm sorry I mentioned it. I probably shouldn't have done it. It's all my fault.

This is Willem Lange up in Etna, New Hampshire, and I gotta get back to work.

Willem Lange is a contractor, writer and storyteller who lives in Etna, New Hampshire.
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