“Whether you think you can or think you can’t, you’re right.” ~ Henry Ford
I am 19 (and just one year into college) when a friend tells me I’m losing my hair.
I laugh him off, then do a full inspection when I get home. I see some gaps, but it doesn’t seem that serious.
A few weeks later, I go to the barber for a haircut—short on the sides, with a bit more on top—and he suggests I see a specialist.
The thought of having no hair at my age—when girls are all about hair, as it’s the late 80s—is scary. I find a dermatologist, and he confirms my worst fears. “It’s receding quickly,” he says casually. He recommends I try a new lotion called Minoxidil—which is not yet mainstream—and gives me a prescription.
In the next few months, it’s obvious I’m losing my hair. Everyone, from concerned relatives to the postman, reminds me of my plight. I spend many sleepless nights wondering what to do. I was already shy about speaking to girls, but now I’m terrified.
There isn’t much I can do. Hair transplants are not yet as accessible or high-quality as they will become in the new millennium.
My self-confidence was shattered by that experience. Losing my hair young left me confused and angry.
But finally, after a few months of feeling sorry for myself, I started accepting my fate. I stopped the Minoxidil treatment and got a crew cut. I knew I had to change the way I valued myself and adapt to the new, bald me.
However, it wasn’t easy—and it left an indelible mark on my self-esteem. At age 19, I drew my confidence from my physical appearance.
In Pscycho-Cybernetics, world-renowned plastic surgeon, Maxwell Maltz, explains that while some people’s lives changed dramatically after he altered their appearance, many others’ lives didn’t. He learned that what differentiated them was their self-image—not what they saw in the mirror, but the images they had of themselves in their minds.
He went on to spend the second part of his life studying the psychology of self-image.
Self-image is the mental image—the blueprint—we have of ourselves. It’s built up of the beliefs we have formed unconsciously out of our past experiences, especially in childhood.
The experiences could be loving, such as a mother holding her daughter’s hand on her way to a new school—or traumatising, such as a father continually punishing his eight-year-old son for not being good enough.
Our self-image is like a thermostat in that it’s set at a certain point and influences us for the rest of our lives. All our thoughts, feelings, and actions become consistent with that self-image. We often feel as if we can only act within those limits.
The self-image becomes a foundation upon which our entire self-esteem and personality are built. Our experiences then verify and strengthen our self-image. For example, children who felt unloved can’t be loving when they grow up. It’s not in their makeup, and they often seek out people or experiences that verify their unloving self-image.
But we don’t have to stay stuck in this vicious cycle forever. We can change our self-image and improve our confidence by believing two major things:
1. We deserve to be happy
>> We must not outsource our self-worth: We have to be the source. Self-worth must derive from our true essence—not external elements found in our environment. Our outer appearance will fade away just like my hair did. We will get bored of our material possessions. We can’t manufacture a sense of belonging by using sex, drugs, or alcohol; we must surround ourselves with real people who we love and who love us in return.
>> Become selfless: We must accept that not everything is about us. When we recognise that we are all in this together and not here to compete, we eliminate the feelings of ego that come with selfishness: anxiety, fear, and feeling like we’re not enough.
>> Prioritise self-renewal: We must take time out of our busy lives to take care of ourselves, engaging in activities that restore our sense of being—essentially, loving ourselves. Whether it’s having an aromatherapy massage once a week, taking Saturdays off for golf, or spending half a day reading in a public library, we need this time.
>> Cultivate an attitude of gratitude: This describes being always in a state of abundance, counting our blessings for everything that we have. It is the opposite of a state of scarcity, where we focus on everything that is missing and wrong. We can always find plenty of evidence to support either state, so a practice of gratitude can predispose us to appreciation.
2. We are competent and capable
>> We must accept our imperfections: Perfectionism allows us to hide behind our fears and insecurities. We have learned (wrongly) that vulnerability is weakness, while perfection is strength. In reality, perfection stifles our growth, as it polarises our actions and pushes us to procrastinate. Once we accept that there is no perfection in life, we can act freely, even if that includes failure.
>> Build on strengths: People with low self-esteem dwell on their weaknesses; those with high self-esteem acknowledge their weaknesses, but accentuate and build their lives around their strengths. We get the most joy from doing what we’re good at, so why don’t we do more of it? One of my strengths is curiosity, and when I seriously started channeling that trait into writing and reading, it had a transformative effect on my life.
>> Expand our comfort zone: We can’t play the big fish in the little pond all our lives. We need to experiment and experience more. Wherever our fears lie is where we should go if we want to grow exponentially. I can still feel the tension, anxiety, and fear of waiting to go onstage to speak at TEDx Accra. It was a bittersweet feeling. I was nervous for a few minutes, but then I enjoyed it. However, the real bonus came after that talk. I left most of my fears backstage that night, and I’m now comfortable speaking publicly and have become much more articulate.
>> Visualise: In visualisation, we imagine a desired outcome in our lives. This process helps alter the neural pathways in our brain—and thus, we actually rewire our brains and make it easier to achieve our intention. Michael Phelps, American swimmer and the most decorated Olympian of all time, visualised his races in detail, usually many times a day. He would “play the movie” over and over, so that all of the little things could go as smoothly as possible with little conscious thought.
At 48, I’ve never looked or felt better. Obviously, I’m physically no match for my 20-year-old self, but now the source of my self-image is all internal. Most of the time, I feel like I deserve to be happy. I’ve found the things—business and writing—that make me feel competent and capable.
I hope my insights will help you do the same.