Letters to a Dyslexic: The Care and Feeding of Your Self-Image

Dear Young Dyslexic,

It is hard to be dyslexic and not hear a lot about self-image.

We are supposed to have poor self-images. Not all of us do, but dyslexia does affect how we see ourselves.

When I say “self-image”, what I mean is how we see or imagine ourselves. Self-image is different from self-esteem, which is how we feel about ourselves. Self-esteem develops very early in our life.

Unfortunately, self-image is also affected by feelings that tend to distort our realistic view of ourselves.

Beginning in kindergarten, we begin to develop an image of who we are and how powerful we can be in our environment. This process goes on until about the fourth grade.

This is one of the worst times in our life. School is the first task society asks us to perform outside the family. Most children with dyslexia fail during this period of their life. So it makes sense that we would develop a poor self-image. Poor self-image can also be seen in a lack of confidence and what scientists call an “external locus of control.” An “external locus of control” means that you believe that the world acts on you and you are powerless. No wonder we can lack motivation. “Why buy a dog? He is just going to die.”

The trouble with a negative self-image is that it is very difficult to change. One popular intervention is self-affirmations. This involves saying positive things about you to yourself. This can help combat negative self-talk, such as yelling at yourself if you make a mistake.

If after you make a mistake, you are likely to tell yourself “I’m so stupid,” “I’m a real idiot”, and “I’ll never amount to much”, talking back to these feelings with the real facts of who you are can be beneficial. (It also helps to realize it's not a catastrophe, i.e., “I made a mistake, but it’s not the end of the world.”)

However, getting up each morning and saying wonderful things about yourself may have little value. You just end up feeling sillier than you already feel.

I believe that we can improve our self-image. However, although the process is easy to explain, it's much harder to do.

First, you must set realistic goals for yourself—just a couple, and ones you can achieve. People with negative self-images are good at setting goals; it is just that these goals are unattainable at that moment. Start with small increments of progress.

Then you need to work hard to accomplish these goals.

Finally, you must recognize your success. This means you can’t ignore or belittle your progress.

Each time you meet and recognize one of these goals you'll feel a little better about yourself. It does not happen overnight; it’s a long process. However, each time you give up or fail to recognize your success, you feel a little worse about yourself.

So, begin with a small, reasonable (but important to you) goal.

Be well and make a bit of noise,

Dr. Michael Ryan

Dr. Michael Ryan