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If you feel something inside you say, “I really don’t think you’re strong enough,” you don’t necessarily have to trust that little voice—it might not know you as well as you think it does.

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[INTRO ♪].

We all have voices in our heads. Not in a hallucinatory kind of way—I mean the one that plans conversations, narrates your life, and tells you about yourself.

But sometimes the voice in your head doesn't really know you as well as you might expect. That inner voice and your understanding of yourself gets built from the interactions you have with your friends and family and the world around you—and sometimes the feedback you get isn't that helpful. Psychologists call the organized understanding of all the ideas related to you your self-schema.

It can include things like whether you're friendly, if you're extroverted, or even what social groups you belong to. And generally, people come to understand who they are through interacting with others. Like, if people around you are always saying how kind you are or how rude you are, you'll probably start to believe those things about yourself.

As with many ideas in psychology, the idea that you build your self based on things others tell you came from … you guessed it, good ol' Freud. He called this introjection. Although most psychologists have abandoned a lot of Freud's ideas about how the mind works, it's absolutely true that people come to understand who they are through interacting with others.

And sometimes things get mixed into that understanding that are not true or healthy. This understanding gets started pretty early. When kids are really young, their ideas about themselves are basically positive, and they don't seem to identify anything that makes them different from others.

Around the age kids start going to school—maybe 5 or 6—they start picking up ways they're different from others and developing ideas of who they think they should be, often based on what they think their parents expect of them. But studies have found that basing your self-schema on other people's ideas can lead to some trouble. Take eating disorders, for example.

Researchers have suggested that people with eating disorders like anorexia can have a distorted view of themselves, which in some cases might have to do with their parents' views. Like, one study compared some teenagers with anorexia to a control group without eating disorders, and interviewed them about their sense of agency. The teenagers who had eating disorders were more likely to talk about how they got to be the way they are by referring to external forces, including their parents.

Of course, this doesn't mean the kids' eating disorders were their parents' fault. Eating disorders are complex, and we don't fully understand what causes them. And to the extent that we do, the factors are different for everybody.

But studies like these show that the feedback you get from others can make you see yourself in a way that is just not true. To make matters worse, people also seem to seek out feedback that reinforces their existing understanding of themselves. For people who are mostly healthy, this makes a lot of sense: they like themselves, and they want to be around others who see them the same way.

But it can be true for people with a negative view of themselves, too—like people with depression. They might prefer to be around people who evaluate them negatively just because it aligns with their own perception. Researchers tested this idea with a small sample of 13 college students with depression, and asked them to complete some personality tests that they agreed to have shared with 3 other students.

In reality, their data was not shared with anyone. Instead, the experimenters came back with 3 fake evaluations from others who had supposedly seen their data. One was a favorable rating from someone who had thought the participant seemed interesting, another was unfavorable, and the third was in between.

Then, they asked these subjects, along with a control group of students with no diagnosis, how much they wanted to meet the fictional evaluators. For the control group, a more positive evaluation led to more interest in meeting that person—and for those with depression, it was the opposite. And follow up studies found that people with depression or unfavorable views of themselves were more likely to seek out negative feedback from friends, dating partners, or other sources, even though it made them unhappy.

This could be because if you have a stable self-schema, you tend to want to keep it stable. Even though the negative feedback might feel bad, discovering you don't understand yourself can feel even worse. The good news is that therapists have tools to help with this.

One of the hallmarks of depression is that people seem to believe negative things about themselves even in the face of evidence to the contrary. But, treatment can help with that. When 42 patients with depression were assigned either a drug treatment or drugs plus talk therapy, they both had similar reductions in reported symptoms of depression.

But, the participants who got talk therapy had bigger changes in their automatic thoughts about themselves—things that popped into their minds, like, "I'm a loser," or, "there must be something wrong with me." Therapy like this can be really important for changing your understanding of yourself, and for helping you recognize the evidence that you're actually pretty decent. Other people's beliefs about you can creep into your self-schema, and your brain can use them to tell you lies about what kind of person you are. That doesn't mean you have to be stuck with those lies.

Thanks for watching this episode of SciShow Psych! Our brains are complicated, and this show is all about untangling the science behind how we think and behave. If you're interested in learning more about that science—and maybe about yourself in the process—you can subscribe at [OUTRO ♪].