Positive self-esteem to many is an illusive and almost mythical force. It feels intangible – something aspired to but hard to grasp, much like forgiveness or trust. We all want it, yet most of us have no idea how to get it. It appears to be a key that unlocks many other things we strive for in life: job success, romantic involvement, social satisfaction. I have spent years trying to understand the concept of self-esteem by studying those who seem to possess it. Is it how they look? How they think? What they do? While it often seems to be largely based on behavior, most often it is correlated with cognition as well.
This in and of itself can be an empowering notion. When we understand that self-esteem is based on making choices and taking actions in accordance with our beliefs and values, we recognize that we can learn to have control over our sense of self-worth. We are not forever victims of past circumstances. No one can deny that a child who is told that they are smart and powerful and beautiful will be more likely to thrive and to develop high self-esteem than a child who is told repeatedly that he or she is stupid and ugly, or that a youth whose body is abused by another will be at a disadvantage when it comes to gaining a personal sense of power and worth. Or that an adult who gets praise from a partner or boss will most likely feel more confident in his or her work and more capable of managing criticism. But while these things heavily impact our sense of self-worth, they do not necessarily dictate it. Some people who are raised with neglectful or critical parenting grow to have strong self-esteem. Some people, who by circumstance seem to have everything going for them, somehow do not.
How do I know this? Because I try to show clients with low self-esteem their strengths, their beauty, their wisdom, their inherent value, and alert them to discrepancies in their perceptions of themselves. Yet while the experience of my perception of them feels good for a moment, the feeling is so often fleeting. It just won’t stick.
I’ve come to understand that self-esteem is like a seed that only roots through nurturing and tending. For some, like myself, it grows slowly over time. In my late thirties, I have the confidence and perspective to say that my positive beliefs about myself have shifted dramatically from what they were when I was in my twenties. It’s easy for a young person to base their worth on arbitrary values like looks, popularity or success, all of which are transient qualities.
Comparison played a strong role in threatening my self-esteem as an adolescent and young adult. When we compare ourselves to those who have more money or are more beautiful or successful, we place ourselves in a hierarchical system rather than on a continuum of varying strengths and skills. With a good deal of vigilance, I have learned to soften these feelings by keeping my positive qualities in the forefront of my consciousness. I have proven through my actions that I have much to offer others and have grown to appreciate and celebrate what others have to offer me. The things I love about myself today are substantial, lasting because they are shaped by actions that grow from the deepest levels of my character. I am compassionate and kind; I am thoughtful; I do my best to act and speak with integrity; I admit when I mess up; I try hard; I like to learn because I value intelligence and I think I’m pretty smart. I give people the benefit of the doubt and I can find common ground with just about anyone. When I first began practice as a young counselor, I feared that youthful feelings of competition or envy, particularly of other women, might interfere with my work. But my experience has proved the opposite. I may not be as beautiful as I once was, but the gratification I feel now in guiding other women to find their truest paths makes me feel better than most other things.
Besides making comparisons, shame plays a big part in lowering self-esteem. If there were a single human emotion that I could magically rid the world of, it would be shame. Even so, feelings of shame have taught me to be more aware of what I value and not to make choices or take actions that contradict them. I have felt shame over choices I’ve made in the past; among my greatest has been a pattern of finding distraction and comfort in a potential new love interest before closing out my present relationship. Once I recognized this pattern and changed it I was released from the accompanying shame.
Over the years I have worked to identify many of the behaviors that are in conflict my core values in an effort to align my actions with my beliefs. When I sense even the slightest feelings of shame, it acts like an alarm. I wake up and quickly change to move in the direction of greater authenticity. And it makes me feel awesome. Strong. Honest. Like I have integrity. Like I am a good person. And, if I unwittingly violate my own values, I do my best to forgive myself. I think about what lead me to do so, I learn from it, and then I let it go.
In a blog I wrote years ago, which was recently posted in this magazine, I focused on physical factors and socially held beliefs that were the root cause of low self-esteem especially in younger women. Weight, shape, age and societally chosen standards of beauty are features that carry a disproportionate influence on our self-esteem and self-worth. Interestingly, the blog received several comments speaking to the idea that appearances serve as indicators of how people care about themselves and show regard for important qualities such as hygiene and personal health. In my reply to these comments I explained that genetic and psychological factors, such as depression, both impact physical appearance. Income greatly impacts multiple facets of appearance, such as the ability to eat healthy and well-rounded meals, to afford or have time to go to a gym, buy new clothes, get regular haircuts, and other privileges that we don’t often consider.
So what do those with higher self-esteem possess in addition to the ingredients I’ve already discussed? Those engaged in meaningful and purposeful lives have a greater sense of self-worth. They spend time working for something outside of and bigger than themselves, such as volunteer work, community service and activism. Why? Because they are doing something they care about which positively impacts the lives of others. Whether they ultimately fail or succeed, the effort helps them feel more empowered and less like victims of life’s circumstances. And not only does their involvement connect them with others toward a greater purpose, but it often also has the positive side-effect of getting them out of the narrow traps of their own thoughts and problems. Simply put, generosity makes us feel good.
People with high self-esteem are compassionate towards themselves and others. You remember how I rattled off the things I like about myself earlier? Well, there are quite a few things I don’t love about myself, too. I’m not great at house cleaning. I’m not very organized. I do not return phone calls promptly. I am very weak when it comes to discipline in parenting. There are more but I make it a practice not to let myself sit with those thoughts until I am ready to do something about them. Until then, I act with compassion towards myself, understanding that berating myself over my self-perceived shortcomings it simply unhelpful. It is a waste of energy – energy that could be spent doing things I am good at and changing the things I am not.
When I ask people in session to tell what they like about themselves, it’s surprising how many find it hard to answer. I’m not sure if it is because we are all so afraid that self-confidence will be construed as vanity, or if we really just don’t take the time to know this about ourselves. Conversely, most people can lay out in ten seconds flat everything they don’t like about themselves. I can always tell when therapy has taken hold because people pause the old tapes and start to speak and self-affirmation pushes forward as their sense of pride resets. It’s a wonderful moment in therapy when clients start to speak highly of themselves. Sometimes I can’t help but chime in and throw in some extra positive traits that I have observed in them. I encourage people in my personal life, too. I rarely complimented people in the past, perhaps because of envy or maybe because it felt somehow embarrassing. But as part of my program in building self-esteem in myself and others, I make a practice of complimenting people all the time now. I feel good because I am bringing more positivity into the world. It reminds me of a folk song my mom sang recently at my wedding, “Love is like a magic penny, hold it close and you won’t have any, lend it, spend it, and you’ll have so many, they’ll roll right over the floor. Love is something if you give it away, you end up having more.” Compassion and praise is like this too. It builds upon itself.
People with higher self-esteem are experts in self-care. They pamper themselves whenever possible. They don’t wait for someone to treat them well, they do it themselves. Pampering can be as simple as a bath or an uninterrupted hour to do whatever you want, even if that thing is nothing.
If I have one recommendation about self-care it is to use the time in a way that is mindful, present and not distracting. I’m the first to admit that when I get time alone I am probably going to hop on the computer and check Facebook. But making better use of my “me” time always results in a greater sense of peace and gratitude that lasts longer than those mind-numbing minutes hopping around the Internet. Being present with yourself also reinforces a sense of empowerment. We can just be in the present with ourselves – no distractions, no judgments, no tasks to complete, no expectations. With practice we get comfortable with, and even enjoy, our own quiet company. This is how we learn to enjoy our own company and love ourselves.
Another suggestion. Learn to recognize when you are diminishing yourself. Instead of telling yourself that you are a failure because you didn’t get that job, congratulate yourself for getting out there and applying. Get a journal and every night write down something you did that day that you feel good about. You can also record compliments people give you. If the people around you are giving you nothing but negative feedback, seriously rethink your relationships with them. Choose to be around people who are supportive, loving and kind and who recognize that you are special. Reread your journal entries frequently. It may take a long time and a lot of effort to undo past damage. Tell yourself to STOP when you are going down the dark and devastating path of self-hatred.
There are few things worth fighting for more than our self-esteem. Sometimes it requires that we do battle with the self-defeating chorus in our heads until newfound self-regard drowns out their roars. No one needs to be a victim of past experiences. With training, intention and persistence we can succeed at aligning our choices and actions with our values and beliefs, proceeding with a life of integrity, authenticity and higher self-esteem.