Self-esteem influences everything we do—our level of income, the amount of aliveness in our relationships, the way we approach goals and dreams. Our self-esteem travels with us everywhere and people respond to us accordingly.
High vs. Low
Individuals with healthy self-esteem embrace life with confidence, pursuing realistic goals and rewarding relationships. They have a fairly accurate picture of their abilities—strengths as well as weaknesses. Realizing all of us win some and lose some, they rebound when life’s adventures don’t go their way. They like and accept themselves and have a healthy sense of entitlement, knowing what they want and what they rightfully deserve.
In contrast, people with low self-esteem are self-critical and preoccupied with what others think. They are tentative in their actions and mistrust their choices. They avoid social situations due to anxiety and discomfort. They assume other people are happier, smarter and having more fun. Expecting to fail, they see no point in setting goals or taking risks. Watching other people, they feel disappointed and envious because life is passing them by.
Relationships are often difficult for those with low self-esteem. Since they look for outside approval, a smile of the loved one means they’re okay, but silence or a blank expression can be interpreted as disapproval or rejection. The partner’s friends and interests are seen as more important than their own. They compromise their needs and preferences without thinking twice, telling themselves, “relationships are give and take.”
If both parties in a couple have low self-esteem, communication gets confused, defensive and accusatory. The messages sent are not the messages received. Hurt feelings and misunderstandings become the norm.
How does self-esteem develop?
As children, the reactions of parents and caregivers shaped our sense of self. Our mind and body were like a tape recorder. We heard, saw and felt how the big people responded to us and their messages were recorded and absorbed.
Some of the messages were positive and nurturing (“That’s a good girl. You can do it. Daddy loves you.”). We learned to feel capable, adequate and worthwhile when we were loved, accepted and encouraged.
On the other hand, if we received continual criticism and rejection, (“No. You’re wrong. You’ll never amount to anything.”), we learned to feel inadequate, uncertain and unworthy of a love-filled life. Generally speaking, low self-esteem results from internalized negative statements of our parents.
All of these messages, positive and negative, evolve into a belief system, which may or may not be accurate. But once they are integrated, we see them as true, regardless of conflicting evidence. They’re fixed and solid until we make the conscious choice to change them.
Accepting ourselves and the fullness of life is on ongoing process. Fortunately, there is much we can do to make the process easier. Consider these ten suggestions:
How can I improve my self-esteem?
1 Take Stock List 6-8 different areas of your life (work, health, body, money, relationships, etc.) and rank each one (1-10), based on how satisfied you are with it. Do one or two areas bring down your average? Focus on improving the lowest ones to improve your overall sense of self.
2 Pay attention to self-talk This is the never-ending chatter in your head: memories of the past, worries about the future. Sometimes you’ll notice a self-defeating dialogue. (“I’d like to meet him—but he won’t like me.”) Writing the thoughts on paper is helpful. Awareness of these thoughts is the first step to changing them.
3 Identify limiting core beliefs These are central ideas underlying your thoughts and actions. You’ll begin to notice patterns where the same messages emerge in various areas of your life. Examples are: I’m wrong. There’s not enough. People hurt me. I can’t. Take action and either make a constructive change or accept yourself—as you are.
4 Stop the attacks Disengage the internal critic, who attacks you for not meeting its/ your arbitrary and oftentimes unrealistic standards. The goal is to realize these critical beliefs are either false or irrelevant. One way to silence this voice is to simply say, ‘Shhhhhh!’ Or silently repeat positive statements: “I’m okay. I can do this.”
5 Find a hobby or interest that brings you pleasure Joseph Campbell calls this “following your bliss,” discovering an activity that gives you purpose and deep satisfaction. Our self-worth changes through pleasurable activities and enthusiasm is contagious. Friendships grow out of mutual interests. Having a hobby also gives you something to say in social settings when someone asks, “So, what do you do?”
6 Develop an optimistic attitude Is your general outlook one of optimism or pessimism? Pay attention to what Martin Seligman in Learned Optimism calls the three P’s. When a setback occurs, do you experience it as: 1) personal, 2) permanent, and 3) pervasive? An optimistic outlook can be developed with willingness & determination.
7 Create a support system of friends & family Your friends are your cheering section, people who encourage you, comfort and challenge you. When they say nice things, it’s also another way to change negative core beliefs.
8 Make your self-esteem unconditional Basing your self-worth on accomplishments is a vicious trap—always delayed or vacillating. For example: “I’ll like myself when _________.” Or: “I’d be happy if ________.” A more compassionate and forgiving attitude is to accept yourself unconditionally and realize you can be happy now—no matter what.
9 Discover the source of your worthiness and inner wisdom The method might be yoga, meditation or reading spiritual books. The goal is to foster a deeper connection with a spiritual source and discover who you really are—and know that your value is a birthright.
10 Get help—when needed If you’re unable to complete these steps on your own or if you feel totally stuck, depressed or overwhelmed, you may want to talk to a professional. A counselor or psychotherapist can help you clarify issues, identify blocks, uncover limiting patterns, prioritize goals, and develop a strategy to get you where you want to go.
It’s a life-long process
Self-esteem is not static or a one-time achievement. Improving self-esteem is a life-long process to be embraced and refined. When you find the path to knowing your intrinsic value, and are able to revisit that refuge as needed, then you have mastered the challenge of self-esteem.
“To be nobody but yourself,” wrote e.e. cummings, “in a world that tries to make you into everybody else is to fight the hardest fight any human being can fight, and never stop fighting.”
The fight may seem difficult at times, but the benefits are enormous. Improved self-esteem influences every aspect of our lives and allows us, in time, to create the rewarding work and satisfying relationships we truly desire.
Start today. Practice saying, “I like myself. I like myself.” Or: “I’m learning to like myself.”