The Value of Genuine Self-Esteem
“Don’t let the expectations and opinions of other people affect your decisions. It’s your life, not theirs. Do what matters most to you; do what makes you feel alive and happy. Don’t let the expectations and ideas of others limit who you are. If you let others tell you who you are, you are living their reality — not yours. There is more to life than pleasing people. There is much more to life than following others’ prescribed path. There is so much more to life than what you experience right now. You need to decide who you are for yourself. Become a whole being. Adventure.”
― Roy T. Bennett
When we have low self-esteem, we feel anxious, helpless and depressed. We may not be able to accomplish our goals, have fulfilling relationships and create a meaningful life for ourselves.
If you’re struggling with low or “fake” self-esteem, you might see yourself in the below words.
“I can’t settle on any career. Even though I was always in gifted programs in school, I’ve never felt good enough. I’ve already left two graduate programs, and I’ve quit a lot of jobs. Even thinking about what I should do next makes me so anxious and upset that I can’t make a decision.” ~ 24-year-old man
“I am self-conscious about everything. I don’t like my looks, my personality, or my background. Don’t tell me to be myself. That’s my problem. I don’t want to be myself. I don’t like me.” ~ 45-year-old woman
Since the 1970s, the definition of self-esteem has been “feeling good about yourself”. Indeed, a big part of it is just that. But that’s not all. Even more important is doing good, and doing action that is in alignment with your highest values.
People with low self-esteem often tend to overcompensate. For example, you may be placing too much of a focus on your appearance – hitting the gym too hard for those perfect abs/butt etc., taking dangerous weight-loss substances or steroids, overworking yourself so you can buy something flashy and expensive you think you need, or becoming overly focused on money or other material things. Technically, all these things make us “feel good” about ourselves.
So what’s wrong with overcompensating for our low self-esteem?
Imagine your amazing abs, your savings, your 1000-dollar mobile phone or your favourite pastime – say a competitive sport, all things with are external to you – being taken away from you. How would you feel then?
It’s not something the vast majority of us want to imagine. We all have things we prize and value, which we don’t want to lose. Despite this, do try to imagine not having them in your life anymore. It’s when the thought “I can’t live without this” flashes through your mind that you may have a problem with overcompensating for a low self-esteem.
It can and does happen – something tangible that you love vanishes. In the absence of genuine self-esteem, people start to feel hopeless and become depressed. They turn to other things to fill the void, which may include distractions such as shopping, music, substances amongst other distractions.
When your self-esteem comes from the Ego – the false “self” – you tend to (unconsciously) base your self-worth on objective aspects, such as getting good grades or making a lot of money. Some people crave attention and admiration in order to keep themselves from experiencing feelings of shame and to cover up a sense of inner defect. These people have no genuine self-esteem and look to others to provide it for them.
The problem with external sources of self-esteem, such as other people and material things, is that they wear off and you need more and more to compensate. As a result, people without genuine self-esteem have an insatiable need for their egos to be nourished by those around them.
It is very difficult to obtain genuine self-esteem from the outside
I am not saying it isn’t important to be praised, encouraged and validated by others. Our parents, caregivers or teachers, who did this when we were children, remain part of us. We can tend to feel that we have to live up to their standards if we want to be worthy and feel good about ourselves. I don’t mean impossible to meet, overly harsh standards. I am referring to our own ideas and expectations, evolved from the influences of our families, friends and culture. We internalise these and feel good about ourselves when we meet them. And vice versa – we feel inadequate when we fail to meet them, leading us to compensate.
To understand what I mean, try and think back to a recent event you can’t quite put to rest. This could be a situation, where someone criticised you, or you may have behaved inappropriately. Maybe you’re still trying to justify this behaviour. This could be a place to see this process at work. Try to look at the situation objectively. You don’t need to assign or accept blame. What are the issues at the core of the experience? How to balance your needs and wishes with those of your loved ones? Sensitivity to other people’s feelings? Division of responsibilities within your primary relationship?
They could be ethical issues involved with something that happened at work. Maybe you said more than you should have on a sensitive topic. If you can, look at the situation as if it happened to somebody else and decide what the values and standards that applied were.
Now, try to assess your behaviour and see if you met those standards.
Do you feel guilty? Pay careful attention to the ways, in which you may want to justify your actions. Being angry and defensive is a sign that you’re trying to ward off negative feelings, such as shame or guilt. Admitting you were wrong will probably make you feel better – not completely better, of course, but all that energy we invest in trying to defend ourselves only makes us feel worse about ourselves on a deeper level, and that just leads to more defensiveness and negativity.
Hartwell-Walker, psychologist and marriage and family therapist in Massachusetts, writes in her book Unlocking the Secrets of Self-Esteem, “Genuine self-esteem is actually a restatement of what philosophers and psychologists in the early 19th century understood. That is, our positive feelings about ourselves also “need to be grounded in being a decent person who lives decently.” She cites a recent study that encompassed thousands of participants and found that feeling good about yourself didn’t lead to a healthier lifestyle, better academic performance, success, or happiness!
Research on feeling good and living decently has found that people enjoy greater success in just about any goal they set as long as they do good things for others and live by a positive system of values.
Cultivating and developing genuine self-esteem is no easy feat. It takes great self-awareness. It can be a lifelong process, at the core of which is being in tune with who you really are.
The Keys to Genuine Self-Esteem
Genuine self-esteem has a number of aspects. In involves above all leading a fuller, more meaningful life based on your values. This includes building and bringing more positivity into your life, having the courage to stand up for your beliefs and values, maintaining positive relationships and developing a mindfulness practice.
Here are some tips on how to achieve this:
Be kind to yourself – Keep mementos of success
Hartwell-Walker calls this a “bragging box”. This is a place where you store items that remind you of your positive sides. These can include cards you’ve received, thank-you notes, certificates of appreciation, and other items that remind you of your valued accomplishments and acknowledgements.
Identify your character strengths
The father of positive psychology Martin Seligman identified 24 character strengths that everyone has to some extent, which help us grow and progress. He divided them into six categories: love and connectedness; wisdom and knowledge; participation in community and justice; courage to meet difficulties; moderation and transcendence. The last one signifies a connection with enduring meaning.
According to Seligman, everyone has five values or strengths that dominate. A good therapist can help you discover yours and engage in them, at least twice a week. For example, meet people you don’t know well as often as possible if one of your strengths is social intelligence. At the end of every get-together, explore how you felt doing it and how it helped you.
Forgive or forget
Ask for forgiveness, and forgive those that wronged you in return, and then move forward. Ideally, you would do both. Doing good doesn’t happen in a social vacuum – there needs to be a person on the receiving end of it. Relationships are key to having genuine self-esteem. Most people have said or done something hurtful at least once. Some of us beat ourselves up over it. Realise that it is human to make mistakes. “To err is human, to forgive – divine.” You could mend a relationship by asking for forgiveness. Also, you are doing something worthwhile by taking responsibility for your actions, which is bound to make you feel better about yourself.
To make this easier, write to a person you’ve hurt in the past. Write what you did and why you think you did it. Did it make sense at the time? Does it make sense now? Be as understanding and compassionate to yourself as you would be to a friend or relative who did something hurtful and now feels terrible about it. Write a letter to that person. Apologise and take responsibility for your actions or words. Tell them you feel guilty. The person may or may not respond positively when they get the letter. If they don’t, it’s not the end of everything. You’re just no better off than you were before. Maybe you will both decide to fix your relationship, ultimately. Or maybe this person has moved on, and it’s better to forget. If you can’t send the letter, then still write it and rip it up and bury it into the earth so that this way you are still releasing the guilt and shame you’ve been holding onto.
Grow a sense of humour
Let’s say you got up on the wrong side of the bed and forgot your wallet at home. You get to the train station and can’t buy a ticket. You feel stupid, the seller gets mad or throws you a shady, condescending look, and you chastise yourself for forgetting your wallet and somehow, through a train of seemingly related thoughts, reach the conclusion that you are forgetful and dumb. Next time you catch yourself using forgotten wallets as a basis for reaching conclusions about yourself, laugh. You are not your wallet! You just forgot it at home! Cultivating genuine self-esteem means growing a sense of humor. Please consider learning to laugh at your irrational thoughts. You will become more mindful of the stories you think are true about yourself when you manage to intercept negative thought spirals. And do stay away from negative stories.
Pride is overrated
Cultivating genuine self-esteem means casting aside traditional definitions of success. You are not likely to cultivate genuine self-esteem before relinquishing pride. Material and tangible things that inflate the ego do not nurture inner strength. The external world and your inner world are completely separate entities. Someone might find you attractive, while someone else might not. To cultivate genuine self-esteem, you must do without the need for external validation. How? Love yourself unconditionally from within, and take care of yourself. Do nice things for your body and soul. The outside world is changing perpetually, but you are going to be you forever. If you love yourself unconditionally from within, it doesn’t matter what anyone else outside of you thinks about you.
Genuine self-esteem is a journey, not a destination
No one is born with perfect self-esteem. It always needs adjustment to a greater or lesser extent. Real self-esteem is a constantly moving target that you have to work toward every day. Every Day. Some days it’ll be easier to see your true self shine, and other days it’ll be more difficult. They are called ups and downs and we all have them. Try focusing on feeling the best you can in the moment instead of on perfect self-esteem as the end result and getting frustrated for not feeling perfect all the time.
Lack of genuine self-esteem is bound to have adverse consequences in the long run. If you are still struggling with feelings of low or lack of self-worth, I believe therapy would help you a lot. Please give our clinic a call on 07 5574 3888 and make an appointment with Ashley Gilmour, Clinical Psychologist.