“It ain’t what they call you, it’s what you answer to.”
— W.C. Fields, American comedian, actor writer
You can’t touch it but every day it affects how you feel about yourself. You can’t hear it but it is apparent in every word you say aloud or silently to yourself. You can’t see it but you might catch a glimpse of it in that selfie you took yesterday or the face you see in the mirror tomorrow morning. It’s your self-esteem, and its level (high or low) will affect every area of your life.
In my workshops and counselling sessions, to explain the concept, I will often suggest that we break the term self-esteem into two words.
First, we look at the word esteem. If we esteem people, we hold them in high regard. We think of them as being worthy and deserving of success and happiness. We admire and respect them. We consider them capable and able to challenge adversity and overcome it.
The “Aha” moment comes when we add the word “self” back into the equation. It becomes pretty obvious whether our self-esteem is poor or healthy.
I have also explained self-esteem as operating like an emotional immune system. Consider, if you’re healthy with a strong immune system you can avoid most common ailments that plague others. It doesn’t mean that you’ll never get ill. It simply means that you will become ill less often and generally recover much more quickly. Your self-esteem works in the same way. When impacted by challenging events in your life, you will tend to rebound more quickly.
In my experience, the biggest difference between the individual with poor self-esteem and the individual with healthy self-esteem is the healthy self-esteemer strives for growth and self-improvement while the poor self-esteemer focuses on perceived mistakes and failings. The individual with poor self-esteem will often exaggerate or dwell upon the negatives as these tend to support and validate a poor self-image. These individuals are also prone to controlling and manipulative behaviour and often exhibit perfectionistic tendencies. Research supports the assertion that people with low self-esteem are more prone to depression.
A study by the late Carl Rogers, American psychologist — widely considered to be one of the founding fathers of psychotherapy research — suggests that early programming has a tremendous impact on the development of self-esteem in children.
According to Rogers, the foundation for poor or healthy self-esteem is laid in childhood. Low self-esteem in children “tends to be related to physical punishment and [the] withholding of love and affection by parents.”
Though not always the case, a lack of encouragement and support during the formative years can certainly erode a sense of personal value and self-efficacy.
Children with low self-esteem may develop coping mechanisms that ultimately prove counterproductive, such as bullying and rebelling or, on the oppose end of the scale, refusing to participate and people-pleasing.
It’s easy to see how negative self-impressions can be reinforced over time and evolve into set patterns of belief and behaviour. If we feel poorly about ourselves, it’s only natural that we will look for events that support and encourage our suffering, and we find them everywhere.
Admittedly, it’s more difficult to shift perceptions that are deeply ingrained than ones for which we have little investment. Overcoming poor self-esteem can be accomplished only if you’re willing to do the work, and even then it’s going to take time, effort and patience. But the payoff is worth the effort. If you recognize that your self-esteem is low, that’s a great beginning. Awareness is always the first step. It’s never too late to start making a difference.
Whether you’ve been on the journey of self-esteem building for some time or are just taking the first step, here are some suggestions that may help make the path less arduous.
First, listen to the voice of the critic. What is it that you’ve been saying to yourself? Listen closely as these statements are often automatic, almost like a reflex. Are they complimentary or condemning? Do they encourage and build you up or discourage and tear you down? If you have poor self-esteem, the voice in your head will be critical. Identify negative thoughts and capture them on paper. You may be surprised by what you see on the page and what you’ve been saying to yourself. You wouldn’t berate or belittle a friend in such a way, would you?
Second, stop being a generalist. A generalist will take a mistake or disappointing event and use it define his or her entire life. Think about it. What have you chosen to focus upon and what have you chosen to overlook or disregard? A generalist will often assume he or she knows what everyone is thinking. Unless you’re a mind reader, you really have no idea. A poor self-image will prompt you to assume the worst. And to make matters worse, you’ll choose your words and actions based upon the belief that the assumption is true. See the problem here?
Third, catch yourself doing things right. It’s easy to look for the bad but I’ll wager there are many fine and noble events in your life that are worthy of acknowledgment. When I started my self-esteem journey, I took out a piece of paper and made a list. Initially, I felt a little guilty like I was “blowing my own horn” and that was somehow wrong, but I persisted and found things. You will too. You are worthy, deserving and capable. It’s time you reminded yourself of it.
On the topic of self-worth, Ram Das, American spiritual teacher and author of the best-seller Be Here Now, wrote, “Your problem is you’re too busy holding onto your unworthiness.”
Building your self-esteem also builds your self-love. When you care about yourself, you feel more worthy and deserving of all the good things in life. Slowly, everything changes and you’ll change for the better too, and the change will touch every area and aspect of your life.
Murray Fuhrer is a self-esteem expert and facilitator. His recent book is entitled Extreme Esteem: The Four Factors. For more information on self-esteem, check the Extreme Esteem website at www.extremeesteem.ca.