Excerpt from Building Self Esteem: How to Replace Self Doubt with Confidence and Well Being
My interest in self-esteem has developed over the years as a counsellor, as I observed that almost all people who come for counselling are, at the time, suffering from a lowered self-esteem. I have identified three groups of people with different types of self-esteem problems.
Firstly there are those who are normally confident and self-assertive, and would have rated their self-esteem as high, but show indications of their self-esteem having taken a knock. This led me to propose that self-esteem is not a fixed quality of personality. It is not like the colour of one’s eyes, or one’s height. Rather, it is more fragile, like our body which can be attacked by a multitude of invaders to make us feel sick and below par.
Events come along which attack even the strongest person and lower their self-esteem. For such people, once the event or circumstance has been dealt with, self-esteem returns to its previous level, or even higher; for having successfully dealt with a crisis of confidence, they feel the stronger.
The second group are those who have a consistently low self-esteem, who never think of themselves as having any worth. These are people whose self-esteem has never been fostered; who from the moment they were born received more negative inputs than positive; who feel that they are nothing more than an encumbrance. Chronically low self-esteem acts like a dark filter on a camera; life never seems to have any joy or brilliance.
A third group are those who find refuge in their role or work. There they enjoy a feeling of being needed; they are respected for their contribution to society; they are worth something. But the moment they leave work, they feel worthless again. Their self-esteem is compartmentalised; without work they almost cease to exist. People with work-related self-esteem are particularly vulnerable, for when work comes to an end they have nothing left. When the gates close — metaphorically — their self-esteem vanishes.
This book brings together many different issues, but all with the central purpose of helping you understand that transient thing called self-esteem. A second aim is to help you assess your own level of self-esteem. The third aim is to present ways in which you can help yourself build your self-esteem, and replace self-doubt with confidence and well-being. If in the process you find yourself able to help someone else to do this, then so much the better; for often as we help others so we ourselves find strength. May your journey prove to be worthwhile.
If everybody had a realistic and healthy view of themselves this book need not be written. But the fact is, many of us evaluate ourselves negatively. This chapter looks at what self-esteem is and how the foundations of low self-esteem are laid at a young age. This being so, what can be done? Can the ravages of faulty beliefs about self be reversed? One of the premises of this book is that what has been learned can be unlearned, even though the process is a painful struggle. Low self-esteem, while its roots can often be traced to childhood or adolescence, can happen at any stage of life.
High self-esteem contributes to an overall sense of psychological well-being, mainly because high self-esteem seems to be linked to feelings of optimism, and of being able to exert some control over events. High self-esteem is also linked to being able to face difficulties and setbacks in life, whereas low self-esteem seems to be linked to pessimism and lowered expectations.
Self-esteem is the value we place on ourselves. A high self-esteem is a positive value; a low self-esteem results from attaching negative values to ourselves or some part of ourselves. Some of the questions asked about self-esteem are:
- Where does evaluation of self come from?
- How does self-esteem differ from person to person?
- How is self-esteem enhanced, maintained or protected?
- How is self-esteem measured?
Ten principal ways by which we evaluate ourselves positively
- We have a firm belief in our attributes, accomplishments and abilities.
- We faceourselves honestly but realistically.
- We are willing to listen to other people, but not to be swayed by every different opinion.
- We accept other people’s views, but also recognise that they might be wrong.
- We use others as models, but are not put down if our achievement doesn’t match theirs.
- We are able to learn from self-perception and self-evaluation, and change, but are not a psychological chameleon.
- We are aware of the effects of our behaviour on other people; we have a public conscience.
- We are able to take a positive view of self and life.
- We are able to set clear goals and work steadily towards them.
- We are not overwhelmed by our faults and failings, but do something to overcome them.
Ten principal ways by which we evaluate ourselves negatively
- We compare ourselves unfavourably with other people.
- We denigrate ourselves in a global way, rather than saying, ‘I am not good at (for example) DIY, but I am good at (for example) playing the piano.’
- We say to ourselves and others, ‘I’m not worth very much, but you are.’
- We believe that other people have a right to exist, but not us.
- We believe what other people say about us.
- We rely too much on the approval of other people, such as our peers.
- We rely on being popular, which may be at the expense of self-worth.
- We believe that our success is due to luck, while other people’s success is due to ability.
- We believe that being servile, submissive and passive are correct ways of behaving.
- We believe that other people, particularly those in authority, are always right.
Deciding to be yourself
Don’t believe that everything famous people say or have said must be correct. Sigmund Freud, and other psychologists, as well as prominent people in other spheres, such as theology, supported the idea that women are ‘failed’ or ‘defective’ men; creatures of lesser ability, and less creative. Freud further believed that when a woman was competent and self-assured, or intelligent, that she was striving to be a man, suffering from what he called a ‘masculine complex’. Carl Jung did not go as far as Freud, but he saw men as the creators and women as their assistants.
The Bible puts forward the view that man (Adam) is the head, and woman (Eve) is his helper. The whole of the Bible is male dominated, and much of fundamental Christian doctrine and practice still keeps women in a submissive relationship to men. This raises the question, how far does such a difference in the treatment of the sexes influence self-esteem?
Gender will be discussed further in Chapter 6, but for now it is important to recognise that deep within the individual psyche are years of indoctrination — both explicit and implicit — that there is a fundamental difference between men and women: men are superior, and women inferior. This puts both men and women in a difficult position.
If males are indoctrinated to believe that females are inferior, then they will deny themselves all the so-called ‘feminine qualities’ — tenderness, intuitiveness and caring. Likewise, if females are brought up to believe that men are superior, then they will deny themselves the so-called ‘masculine qualities’ — intelligence, thinking and strength.
Yet many men are more tender and compassionate than some women, and many women are more ruthless and aggressive than some men. If men and women do not acknowledge their essential characteristics, for fear of what other people might think, they are only working on half-charged batteries. The result is a lowered self-esteem, because they are not being themselves.
I’m the greatest
Some people have an inflated self-esteem, and this can be just as damaging as a low-self-esteem. Such people are often referred to as ‘big heads’. They are the ones who attempt to bolster their self-esteem at the expense of others’ self-esteem. It is as if they can only feel good about themselves, by standing on the heads of other people and thus putting them down. In psychiatry, the term ‘narcissism’ denotes an excessive degree of self-esteem or self-involvement, a condition that is usually a form of emotional immaturity.
Self-esteem is not a fixed quality or attribute; it is affected by such factors as stress, poor health, bereavement, loss of job and retirement. Most people cope with these events, but people whose self-esteem is fragile can be thrown into emotional confusion.
Characteristics of people with a high self-esteem
- They generally have positive (and realistic) expectations of their efforts and their outcomes.
- They are generally not anxious about life, and take more risks.
- They are likely to find evidence to credit themselves for their successes.
- They are likely to accept responsibility for their failures.
- They generally feel themselves equal to other people.
- They are likely to engage in self-improvement activities.
- They are relatively happy, satisfied with their lives and reasonably well-adjusted.
- They generally experience positive emotions.
Characteristics of people with a lowered self-esteem
- They often find it difficult to see anything positive about what they do.
- They tend to be more anxious about life, and prefer feeling safe to taking risks.
- They tend not to take credit for their successes.
- They are over-concerned with taking responsibility for their failures, and looking for evidence that they have done poorly.
- They feel inferior to other people.
- They tend not to be motivated by self-improvement, but do all they can to protect themselves against failure or disappointment.
- They are not very happy, not satisfied with their lives, and not well-adjusted.
- They are prone to experience depression, hopelessness and suicidal thoughts.