What is Self-Esteem?
Self-esteem refers to the value we attach to the Self or to ourselves generally. It evaluates how much we consider our worth as a person. This valuing process tends to be very private and subjective. We perceive our own value or worth by measuring ourselves against a self-constructed list of desirable components of the Self. We judge our value by means of the qualities/attributes and potential that we feel we possess and that we in turn attach to each of these things. For instance someone could have the trait of neatness and perceive this positively in how they esteem or value this trait in themselves. Someone else could look at the same trait and punish themselves for it – “I am very neat and I dislike this in myself as I think it makes me too fussy”. So when it comes to self-esteem it is not just who we are as people and what qualities we feel we possess that matters but how we perceive all of these aspects of ourselves and our experience. In short, self-esteem reflects the general opinion we hold about ourselves and our worth as a person.
The mechanisms by which we value ourselves and the deeper aspects of the Self refer to a very private area of our experience, both past and present, and thus are not readily available to scrutiny. We could have a benevolent or harsh view of ourselves. We could be grounded and realistic about our talents and attributes or punitive and scathing. We could accept some parts of ourselves and fight continuously with others.
However there is hope! Our self-esteem does not have to be static for life. Our self-esteem levels can be raised to healthier levels by some nurturing and care, together with a little discipline so as to avoid sabotaging oneself or one’s good qualities or achievements. In student counselling this topic comes up again and again. Many people feel that everyone else has it together and “I am the only one struggling”. The truth is: we all struggle. It is part of our humanity to struggle. It is however a worthy endeavour in life to look to develop healthy self-esteem and self-acceptance. Many people report that it pays huge dividends in their lives to spare a little time to look at this most fundamental but often misunderstood process of self evaluation.
An example of low self-esteem:
Some people report low self-esteem because they had rejecting parents/teachers or carers who set unrealistic and unattainable standards. The child often internalised the failing to meet the standard as a fault in themselves as opposed to a fault in the standard or yardstick. They carry this painful experience into the heart of their self-concept or view of themselves. You can develop negative beliefs about yourself because of all kinds of painful experiences but frequent reasons cited also include the following;
experiences of rejection, neglect or abuse;
punishment or humiliation, being the odd one out;
being in a family or social group which is a target of prejudice,
being subjected to bullying and exposure to traumatic events or abusive relationships.
So to summarise if your own valuing system (of how worthy or unworthy you are as a person) is too arbitrary, inherited or punitive, it distracts and detracts from one of the most fundamental tenets of our humanity – the intrinsic worth of a person. This intrinsic worth is irrespective of status, achievement, or set of possessions. We are not supposed to be like someone else-even if that person was a sibling or a peer or a role model. We can only be ourselves. It is heart rending to hear stories of how people can be punished for just trying to be who they are. It is no wonder that low self-esteem followed hot on the heels of some harsh feedback or environments.
Looking at Self-Esteem in the Counselling Room:
Many clients report that they have low self-esteem and this is a common issue that presents itself in the counselling room. It is a very worthy struggle and if you feel you suffer with low self-esteem it is important to know that many gifted and wonderful people feel they suffer this fate. However, the good news is that opinions of our own worth are just that – opinions. These can quite often be incorrect or harsh. They are not unchangeable facts about who you are as a person, or your potential to grow and fulfil your dreams.
Many students say that they feel inadequate because their peers or classmates appear more confident, capable, attractive, and successful. Outward signs of confidence can often mask inner feelings of turmoil and doubt about self-worth. We often appraise others as “having it all together” while we feel we “barely hold it together”.
In Counselling when people feel they need to look at their self-esteem levels then we look at how the persons sense of self and sense of their own experience has built up over time. Healthy self-esteem is desirable and if reading this you feel that you would like to work on your own level then be assured that you are in very good company. We look at the mechanisms by which you valued yourself in the past and how you continue to value yourself in the present as sometimes these can actually be harmful and contribute to low self-esteem. These means by which we construct and measure our own self esteem can often remain unchecked and uncorrected. Low self-esteem is almost always coloured by difficult experiences and/or trauma and/or a harsh internal critic.
In the course of counselling we look at the roots of low self-esteem, and these often result from internalised negative messages we received from others (particularly those in authority – parents, teachers etc) and/or a response to traumatic events. As outlined above you can develop negative beliefs about yourself because of a wide variety of painful experiences. We look at all of the above and what meaning you felt these experiences had or have for you as they have brought you to this point in your life now. You have survived thus far even if it was not easy or was very difficult indeed.
To develop a path towards improving one’s self esteem, one must first look towards the origins that lead to this current point of being. This involves examining the value system by which the value of the Self is measured and appraised. Some of the constructs of this value system may be fair and reasonable, while other parts may be punitive and unrealistic. It is only through an honest assessment that one can judge one’s own value system, and adapt to one that is more realistic for living comfortably within one’s own skin and soul.
Developing Healthy Self-Esteem:
Positive self-esteem accommodates the whole person and one’s uniqueness. It allows room for strengths and limitations. It does not overreact to perceived failure (perceived within the context of the value system). In short, it lets you live (without a self-critical tape running) and it lets you be who you are. Healthy self-esteem still allows for growth – it is not narcissistic or self-indulgent, its aim is not perfection. Rather it nurtures a compassionate and encouraging approach to yourself.
It is possible for all of us to work on our self-esteem so that it becomes more healthy and balanced. Like all good things it takes some practice and discipline. All of us can have our bad days – however, it is hopeful to note that we can learn to more positively and more fairly appraise ourselves, and protect ourselves from harsh internal or external criticism.
Remember: “You can’t be all things to all people. You can’t do all things at once. You can’t do all things equally well. You can’t do things better than everyone else. You have to find out who you are and be that. You have to discover your strengths and use them. You have to learn to live with your own limitations, accept your own uniqueness, learn not to compete with others, and give yourself the respect that is due.”
Sometimes the words of a song or a poem sum up very eloquently the essence of good self acceptance or self-esteem and the fruits of these. I offer you the two poems below as I feel they endorse these gentle principles. If we take the time to notice our own beauty that is within us, then we are more inclined to value accept and cherish our own self. This helps to maintain positive self-esteem.
“Don’t go outside your house to see flowers
My friend, don’t bother with that excursion.
Inside your body there are flowers.
One flower has a thousand petals.
That will do for a place to sit.
Sitting there you will have a glimpse of beauty
Inside the body and out of it,
before gardens and after gardens”
“You do not have to be good,
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
Are moving across the landscapes,
Over the prairies and the deep trees,
And the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air, are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
The world offers itself to your imagination,
Calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
Over and over announcing your place
In the family of things.”
- “Wild Geese” (Mary Oliver)
Through Counselling, we have seen people become happier and more adjusted as a result of doing a little work in this area. Long may it last!. We all deserve to appraise our own uniqueness in a positive light. The truth is we all struggle – but struggle is not a sign of failure. It seems a necessary part of our humanity. However, negativity and punishing self-beliefs are baggage we can do without. Good counselling can help you recognise and appreciate the gifts you already possess.