Self-esteem is [our] dominant motive. Ernest Becker
Are You the Greatest or Not?
The big question is, how do you feel about yourself? If your boss approached you and offered you a new job with a leap in salary and increased responsibility, would you decide you could handle it and take it? Imagine that you met a stunning person who was intelligent and admired by many others. If you were attracted, do you think you could be successful in pursuing a relationship? If you think you would go for the job, and if you think that you would be successful in pursuing that attractive person, your esteem is likely in very good shape. If however, you decide you would turn the job down because you think you couldn’t handle it, and if you believe you would give up on the attractive person and move on because you anticipated rejection, your self-esteem is likely on the low side and needs some propping up.
Strange But True
Fortunately, there is a lot we can do to improve self-esteem, but ironically, pursuing self-esteem isn’t one of them. Research shows that if you are trying hard to improve your self-esteem you are not paying attention to the tasks that will give you the self-esteem you seek. So the secret is to be sure you get the job done first and keep your attention on it without distraction. Be successful and esteem will take care of itself.
And here is another curiosity. If you have self-esteem, you don’t need it; if you don’t have self-esteem you don’t have the very thing you need to get it. And that is a second reason to keep your eye on the prize and do everything you can to achieve the successes on which self-esteem is built.
How you view yourself has a powerful impact on the quality of your life and on your performance in anything you try to do. If you have low self-esteem, you will likely perform poorly and feel depressed about your performance. If you have high self-esteem you will more likely experience success and as a result, feel proud of what you have done. Generally speaking, having self-esteem is a terrific asset that will give you a great advantage when you take charge of yourself and your life.
Questions Worth Answering
Here are a few questions adapted from tests of self-esteem. We will use them to Introduce new ideas and to give you a personal way of thinking about them.
1. When you are confronted with a new task, do you usually feel that you can do it, that you are a competent person?
2. When you think about yourself, would you say you are a really good person, that your values are sound and that you are worthy?
3. Are the goals you pursue your own, or are they the goals you think that other people expect you to pursue?
4. When things go badly, do you still feel okay about yourself?
5. Do you sometimes feel so confident that you are not prepared for the job at hand?
Self-esteem is your estimate of your own worth. The first question asks about your ability to get things done. This means that you can set goals and pursue them successfully; that you can take on challenging assignments, that you are confident of your ability. This efficacy—your confidence that you can make the things that you want to happen actually happen—is your core power in life. One of the ways that we have used to achieve increases in confidence is positive thinking, but recent studies have shown that positive affirmations by themselves are often counter-productive. People with low self-esteem may make positive affirmations but their lack of confidence will often lead them to failure in spite of it. The consequence is even greater depression when they experience the failure they could not avoid.
You can do much better by finding your strengths, by doing a thorough survey of your interests, your skills, your knowledge, the experiences you have had, and anything else that is real about your potential. Reseach shows that simply making the list may be beneficial. Once you have the catalogue, you can find connections that will steer you to those things that you can do well. When you do, seek those things that are from your heart, from the core of who you are, the seat of your authenticity.
Your Inner Worth
The second question introduces the powerful inner component of self-esteem. The centre of self-esteem lies within you, at the very core of who you are. It is your conviction that you are a person of value living in a world that makes sense, a world that isn’t random or malicious. You have to feel that you are okay, that you are a worthwhile person. That seems to begin with how aware you are of what is happening around you and the thought you give to the benefits and consequences of different courses of action. Many people move through the world without giving much thought to what is worthwhile. Building an inner sense of worth seems to begin with our sense of values, those conclusions we draw from what we see happening around us. You may see that it is important to help others, for example, and decide that that is one of your values. If you live by that value you have authenticity. Every time you help others your know you are being true to your values and both your confidence as a person and your self-esteem are enhanced.
You may not be aware of that enhancement, and that’s a good thing. Self-esteem is most influential when you are completely unaware of it. People who lack values and authenticity search desperately for them, and suffer grievously for the lack of that inner strength. It affects their sense of psychological wellness, their ability to learn, and their capacity for success, among other deficits. Building an inner sense of self-worth is well worth the effort.
Goals for You or for Them?
One of the pit-falls of esteem is struggling to achieve but to achieve goals to satisfy others instead of ourselves (see question #3). I met a woman in university—let’s call her Alice-- who had spent her childhood and young-adulthood training for, and competing in, figure-skating competitions because she knew that was what her mother wanted her to do. She was fulfilling her mother’s dream, not her own, and she paid a steep price for doing it.
As Brian Goldman says in Self-Esteem: Issues and Answers, “People’s feelings of self-worth are rooted in the unobstructed operation of their true selves.” (2006, p. 137). Alice never had a chance and as long as I knew her she struggled to find any direction that felt right. She never experienced the unobstructed expression of her true self. It is imperative to find your own centre, and from it the directions that your curiosity and drive lead you into.
Screwed Up? So What!
Question #4 reminds me of the number of times I have screwed up trying to get things right. As a self-taught woodcarver, I hacked up a lot of good wood that ended up feeding our fireplace. And in teaching, a number of times I tried new approaches that drew blank stares from my students or ended up in classroom chaos. I learned from all of those mistakes; experience is our greatest source of learning, and you can learn as much from messing something up as from doing it screamingly well. At least, that’s my story, and I’m sticking to it. The thing is, if you are pursuing your interests and have self-esteem, you can crash, survive, and feel okay about it.
Self-esteem is a prevailing condition and does not peak or plummet with changing circumstances. Success strengthens it, but disasters need not destroy it.
Too Much Esteem
Self-esteem can be too high, however. Some people have too much esteem and are so confident—see question #5--that they don’t prepare for events as they should and end up performing sloppily. Others who are very competent are totally insensitive to those who are not so skilled and become impossible to work with. Thoughtful values and the authentic expression of them in our lives is the best antidote to excessive ‘self-esteaming.’
There is also a problem with very low self-esteem. The example of students who have been bullied by classmates has been prominent in the media recently. Some are physically abused and others suffer such hateful email campaigns that they eventually take their lives. Self-esteem is built on relationships. We draw from what the people around us say about us and about what we are doing. When people in our daily environment cut us down and find everything we do inadequate, we begin to internalize these reactions and finally, they become the way we look at ourselves and the basis for what we anticipate in the future. For some of those teenagers the picture of their future became unbearable.
Raising the Roof-beams
How do we raise our self-esteem? I have already mentioned a number of ways that we can improve our self-concept and our expectations for the future. We can use a number of ways to examine our inner experience and make sure that we have clear values that we respect, and that we do our very best to live by the values we hold. With respect to our performance, we can be sure that the goals we pursue are our own and that we pursue them with energy and skill. So much depends on the feedback we get, that we should also be sure that we have people around us who are good models of self-esteem themselves and provide us with helpful feedback to guide the development of our own self-esteem. Build a solid social network, and then, as a friend says, “Always look after your convoy.”
It helps us a great deal to identify our strengths and build on them so that we have the best possible opportunity for success. It is successes that contribute so strongly to self-concept and self-confidence. Above all, turn inward and find your own approach to strengthening your self-understanding, the things you value, the journey you want your life to be, and the quality that you can discover in your relationships. Then do your best to live by those values.
Remember, we want high self-esteem but we don’t want to think about it. I think it’s a great idea to get yourself on track and then get on with the wonderful life that lies ahead of you.