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Achieving High Self-esteem


I have yet to come across an ideal definition of self-esteem but I believe it can best be regarded quite simply as feeling good about yourself, where you are at and where you are heading.   It does not mean that you value yourself more highly than others or that you can only achieve it by being perfect.   The person who has high self-esteem recognizes their limitations, forgives themselves their 'failings' and yet continually strives for self-improvement in a way which recognizes that they have a right to be happy.

No one is free from periods of self-doubt, times when we do not feel as good, as worthy, as confident, as attractive or as loved as we would like to be.    For some people it is a comparatively rare experience but for most it is not uncommon and for those who are troubled by frequent crises of self-esteem the issue may cause all sorts of mental and even physical suffering.   Some people can hide their feelings and their self-doubt better than others but for all of us there will be times when suggestions as to how to 'cope' with low self-esteem will be welcome.    I hope that the following will be of some value.

Causes of low self-esteem

It is important initially to look at some of the causes of low self-esteem.    In adults, the most common causes are failing to meet the standards which we think others are setting for us.   The make-up adverts on television suggest that women should belong to a certain stereotype. For many women, failure to match up to that stereotype causes low self-esteem. Men are expected to be the providers - earning enough for a house, car, holidays and all sorts of material things of which the shopping channels make us aware, irrespective of how necessary they really are. Failure to be a high-powered, well-salaried executive may cause a loss of self-esteem.   Nowadays, the situation can be even more confused with the blurring of the roles between the sexes and women may feel they have to be housewife, mother, provider and career woman whilst men compare themselves against some sort of ideal which works all hours but also fulfills a time- and energy-consuming caring and nurturing role within the family.

How we are treated by others may be another major cause - not just maltreatment and abuse as it would be regarded by the courts but more frequently the more subtle rejection or unfair criticism of an uncaring partner or family member.    In an exceptionally large number of cases, simply being taken for granted by loved ones is a major crusher of our self-esteem.    And even comparative strangers can do their bit when we feel they should treat us better, as customers, colleagues and the like.

Threats to our personal safety or to that of a loved one, loss and bereavement or rapid changes within our environment are all things which we may take personally and which can affect our view of ourselves.   Similarly, lack of change - such as a boring and repetitive job - can cause us to doubt our value to society and therefore our intrinsic self-worth.

These external factors may provide the initial cause but it is ourselves who then internalise the issues and create our own self-doubts.    We lose confidence and begin to think that we are the cause rather than the recipient of the effects.   I have purposely commented on adult self-esteem and in this regard children are not simply small adults.    They have different needs and different demands.

The signs of low self-esteem

So how do we know when we have low self-esteem?    When sufferring from low self-esteem we are likely to be paying less attention to our own needs and our own behaviour.    We may throw ourselves into some form of activity which is designed to help others or, at the other end of the scale, we may become lethargic, uncaring and dependent upon drink or drugs to see us through the day.   We may become anxious and fearful, sometimes spending large amounts of time worrying or developing a particular phobia or phobias.

Don't rush

"Have patience with all things but chiefly have patience with yourself. Do not lose courage in considering your imperfections but instantly set about remedying them - every day begin the task anew.

-- Francis de Sales

Having recognized that there may be issues of self-esteem that we need to work on it is then necessary to set about tackling them.    In this regard the first rule should be don't rush yourself.   If you are trying to change some aspect of yourself or how you react to situations it is rarely easy.   Setting yourself an unrealistic timetable for recovery will only exacerbate the situation.   

Be kind to yourself

"Little deeds of kindness, little words of love,
Help to make earth happy, like the heaven above."

-- Julia Carney

There is a saying somewhere about 'always be a little kinder than is necessary'.    Remember, it is just as important to apply it to yourself as well as to others.   Give yourself treats.    Sometimes these may be your reward to yourself for doing something or, equally importantly, for attempting it and for tackling an issue.    Sometimes they should simply be treats for their own sake - your way of saying to yourself - I love you.    Giving to yourself and loving yourself are not selfishness or self-indulgence - they are a necessary part of balancing your existence.  Some people find affirmations helpful in increasing their appreciation of their own value.  By repeating positive statements they affirm their belief in them and reinforce the feelings that those statements are designed to create.  Probably the best known of all affirmations is Emile Coue's "Every day, in every way, I am getting better and better."  There are many more including a good little set mentioned on the links page of this site.

One step at a time

"The longest journey begins with the first step."


Next, consider any problems and issues which you believe may be contributing to your not feeling good about yourself or your situation.   Break them down into manageable portions.  History suggest it is unusual to win a war in one go.   Concentrate upon the battle immediately ahead.   Don't try to solve everything at once.   It was with good cause that Aristotle wrote 'The hardest victory is the victory over self.'  It is, however, one of those victories in life that we always have the potential to achieve.   Not only can issues be more easily sorted if they are tackled in small doses but you can also reap the rewards of congratulating yourself on every success irrespective of how small it may seem in some grand scheme of things.  Few songs are more meaningful than 'One day at a time...'  Equally meaningful is the phrase 'one step at a time'.

Set yourself goals

Our plans miscarry because they have no aim.
When a man does not know what harbor he is making for, no wind is the right wind.

-- Seneca    

Fourthly, consider what you really want out of life.    Not just in terms of immediate physical and material needs but real, important-to-you, long-term goals.   Putting these aims and needs into words - even if it is just in your own mind - brings them closer and makes them more tangible.    If you are the type of person who relates to the written word rather than the spoken one, write them down and look at them often.    Set yourself some short-term targets as well as some long-term goals but don't make them all 'self-improvement' targets.   Make the goals realistic and don't increase pressure and stress upon yourself by aiming for something that is either not possible for you or that is only what others think you should aim for.    There is an argument that you should 'Aim at the sun. You may not reach it; but your arrow will fly far higher than if you had aimed at an object on a level with yourself.'  When our self-esteem is high that may be a worthwhile dictum.    When it is low we are inviting thoughts of failure - far better to aim for something we know we have the potential to hit.  Duke Ellington described a goal as 'a dream that has an ending'.  Live for such dreams.  

"When I was a boy I used to do what my father wanted.   Now I have to do what my boy wants.   My problem is: When am I going to do what I want?

--Sam Levenson 

It is then important to learn to respect your needs (both short-term and long-term) and afford them as much priority as you afford the needs of others in daily living.    Indeed, in an ideal world we should afford our long-term goals even greater priority than those of the day-to-day.    Recognizing and respecting our own needs (including the opportunity to relax and have fun) increases our sense of self-worth.    We value ourselves more and our self-esteem increases.

Judge yourself against yourself

"If a man is called to be a street-sweeper, he should sweep streets even as Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music, or Shakespeare wrote poetry.   He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, "Here lived a great street-sweeper who did his job well."

-- Martin Luther King, Jr.

Do not judge yourself more harshly than you judge others.    If you wouldn't criticise someone for forgetting where they left their spectacles don't berate yourself if you do it.  William Blake wrote - 'It is easier to forgive an enemy than to forgive a friend'.    He might well have added 'and even more difficult to forgive ourselves'    Judge your actions and reactions impartially and keep your standards reasonable.   However much we might like to be, none of us is Superman, WonderGirl or any other comic book hero.   "We can't all be heroes because someone has to sit on the curb and clap as they go by," wrote Will Rogers.   The secret is to make sure you are the best at clapping.  If you must judge yourself against others, remember that everyone does something better than their friends, neighbours and colleagues.    You too have things that you do better than those around you.   It may be making a better cup of coffee, singing better, catching a ball better or having a more infectious laugh.   Think of a colleague or friend and ask yourself is there not something you do better than them.    If it helps, make a list - you'll soon find that if you are honest about yourself and about them the list will quickly grow.    (Then burn the list - you don't want to lose a friend!   Alternatively you could do it about a person who is contributing to your low self-esteem in which case you might be less bothered about what happens to the list!)

Keep a sense of humour

"Life does not cease to be funny when people die any more than it ceases to be serious when people laugh."

-- George Bernard Shaw

When our self-esteem is high and we are at our happiest in life we are still capable of recognizing that there is sadness in the world.   We may be grateful for our condition but can still feel tremendous sorrow at a picture of a child dying of starvation in a Third World country.    The reverse also applies.    Because we are down and sufferring the world does not suddenly cease to have humour in it.   Difficult though it may seem at times, endeavour to appreciate that humour and accept that whatever your personal circumstances it is still OK to laugh.

Congratulate and reward yourself

"Award yourself mini-prizes after the completion of almost every step in the advance.    Celebrate each small victory and put on public display any examples of your success."

-- Gael Lindenfield 'Self Esteem'

Congratulate yourself on your achievements.    If your aim is to walk a mile a day and you walk half a mile don't look upon it as 'only managing half a mile', think of it as having achieved 880 whole yards.   And don't only congratulate yourself for major achievements.    Realise how many important little things you do.    Do not worry how many other people can or cannot do those little things.    Just appreciate that you can and judge yourself only against yourself and your own potential.   Think about what you do well and develop those skills even further.   Each time you achieve something, congratulate yourself and sometimes - it doesn't have to be a major achievement - reward yourself.

Concern yourself with reality

"To accept reality... you also avoid taking an overly pessimistic view about the future where you assume that things are bound to be negative and that there will be no positive events on the horizon."

-- Dr Windy Dryden '10 Steps to Positive Living'

Many of the things that trouble us in this world are unreal.   They are the 'what ifs' and the situations that the imagination puts us in.   The fear of a trip to the dentist is a common phenomenon and yet how many people really experience unpleasantness at the hands of the dentist.    Most dentists are competent, kind and helpful.    It is our imagination and our fears that hurt us - not the reality.   So it often is with issues of self-esteem.   Fear of rejection, fear of making mistakes, imagining how others perceive us - these can affect how we feel about ourselves.    It is therefore vital that we recognize the difference between reality and the world that our imagination sometimes conjours up for us.    Rarely is the real world as threatening or as hurtful as the world of our imagination.

Surround yourself with good cheer

"If you're not using your smile, you're like a man with a million dollars in the bank and no chequebook."

-- Les Giblin

Endeavour to appear cheerful and smart.   However little we may feel like dressing up for an evening out the impact upon ourselves of doing so is often a reward in itself.    Acting cheerfully may prove difficult if you do not feel happy but the act itself can lead you to be cheerful.    Even if it doesn't, it will help by attracting to you the sort of characters who are going to generate positive vibrations.    Sitting in the corner with the 'let's moan about the world' club may seem at times to be where you feel you belong.   The very fact that you are reading an article on self-esteem suggests that you do not belong there.  Surround yourself with positive and cheerful people.

Appear confident

"In quietness and confidence shall be your strength."

-- Isaiah 30:15

Just as you should endeavour to look cheerful no matter how you feel inside so you should show confidence even when you do not feel it.    Often the difference between the brave and the cowardly on the battle field is simply that the brave are the people who are more afraid of appearing cowards than they are of the enemy's bullets.    Just as appearing brave breeds acts of bravery so appearing confident breeds confident acts.  Many of the people you judge to be more confident than yourself are probably putting on a show.    Join them.

Take risks

Change and growth take place when a person has risked himself and dares to become involved with experimenting with his own life.

-- Herbert Otto

As you gain confidence stretch your limits - take more decisions, take more risks, assert yourself more and solve more problems.   Each success will further increase your self-esteem.    "But what if I fail?"   We are back to the 'what ifs' - the unreal worries - but even should you fail you can look upon the fact that you tried, that you took the risk, as yet another success.    Every one who has ever achieved success in this world has done so by taking some risks and accepting that the occasional failure or mistake is part of progress.  "I am always doing that which I can not do, in order that I may learn how to do it," said Picasso, a man who judged his works by his own standards.    Had he listened to the critics art would have been the poorer.   Remember, Olympic medals only go to those who enter the events.

Do not let others set your values

"Any fool can criticize, condemn, and complain -
and most fools do."

-- Dale Carnegie

Of all the tips on tackling self-esteem issues by far the most important has to be not to accept the values of others as the values you should adopt for yourself.   By all means hear their views but decide for yourself what your standards and achievements should be and how you feel about yourself.    When you judge yourself against others you are unconsciously deciding to live in their world - live in your own.

Seeking outside help

Sometimes the issues that may be causing you to have low self-esteem are obvious - an unappreciative and critical partner, a bullying boss or some other form of abuse.    It may be a loss or an apparently threatening situation to you or to a loved one.    At other times the cause may be less obvious.    In either case you may find it helpful to talk to someone about it.

Professionals, like counsellors and pyschotherapists, are trained to help in these circumstances but do not underestimate the value of a friend or relative that you feel you can trust and whose opinions you respect.    You may find that they not only help you but that you, in turn, can listen to their issues and demonstrate your own self-worth by being there for them.   You may find that talking to someone gives you clues as to how other people have coped with similar issues.   In this regard self-help groups can also be of value.    The counsellor and psychotherapist provide a more intensive and focussed opportunity to consider the issues and may help to identify root causes which are less obvious than the immediate problem.

Most stress management techniques and relaxation techniques are also helpful in tackling issues that surround low self-esteem, indeed they can be of benefit to everyone in keeping a healthy mind in a healthy body.    They are not, however, in isolation, the definitive answer to the issue.   Similarly, drugs can play a part in the treatment of some people with anxiety or phobias but are rarely the ideal solution and should be neither the only answer nor a long-term answer.   They may have their place in crisis management but not in tackling the issues of low self-esteem alone.

Keep working at it

"In order to discover new lands, one must be willing to lose sight of the shore for a very long time."

-- Unknown

Once we have achieved some equilibrium in our lives and our self-esteem is higher it is important to maintain it at its new level.  This may involve some effort on your part - never give up.  Most of the tips above are designed to assist in raising self-esteem but they also help us to keep our higher self-esteem.

People whose self-esteem is generally high usually exhibit certain desirable characteristics.    They are calm and relaxed.   They take care of their physical bodies and are energetic.   They can accept or ignore criticisms and abuse more easily because they judge themselves by their own values, actions and reactions and not the actions or words of others.   They are assertive and can stand up for the things that they believe in and that they feel they deserve.   They can 'Dance like nobody's watching; Love like they've never been hurt'.   They are generally positive and open and a joy to be around.

I believe that most of us have the potential to be like that - but then if you were to blindly believe that and try to live up to it you would be allowing my values and judgements to dictate your life.  You need to make your own judgements on the subject.  You are unique.  At the end of the day, it is your life.   You alone have the responsibility for managing it to your best adavantage.   These tips are simply designed to help you to think out your own solutions.

Above all, please remember - you are a unique human being and, as such, you are entitled to be happy, loved and valued.

John Edwards