What’s Self-Esteem Got to Do With It?
By: JoAnn Kukulus, MS Clinical Psychology/MFTI, ACS Clinical Intern
If esteem (as in “my esteemed colleagues…”) is the value and worth one applies to people, places, and situations then it naturally follows that ‘self-esteem’ is the value and worth an individual applies to herself or himself. We can frame a picture of how we feel about ourselves by contemplating the answers to a few simple questions: Do I like myself? Am I a worthy human being? Do I deserve love, and happiness?(2) Childhood experiences are particularly influential in forming the image we hold of ourselves. Once thought to be a more constant personality trait, currently it is apparent that great flux and variation exists in “what our unconscious believes to be true about how worthy, lovable, valuable and capable we are.”(1) Self-esteem evolves as a result of experiences within our environment, gleaned from the verbal and nonverbal messages we receive from others; the brain accepts all of these messages, without regard to validity, as fact, and is therefore continually reconfiguring our sense of our own value.
Our sense of self-esteem impacts the way we approach life. Individuals with healthy self-esteem believe they are valued and accepted by others, believe they are worthy of being treated fairly and with respect, practice self-acceptance and self-respect even when they make mistakes, continue to believe in themselves when they experience failure, are aware of their own positive qualities or strengths, feel pride in their accomplishments, and take a positive attitude toward themselves. Individuals with unhealthy or low self-esteem focus on failures more than successes, are highly self-critical and negative, hold insecure or inferior views of themselves, believe they are undeserving of positive outcomes, believe they are unworthy of others’ acceptance and allow others to treat them disrespectfully, lack self-confidence in their ability to succeed, and take a negative attitude toward themselves. Low self-esteem contributes to poor relationships, lack of successful accomplishments, and less overall happiness. Healthy self-esteem allows us to form positive relationships, confidently attempt novel experiences, and achieve success.
Parents and other adults in teens’ lives can have a positive influence on the development of healthy self-esteem:
- Treat teens with respect by understanding that their behavior is not going to be consistent at this stage in their development (highly responsible one moment, childish and immature the next). Provide opportunities for increased responsibility and show trust in teen’s judgment around decisions and accountability. Pay attention to what you say and how you say it; be truthful/honest while emphasizing effort and completion rather than outcome.
- Talk to teens like adults by providing adequate explanations in adult language and be a positive role model(4) by showing self-compassion toward your own abilities and limitations.
- Identify and redirect inaccurate or irrational beliefs by encouraging teens to view situations, traits, abilities in objective ways; modeling for teens how to set accurate and realistic standards for themselves will foster healthy self-concept.
- Be spontaneous and affectionate by expressing your love for your teens; praise teens honestly, without overdoing it and let them know how much they mean to you!
- Give positive and accurate feedback by specifically acknowledging or noting teens’ feelings and choices. Avoid statements that include “you always…” or “you never…”
- Create a safe and loving home environment by practicing respectful behavior toward all family members; encourage teens to share their thoughts, feelings, concerns, hopes with you or other trusted adults, and respond in non-judgmental ways.
- Help teens become involved in constructive experiences by encouraging participation in cooperative activities; volunteering or mentoring younger children “can have positive effects on self-esteem.”
Teens themselves also have the power to positively impact their own self-esteem:
- Manage your inner critic(5) through awareness of how critically/harshly you speak to yourself; rephrase negative self-talk into more constructive feedback.
- Focus on what goes well for you instead of only problems; find positive aspects of your life (about yourself or actions/efforts) to counter the negativity.
- Strive for effort rather than perfection Focus more on the energy you put into trying something new, or again, and less on the outcome.
- View mistakes as learning opportunities by noting what you can/will do differently next time.
- Edit thought that promote feelings of inferiority Let go of comparing yourself to others.
- Remind yourself that everyone excels at different things Be aware of your own strengths, and accept that you do well at certain things but probably not every thing.
- Try new things and give yourself credit Explore different activities to discover what you enjoy and are good at doing; be proud of new skills!
- Recognize what you can change and what you can’t Know the difference between flexible conditions (eating habits, hairstyle) and constant conditions (height, shoe size)
- Set goals by thinking about what you want to accomplish and making a plan to work toward it. Focus on achieving positive actions.
- Take pride in your opinions and ideas by voicing them; understand that people may hold different opinions or ideas, and that is no reflection on the value of your own.
- Accept compliments by allowing yourself to receive them graciously, appreciating them, and taking them seriously.
- Make a contribution to the world: tutor classmates/peers who are having trouble, become involved in environmental issues, raise funds for a worthy cause, or volunteer in some other way.
- Exercise to remain active and fit! Physical activity relieves stress and keeps your body healthy.
- Relax and have fun by spending time with people you care about, engaging in things you enjoy, and feeling gratitude for the positive aspects of your life.
Research has identified factors that “strongly correlate with self-esteem”(1) that can be examined/observed to promote greater understanding of self-esteem: Locus of control relates to “one’s sense of internal causality and orientation toward personal responsibility;” with greater internal LOC one would develop a sense that he or she is master of their destiny, while greater external LOC would create a sense that life is more accidental. A sense of belonging and acceptance “reflects how much one feels wanted and a part of the group, and how much one likes and accepts themselves as they are;” individuals who feel accepted and acceptable are freer to share their thoughts/feelings, behave genuinely, and maintain mindfulness while lack of belonging and acceptance may promote boasting or focus on pleasing others. A sense of competence connects to an individual’s feeling of how well she or he gets things done and is influenced by one’s interpretation of experiences; evaluating experiences as successful creates a sense of confidence and increases the likelihood that an individual will try new things in the future, whereas an evaluation of failure sets up an individual to withdraw from trying new experiences.
Remember, self-esteem is a product of our own thoughts and opinions about ourselves and can be shaped and improved. All you have to do is practice thinking and feeling good about yourself until it’s a habit!
(2) Self-esteem ebook, Self-Esteem-Experts.com