by Barbra Williams Cosentino R.N., C.S.W.
Do you berate yourself for things you do or say? Are you afraid to make a mistake? Relax. Chances are you’re not a bad person, and most likely, you do at least one thing well. Perhaps it’s time for a self-esteem tune-up.
Yale University researchers recently found that a “bad hair day” can be hazardous to your mental health. If something as insignificant as an out-of-control coif can “diminish your self-esteem and inspire feelings of incompetence, self-doubt, and even self-hatred,” what might happen if you were late for work? Or had a fight with your boss?
“How we feel about ourselves crucially affects virtually every aspect of our experience…from the way we function at work, in love, in sex, to the way we operate as parents, to how high in life we are likely to rise. The dramas of our lives are the reflections of our most private visions of ourselves,” says Nathaniel Branden, a renowned psychotherapist and author, viewed by many as “the father of modern-day self-esteem psychology.”
The Foundation of Self-esteem
According to Branden, self-esteem has two components: a feeling of personal competence and a feeling of personal worth, reflecting both your implicit judgment of your ability to cope with life’s challenges and your belief that your interests, rights and needs are important. Healthy self-esteem comes from realistically appraising your capabilities, striving to enhance these capabilities, and compassionately accepting your limitations and flaws. Living consciouslyâ€”thinking independently, being self-aware, being honest with yourself, having an active orientation, taking risks, and respecting realityâ€”says Branden, is the foundation of good self-esteem.
When Self-esteem Abounds
Branden says that people with high levels of self-esteem do the following things:
Face life with greater confidence, benevolence and optimism
Are more likely to reach their emotional, creative and spiritual goals and experience fulfillment, satisfaction and joy
Are more resilient and better equipped to cope with life’s adversities
Are more likely to form nourishing, rather than destructive, relationships
When Self-esteem Is Lacking
Psychologist Carl Rogers noted that the more accepting people are of themselves, the more likely they are to accept others. Low self-esteem, on the other hand, can profoundly affect your psychological sense of well-being, causing you to feel disconnected from your own feelings and needs and limiting your ability to make healthy choices in love, work and play. People with poor self-esteem may suffer from a chronic fear of abandonment. Others become driven overachievers, perfectionists, or control freaks, believing that they deserve to be loved only for what they accomplish, rather than simply for who they are.
Many have difficulty making decisions, feeling that a wrong decision will lead to the loss of love. Some get caught in the grip of addictions such as overeating, smoking, alcohol or drug abuse, or compulsive shopping as a way to avoid unpleasant feelings of alienation, insecurity or self-loathing.
Turning Off the Negative Thoughts
In his bestselling book Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy, psychiatrist David Burns, M.D., says “You don’t have to do anything especially worthy to create or deserve self-esteem; all you have to do is turn off that critical, haranguing inner voice, because that critical inner voice is wrong! Your internal self-abuse springs from illogical, distorted thinking.”
According to Burns, cognitive distortions such as all-or-nothing thinking, overgeneralization and personalization can contribute to depression and an impaired sense of self-esteem. His powerfully simple prescription for correcting a negative self-image includes techniques like:
Learning to recognize automatic, self-critical, dysfunctional thoughts that make you feel bad about yourself
Learning to substitute more rational, less upsetting thoughts for these negative ones
Talking back to your internal critic
Raising a Child With Healthy Self-esteem
“The quality of the relationships experienced in childhood appears to be vitally important, since it is at this time that the seeds of self-esteem are sown,” says British psychologist Elaine Sheehan. Child development experts believe that infants need to see “the gleam in the mother’s eye” and to be sensitively mirrored as a way of learning they are loved and loveable.
However, unlike a daily multivitamin, parents cannot give their children self-esteem, but they must provide an emotional climate in which the child’s innate sense of being worthy of love and care can flourish. Self-esteem develops as the result of firm emotional attachment to parents who are loving, nurturing and responsive to their child’s needs while providing a sense of structure and consistency.
Overdoing the Praise
Although adult approval is important, many parents and educators today indiscriminately overpraise children, believing this will foster a high self-esteem. Child psychologist Kenneth N. Condrell, Ph.D., explains: “Self-esteem doesn’t come from saying ‘You’re wonderful’ or ‘You’re number one’.” In fact, frequent exhortations about a child’s specialness may backfire, creating a child who either becomes pathologically dependent on external validation or, conversely, hears so much meaningless praise that he just tunes it out.
One young man who was praised extravagantly for every tiny achievement says, “I started to believe that my parents didn’t really expect much of me. If I took a black crayon and scribbled on a piece of paper they would call me a Picasso…it made me think that they didn’t believe I could do any better.”
A Healthy Balance
True self-esteem comes from withinâ€”from mastering new tasks (using the potty, tying one’s shoelaces), developing impulse control (sharing toys, waiting for your turn on the slide), knowing your strengths and weaknesses (“I’m good at throwing a ball but not such a good ice-skater”), learning how to solve problems, making and keeping friends, and owning and evaluating your own accomplishments (“now I know my ABC’s…”). Bumper stickers that proclaim “My child’s an honor student at Smithtown Middle School” may help to promote self-esteem, but the real sense of inner accomplishment and pride comes from the child knowing he has done a good job and worked hard to attain his full potential.
Tips for Building Self-esteem in Children
Nancy Poitou, a marriage and family therapist in Southern California, suggests that parents who want to help their children develop self-esteem follow these guidelines:
Accept your child as a separate human being with emotions that are important.
Respond to your children’s successes with small celebrations, and comfort and encourage them when they fail.
Tell your children you love them just the way they are and hug them often.
Speak to your kids with respect and loving kindness.
Teach your children developmentally appropriate decision-making skills.
When disciplining, differentiate the behavior from the child. Do not label the child with name calling, but focus on the child’s unacceptable actions.
Show interest in your child’s thoughts, feelings and daily activities.
A Rewarding Journey
Learning to feel good about who we are is a journey that takes time, patience, self-awareness and an ability to forgive ourselves for our human frailties. As difficult as that may be, the rewardsâ€”self confidence, improved relationships, a more positive self-image and a sense that all’s right with the worldâ€”make it a goal worth striving