If you grew up in the 1980’s and 90’s, or you raised kids during those decades, you no doubt heard a lot about self-esteem. Cultivating it, celebrating it, sustaining it, and what to do if you lacked it were the subjects of articles, self-help books, talk shows, and studies. Curriculum aimed at building kids’ positive self-esteem even became part of school programs across the country.
Years ago, before I went into practice, I used to think that the notion of our self-worth resided inside ourselves and it was either present, or absent. You either had positive or negative self-esteem. But actually it’s more complex than that. Some people with low self-esteem not only can’t generate any positive feelings about themselves, they rely on external measurements of their sense of self-worth.
For instance, for the over-achieving student, performance-based self-esteem means believing that you’re only as good as your last “A” or your last 4.0 GPA semester. This can also be true in the workplace when you feel like you’re only as good as your last promotion or bonus. In order to feel good about yourself, you’re not allowed to mess up, or be less than perfect.
Other-based self-esteem means believing you’re only as good as your partner (or mother, father, pastor, sister, etc.) says you are. You have to be anointed with self-esteem rather than cultivating it within. Internal positive thoughts about yourself don’t exist; they can only be found through others’ opinions.
Attribute esteem means borrowing your sense of worthiness from others—from your Harvard-bound college student, your multi-millionaire brother, or your mother, the famous author. Rubbing elbows with those who are esteemed by society gives you your sense of worth, by association.
A healthy self-esteem means having a balanced, realistic view of yourself, recognizing your abilities as well as your limitations. It will fluctuate over time, depending on your circumstances, but generally speaking you form positive relationships, feel confident about your abilities and are open to learning and feedback.
When you’ve got low self-esteem you’re convinced your thoughts or ideas don’t have much merit, and you’re hyper-focused on your weaknesses and faults. You have a hard time taking credit for your skills and talents and see everyone else as more capable or successful. You resist positive feedback and can have an intense fear of failure which can prevent you from taking risks.
These days young people, and many of us adults, turn to the ultimate external feel-good source: social media. We look to likes and views for a needed dose of positive feeling. If we’re already prone to letting external forces dictate how we feel about ourselves, social media is the perfect foil. We all need to be aware of how much credence we give to Instagram, Facebook and Twitter, SnapChat and the like, as a measure of our worth.
If you’re a parent with children at home, you are very instrumental in helping them build a positive sense of who they are, a trait they’ll carry into adulthood. In order to do that it’s helpful to be mindful of:
If you’re looking for resources, Common Sense Media has a guide to books for kids of all ages that introduce kids to the idea self esteem. And here’s a list of Amazon’s list of best selling books for adults on the same subject.