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Self-esteem is how you view yourself and your abilities; how much you like and appreciate yourself. It can be low, high, or at some point between high and low. While occasionally everyone will have doubts about themselves, low self-esteem can make your life miserable, as it can leave you feeling insecure and unmotivated. High self-esteem, on the other hand, is likely to make you feel better about yourself and make you more resilient. Medical and other studies of the brain have shown that rejection and failure have low or no painful effects on the individual who has high self-esteem. It also fosters less exposure to anxiety; this is because when a person feels good about himself, cortisol which is released into the bloodstream during a stressful experience, is not likely to linger in the body.
Let us explore low self-esteem for a bit. In several cases, this is developed as a result of traumatic experiences as a child such as neglect, abuse of any kind, and separation from caregivers. However, this can be developed later in life because of adverse experiences such as losing a job, getting separated or divorced, poor or frustrating relationships, and a general sense of lack of control. There is a relationship between mental disorder and low self-esteem. That is, low self-esteem makes one vulnerable to mental disorders such as depression, and this condition further hits self-esteem.
People with low self-esteem tend to see the world as hostile and perceive themselves as victims. As a result, they are reluctant to express and assert themselves, are less confident, miss out on experiences and opportunities, and feel like they have no power to change or improve their situations. All this can lower their self-esteem further, pulling them continuously downward. When you see yourself as unworthy and not good enough, the usual reaction to that is a feeling to blend in, stay in the background, and try not to bring attention to yourself. People with low esteem are aware that destructive words can hurt to the core of your being and destroy or damage the things you desire most such as security, acceptance, love, and affection.
Although high self-esteem is valued by many people, it is usually very challenging to develop and maintain. Part of the reason why it is no easy task to improve self-esteem is that it is relatively unstable and it can change daily or even hourly. It is further complicated as it includes our feelings about ourselves (global self-esteem) as well as how we feel about ourselves in terms of the roles we play (father, mother, doctor, manager, chef, among others). The self-esteem is impacted more by the responses from our roles than it is by our thoughts about ourselves. For instance, a chef will be hurt by a disgusted look on someone’s face when they taste a meal he prepared much more than someone (like me) who does not have cooking as an aspect of his identity. Also, that same chef would probably not be negatively affected by someone saying he or she is a bad driver.
While having high self-esteem is a good thing to desire, there is a danger of reaching to the level of a narcissist. A narcissistic personality disorder is “…a mental condition in which people have an inflated sense of their own importance, a deep need for excessive attention and admiration, troubled relationships, and a lack of empathy for others. (Mayo Clinic).” Narcissists usually feel good about themselves much of the time, however, they also tend to react adversely to criticism and negative feedback in ways that slow or damage their mental self-growth. Therefore, high self-esteem is to be sought but only in moderation.
Whether you know, don’t know, or not willing to find out what could be affecting your opinion of yourself, there are suggested and proven ways to improve self-esteem to foster a happy and rewarding life. I can only provide you with a brief guideline which is mostly based on my own experiences, but the hard work and commitment have to come from you if you desire to improve your self-esteem.
Think about yourself in a positive light
Remind yourself that despite your problems, you are a unique, special, and valuable person and like everyone else, you deserve to feel good about yourself. For those on the more religious side, it would be good to remember that when you feel that no one likes or cares about you, you were created by God on purpose. The Psalmist said in Psalm 139:13-14: For you [God] created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works [including me] are wonderful, I know that full well.
Make lists of your strengths and achievements
Do not downplay anything on these lists. If you are not in the frame of mind to think through what these may entail, ask a trusted friend or family member to help you. Keep the lists in an available place and read through them every day.
Use affirmations appropriately and focus on what you can change
An affirmation like “I am going to be a great success!” is easy to declare by an individual with high self-esteem, but could make someone with low self-esteem feel worse about himself. A more ideal statement would be “I will not give up until I succeed!” Focus on what you can change or control. It is usually easy to focus on things that are not in your control but not much can be achieved from this. Spend more time and energy on the things that you identify as within your control and finding ways to change them.
Acknowledge what you are good at and develop them
If you know you are great at cooking, for instance, find more occasions to display your talents; invite friends over, or volunteer as a caterer for dinner parties. In short, identify your main competencies and find opportunities and careers that bring them out. Don’t forget to also celebrate small victories such as compliments for a meal you prepared, waking up in time to get ready for a special occasion, accomplishing a small but important task, among others.
Replace self-criticism with self-compassion
One thing that is known to damage low self-esteem further is self-criticism. In psychology this is discussed as a negative personality trait; the individual has a disrupted identity of self. This tends to be easy to do and hard to eliminate. One way to introduce self-compassion (the ability to turn understanding, acceptance, and love inward) is to imagine what you would say to a good friend if he or she was in a similar situation. Psychologists believe that people have a tendency to act more compassionate toward loved ones than we are to ourselves.
Confirm and maintain your real worth
Make a list of personal qualities that you believe are meaningful in a particular situation. This usually helps in resilience. For instance, let’s say you were rejected by someone you liked or loved or turned down at a job interview. If the qualities that you listed include those that make you a good prospect as a partner or employee (being loyal, value commitment, is responsible, has a strong work ethic, etc), then, even if there is disappointment or hurt, in the long run, your attitude is likely to be ‘it’s their loss, not mine.’
Check who you associate yourself with
Avoid places and people who treat you badly or make you feel bad about yourself. You may have to display assertiveness (bravery) to do this. If you feel you are not able to do this on your own, seek help from a professional. In the meantime, spend more time with those who you love and who love you. Be nice to yourself and others, as putting a smile on someone’s face is bound to put one on yours.
Maybe you are already doing some of the things listed above to improve or maintain your self-esteem, and have realized that this requires some amount of work and commitment. This is because developing and maintaining healthy emotional habits is not an easy thing to do. However, if done correctly, you will not regret the outcomes of higher self-esteem, improved self-confidence, and a better outlook on life.
This article is not exhaustive. For more information, please check your local media for professionals offering counselling services for mental health-related issues.