According to the Oxford Dictionary, the term self-esteem refers to ‘confidence in one’s own worth or abilities: self-respect.’ On a practical level, this really relates to how well we like ourselves and it’s crucial to our sense of wellbeing. Indeed, self -esteem hovers around ideas of the degree to which we not only like ourselves, but respect and perhaps even admire ourselves.
Despite our best efforts to improve our levels of self-esteem through the reaching of milestones favoured by society, such as increased wealth or occupational prestige, there are some internal factors that have been with us since childhood which affect how high or low our self-esteem levels may be.
One of the first and most influential factors is how parents loved us as children and whether they placed conditions on this love. For example, was it based on receiving good grades at school? Or perhaps by being a ‘good girl’ around the house? If the received love was in this form, we may now struggle to reach a level of self-esteem where we feel good about ourselves without feeling the need to meet some external standard.
Another occurrence influencing our sense of self-esteem is if someone in our peer group achieves a greater level of material, social, or perhaps political success than us; we may find ourselves with not only feelings of envy but also feelings of shame and unworthiness. This is because, whilst we may admire celebrities for example, we don’t really compare ourselves with them as we intrinsically know they’re not like us as they may not be our age, earn the same as us, or mix in the same social circles as us.
So how can we improve our self-esteem despite these hindrances?
Foremost is the need to examine our internal beliefs about how we see ourselves. Such questions as, do I believe I’m intelligent? Do I believe I’m a disappointment to my family? Do I believe I’ve made an inordinate number of mistakes throughout my life? Or perhaps do I believe that no one really likes me?
The philosopher William James argues our beliefs are part of the process that gives truth to any idea we create. So, even though we’re constantly creating beliefs and deciding without the benefit of sufficient time or a complete set of evidence at our disposal, these beliefs seem like the truth to us.
As a result, we tend to only pay attention to and give meaning to things that support our beliefs – creating a very limiting view of ways to live a meaningful life. Logic, therefore, would seem to dictate that, just as we easily create these beliefs on limited information, so too can we easily reformulate them to more useful beliefs.
Of course, we have all been socially conditioned to co-exist with others within societies, so various cultural beliefs also have a vital impact on beliefs we hold about ourselves and our behaviour.
For instance, we may have been told that since we were born female, we should behave in a certain way that denotes a sweet and demure nature. Or perhaps, for boys to like us, we shouldn’t act too smart around them. Or perhaps the idea of being female and assertive are two mutually exclusive concepts that should never meet. Conversely, if born male, we may have been allowed to show anger but dissuaded from showing any other ‘soft’ emotion. Or perhaps a cultural belief promoted the status of tall boys as opposed to boys who were shorter.
Just like internal beliefs, it’s just as important to be aware of both the implicit and subtle cultural beliefs constantly surrounding and enveloping us. After all, we can’t change what we don’t first acknowledge…
Second, we should go a little easier on ourselves with our perceived ‘failures.’ Indeed, perhaps rather than considering incidents as ‘successes’ or ‘failures,’ we would be better served to consider them as ‘feedback’ of our progress. In this way, we’re in a better position to have empathy for ourselves should events not turn out the way we hoped, and to remind ourselves that we’re all doing the best we can with what is currently available to us.
Third, we should take stock of our strengths: that is, the things that come naturally to us and don’t require huge amounts of energy to invoke. For example, we may naturally ensure everyone is socially included: whether it be engaging with new co-workers at work or a single invitee at a party, we try to involve them in conversation and the group. Alternatively, a strength may be curiosity coupled with an insatiable appetite to learn. The acknowledgement of this strength allows us to receive pleasure – not only from a constant acquisition of new skills – but also from the sharing of this new knowledge with others.
Fourth, we should make an inventory of all our accomplishments so far. Whilst there may be obvious ones others have acknowledged as awards or status, don’t forget about the less tangible ones such as being a loving and patient parent, or a kind and diligent worker, or a creative business owner. When we take stock of what we’ve achieved over the years, it often comes as somewhat of a pleasant surprise – thus helping to re-evaluate the way we feel about ourselves.
Whilst this activity is a way for us to take stock of our lives to date, it’s also important to notice our – often ignored – daily accomplishments. We should ensure at the end of every day that we note three things of which we are personally proud. Again, they may be in either tangible or intangible form and include such things as receiving an acknowledgement from the boss of our enthusiasm in completing an urgent task, or performing a random act of kindness by paying for the person queued behind us engrossed in a text message, or perhaps we’re quietly pleased with the way we used our parental skills to quell a sibling feud over the allocation of lollies.
Whatever the context, these situations provide us with evidence of our strengths, skills, and aptitudes, giving weight to the argument that we’re not so bad after all.
Finally, we should constantly reinforce our personal boundaries via assertiveness. That is, for us to feel good about ourselves, we must first know what our boundaries are, and then maintain them through such things as communicating them to others using “I” statements, learning when to say “no” to others, requesting support or cooperation from others when needed, and confronting people when there’s a problem rather than letting resentment build.
So, whilst some factors may inhibit the enhancement of self-esteem, these five tips are a crucial starting point for improving our self-esteem.