Self-esteem—what psychologist Nathaniel Branden Ph.D., who studied this quality for over 30 years, called “the reputation we have with ourselves”—is probably life’s most vital key to gratifying relationships, career fulfillment, and inner peace. But what exactly is this attribute? There are many definitions, but basically self-esteem involves being able to respect yourself and to like yourself. This reasonably consistent admiration and affection for self comes from your belief in your own confidence, integrity, value, and lovableness.
Your level of self-esteem affects your life in innumerable ways. If it is high, you are more likely to take criticism without going to pieces, you are more willing to take risks by speaking out for the things you care about, and you are more likely to fulfill the goals you set for yourself.
If you have a poor opinion of yourself—if you think of yourself as a washout, or someone who misses opportunities, never does anything right, antagonizes other people, and disappoints yourself at every turn—your feeling about yourself will affect how you act. It will make you fail in both work and relationships, which will drag your self-image down even lower.
Self-esteem is not, of course, a panacea for all of life’s ills. With the highest self-esteem in the world, you may still be subject to as many hardships as anyone else. But with high self-esteem, when difficulties arise, you will be better able to marshal your resources — inner and outer — to deal with them.
The foundation of self-esteem is laid early in childhood, largely by how other people — especially your parents — treat you. Early encouragement of your individuality, acceptance of you just the way you are, and the belief that you can succeed in life are building blocks toward a strong edifice of self-esteem. Even if you have reached adulthood with a shaky sense of self, you can do a great deal to admire and care for yourself, and to live more productively.
The task of raising self-esteem is the cornerstone of virtually all psychotherapy, and the following suggestions from a dozen prominent therapists offer fresh, innovative ways to do this.
A prime requirement for high self-esteem is knowing who you are. One way to achieve this is through an exercise that Sidney B. Simon, professor emeritus at the University of Massachusetts and co-author of Forgiveness: How to Make Peace with Your Past and Get on with Your Life, has given his students: make a list of “50 Reasons I Can Respect Myself.”
“When you do this exercise and share your list with other people,” says Simon, “you confront all the things you do not respect yourself for, and inevitably that is the beginning of change. For example, when you hear someone else talk about getting help to overcome an addiction or making a note to remember a mother’s birthday, you think about where you are with respect to these issues. And you may find yourself coming up short. Only when you can come up with a long list of self-respecting behaviors can you have high self-esteem. Then you’ll know your strengths, and when you begin to doubt yourself, you always have your list to remind you.
Everyone undergoes some negative experiences in life, it’s what we do with them that determines how they will affect us. One way to use unhappy times constructively is to follow the suggestion of psychotherapist Kathy Carlson, author of In Her Image: The Unhealed Daughter’s Search for Her Mother, who counsels finding a strength you have that might not have developed if you had not undergone some kind of stress or trauma. Ask yourself, Did anything good come out of the circumstance? Am I stronger for it, wiser, more sensitive? As you see how you not only survived an unhappy experience but even grew from it, you can feel a new respect for yourself.
Carlson cites the example of one woman whose mother rejected the daughter’s every effort to identify with and become close to her, starting in childhood when the mother scoffed at her little girl’s longing for them to wear matching “mother-daughter” dresses. “I’m not saying this woman was lucky to have had this kind of mother,” says Carlson. “She developed very real problems in trusting people, in forming close relationships. But she had real strengths, too—she was forced to develop independence and self-reliance that she might not have developed otherwise.”
Seeing how you made something good from something bad allows you to see that you are not doomed by anything that happens to you; you can mold the clay of your experiences into the shape of a better life. And this awareness, by making you feel more powerful, enhances your opinion of yourself.
To think highly of yourself, you have to see yourself as someone who is worthy of affection and love. If, as a child, you didn’t feel valued and cared for, as an adult you will continue carrying that unloved, worthless-feeling child inside yourself.
But you can go back to the rescue and take care of that inner child. Clinical psychologist Penelope Russianoff, PhD., author of When Am I Going to Be Happy?, suggests one way to do this. Find your most hated photo of yourself as a child, blow it up to poster size, and hang it on your closet door. Every day, look at it and ask yourself: If I were that little girl’s mother, how could I make her feel loved? Then imagine taking that little child and rocking her, cuddling her, and giving her all the love she needs and wants. As you do this day after day, you come to see how sweet that little child is and how she values all the love and nurturing she can get.
Another way to care for your inner child is by imagining what you were like as a child and befriending that child who is still within you. You might, as Dr. Branden suggested in his book How to Raise Your Self-Esteem, ask yourself what it felt like to be 5 years old, to be sad, to be excited, what it was like to live in your home. As you answer these questions, you might be treating your inner child seriously for the first time.
Whether you use these psychologists’ words and visualizations or develop your own, you will gain from writing down what you want to say. The important element in such an exercise is the calling up of incidents and feelings from long ago — both happy memories and troubling ones, hearing and respectfully listening to the child you once were, and using that child’s wisdom to help you today.
You also need to love your adult self. “We all talk to ourselves constantly,” say analysts Mildred Newman and Bernard Berkowitz, PhD., authors of How to Be Your Own Best Friend. “But often, we scold ourselves as if we were our own worst enemies: ‘You rotten person, look at what you did! What a dope you are!‘”
Instead, they suggest, when you wake up in the morning, smile and say lovingly to yourself—either out loud or in your mind—something positive like “Good morning, how are you feeling today? I hope this will be the best day you’ve ever had. You’re a good person. You deserve to have a good day.” For starters, these kind and caring statements will drive out the self-negating ones; in addition, you’ll be stressing the positive rather than the negative. And finally, research has shown that arranging your features into a smile is, in itself, likely to make you feel better.
Another way to cultivate a favorable self-opinion is to look at yourself through the eyes of people who love and admire you. Carlson suggests thinking of someone in your life, either past or present, who values (or valued) you greatly — your mother or father, an aunt, teacher, friend, lover, or spouse. You can use this person as an always-available inner resource to call up the feeling of being loved and admired.
Whenever you feel you handled something badly, Carlson suggests that you ask yourself, How would so-and-so see me in this situation? She thinks (always thought) I’m a good person. She wouldn’t damn me for one mistake. Or, You didn’t do anything terrible. Anyone might have done that. Now what can you learn from it?
“Most women get so caught up in the hypnotic trance of external expectations of what it means to be ‘good ‘ that they lose touch with their own voice, the voice that tells them what they want and value and need,” says marital and family therapist Claudia Bepko, co-author with Jo-Ann Krestan of Too Good for Her Own Good. They recommend the following exercise to help you reconnect with your true self. Plan to be alone, with no distractions, for at least two hours. Turn off your phone, the radio and television, do not pick up anything to read, do not engage in any “useful” activity. You can take a walk — but not with the aim of trimming your thighs!
Allow thoughts to float in and out of your head. Think about what you enjoyed as a child, what you wanted to be, what your daydreams were, what you felt — and feel — passionate about, what your fantasies are now. Pay attention to what comes up. You will probably feel very anxious the first time you do this, because we have been socialized to believe that focusing on ourselves is selfish. But if you do this regularly, you can begin to identify the changes you want to make in your life—and you can find out how interesting your own thoughts and feelings can be when you give them room to emerge.
Read the second half of Believe in Yourself: 10 Self-Esteem Builders next month in the December alee+ newsletter.
Sally Wendkos Olds has written extensively about child development, family life, human relationship and health, and has won national awards for both her book and magazine writing. She is the author or co-author of eleven books and hundreds of articles that have appeared in major national magazines. She received the lifetime achievement award from the American Society of Journalists and Authors.