Self-esteem is one of the most central concepts in all of psychology. Having a positive self-esteem is critical to an individual’s mental health. One of the main criteria for a psychiatric diagnosis of depression is having a low sense of self-esteem. In the throes of a depressive episode, people question and doubt themselves and feel, in the worst cases, that they don’t deserve to continue living.
Theories of personality psychology put low self-esteem squarely in the middle of the neurotic, or poorly adjusted, psyche. Freud, among others, believed that we’re so driven to avoid confronting our weaknesses and flaws that we’ll engage in any number of mental shenanigans (a.k.a. defense mechanisms) to keep them out of conscious awareness. The humanistic theorist Carl Rogers proposed that children who fail to develop a healthy self-esteem become neurotic adults. He proposed that as adults, these individuals constantly fear being exposed to the criticism that they suffered when their parents communicated to them that they were deficient. Alfred Adler, author of the term “inferiority complex,” similarly proposed that the neurotic is constantly “striving for superiority” to compensate for inner feelings of low self-esteem.
1. Make sure you’re understanding people correctly before you conclude you’re flawed. If you've been the victim of an insult, you know that it hurts when someone makes fun of you. Taking apart the insult, though, might help buffer you from its effects.
Let's look, then, at what's involved in an insult. The art of the insult lies at the heart of the comedian’s bag of tricks. A good comedian knows just how to pitch the insult with the right degree of sarcasm and humor. In everyday life, few people really know how to deliver those perfectly-timed and aimed punch lines. However, that doesn’t stop them from trying. Unfortunately, if you’re at the receiving end of a poorly prepared jab, it’s easy to misinterpret the insult. We’ve all been exposed to sarcastic comments from our friends that completely backfired—and we’ve all most likely committed our own share of unintended hurtful insults. Your friend laughingly points out that your new neon yellow t-shirt makes you look like a road sign. It’s not a very funny comment, nor probably particularly apt, but you interpret this as a commentary on some aspect of your physical appearance that you’re not all that happy with such as your height, weight, or body build.
Many of the attempts that people make to be humorous through sarcasm are communication methods that have simply gone awry. According to University at Albany communications research Robert Sanders (2013), people who make sarcastic remarks may do so deliberately, but they may also do so mistakenly. These mistakes happen because they’re not paying attention or understanding the social context. For example, a person at a business meeting may repeat, sarcastically, an unintentionally humorous comment made by the boss such as a slip of the tongue. Although the situation may have been truly funny, the boss doesn’t appreciate being mocked and scolds the employee. When something like this happens to you, though, you might not be able to brush it off so easily because you feel humiliated. Instead of letting this get to you, recognize that either the mocking person just has poor social skills or try to see the humor in the situation yourself, and shrug it off.
2. Stay away, at least mentally, from people who constantly make you feel bad about yourself. You have a relative, friend or colleague who’s constantly finding something about you to criticize. No matter what you do, it seems you can’t seem to please this person. More seriously, you may even feel that this person has stepped over the line, and you’re wondering if you’re the victim of bullying. The first line of defense to protect your self-esteem when you’re being criticized constantly by someone is to get out of the situation. However, it may be impossible for you to avoid this person, especially if it’s a family member or work colleague. In that case, you have some coping options to use.
Begin by using emotion-focused coping, known to be effective in managing stressful reactions to situations that are unchangeable. The specific strategies for dealing with criticism would include minimizing the importance of these negative comments and possibly seeing them as a reflection of the other person’s own insecurities. However, if the situation persists, you need to switch to problem-focused coping, in which you address the problem by talking it out. This might be difficult, especially if the situation has persisted over time. By taking action instead of internalizing all that criticism, you can start to feel more in control and hence better about yourself and your abilities.
3. Don’t feel you have to go it alone. Seeking social support is one of the best ways to cope with stress of any kind. There’s ample research to show, additionally, that social support helps people not only manage their stress but boost their self-esteem. Social support has the additional advantage of reassuring you that people actually do care about you and regard you as worthy. Of course, you want to seek support from someone who will be understanding and compassionate, not someone who will only add to your woes.
Unfortunately, seeking social support might not be a coping method that comes naturally if you tend to be shy. In a study on Chinese college students, Jingjing Zhao and her colleagues (2013) found that shy people are lower in self-esteem but also are less likely than their more outgoing counterparts to seek out social situations in which they might be able to find support. If you steer clear of situations in which you can reach out to others for support, you won’t be able to experience that self-esteem boosting effect on your well-being.
To sum up, self-esteem is a complex mixture of your perceptions of yourself colored not only by your actual abilities but the way you are regarded by others. Using these three strategies may take some effort, but once you get started, you’ll find that your confidence- and your positive emotions- will grow. The better you feel about yourself, the more likely you’ll be to have favorable experiences which further enhance your fulfillment both now, and in the long-term.
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Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2014
Sanders, R. E. (2013). The duality of speaker meaning: What makes self-repair, insincerity, and sarcasm possible. Journal Of Pragmatics, 48(1), 112-122. doi:10.1016/j.pragma.2012.11.020
Zhao, J., Kong, F., & Wang, Y. (2013). The role of social support and self-esteem in the relationship between shyness and loneliness. Personality And Individual Differences, 54(5), 577-581. doi:10.1016/j.paid.2012.11.003