You may have heard about two studies last year on self-esteem in college students. A New York Times article reported that, when given the choice, most college students prefer to receive a boost to their self-esteem in the form of a compliment or good grade over eating a favorite food such as pizza or having sex. The article begins with the following question: "Are young people addicted to feeling good about themselves?"
At first, I found this question idiotic. I am sick and tired of how our culture has adapted the language of addiction to describe everything. The more I thought about it, however, it did make a (limited) kind of sense to me, especially if you consider addiction to actual drugs as a means to avoid some other experience or to seek an inappropriate remedy for a very real problem. As I've written elsewhere, narcissistic people crave attention and admiration in order to ward off feelings of shame and to disguise a sense of inner defect. In other words, they have no authentic self-esteem and look to others to provide a substitute for it.
The problem with external sources of self-esteem, as with all drugs, is that they wear off and you have to secure more of it to feed your habit. As a result, those individuals without genuine self-esteem have an insatiable need for their their egos to be bolstered by the people around them. In this sense, I suppose it makes sense to talk about them as addicts, even if "addicted to self-esteem" sounds ridiculous. Besides, receiving a compliment has nothing to do with authentic self-esteem.
In my experience, you can't obtain real self-esteem from the outside. Yes, it's important that our parents praise and encourage us as we grow up. We internalize their values and standards, and those of our teachers and other significant figures; then, once they've become a part of us, we must live up to those standards if we're to feel good about ourselves. I'm not referring to perfectionistic and overly harsh standards, impossible to meet. I mean our own ideas and expectations, evolved from the disparate influences of family, peer group and culture, about what it means to be and behave like a person we would respect.
Once in my own therapy, many years ago, I was telling my therapist about a social encounter the night before which involved too much alcohol, some poor choices and promiscuous behavior on my part. I don't remember what he said, exactly, but I responded in a very defensive way and told him I felt as if he disapproved of me. He may then have said, "I think you feel that you deserve disapproval." Or maybe, "I think it's you who disapproves of yourself." I can't recall but the effect upon me was stunning in the way I always used to feel when he delivered a particularly accurate interpretation. All at once, I had to "own" my projections and realize that I felt very bad about myself indeed. I knew better than to behave the way I did; at that social event, I knew I was making poor choices but like a rebellious kid, I refused to acknowledge the probable bad result of my actions and did what felt good in the moment. I could have done better.
To this day, I say similar things to my own clients when it seems appropriate. I might tell them, "Maybe there's a good reason why you feel bad about yourself today." I don't in any way mean this to be harsh and I never feel judgmental about it. Rather, it's my way of making clear that self-esteem is something that is earned. Maybe self-respect would be a better way of talking about the issue. All respect has to be earned, including self-respect. In this connection, I think that "self-confidence" is another useful concept, if you consider "confidence" in its secondary meaning, something confided or entrusted. I believe that authentic self-confidence, self-respect and self-esteem grow out of knowing yourself very well -- confiding in yourself, as it were -- and behaving in ways that you respect by meeting your own standards.
Think back to a recent event you can't quite put to rest, an incident where you may have behaved inappropriately, or about which other people have criticized you; maybe you're still justifying yourself in the privacy of your thoughts. This may be a place where you can see this process at work.
Try to step back from the incident and look at it objectively; you don't have to accept or assign blame at this point. What are the issues and values at the heart of the experience? Sensitivity to other people's feelings? How to balance your needs and wishes with those of your loved ones? Division of responsibilities within your primary relationship? Maybe there are ethical issues involved with something that happened at work. You might have betrayed a confidence or said more than you should on a sensitive issue. If possible, look at the situation as if it involved somebody other than you and decide what are the standards and values that apply.
Then evaluate your behavior and see if you lived up to those standards. Pay careful attention to the ways in which you may want to justify a breach -- a sure sign that you feel in the wrong. Angry defensiveness is another indication that you're trying to ward off guilt or other bad feelings. I usually find that giving up the fight and simply owning up to error makes me feel better -- not completely better, of course, but somehow all that energy spent in trying to defend my innocence only makes me feel worse about myself on another level, leading to more defensiveness, etc.