- Self-esteem is the confidence we have in our own capabilities and value and the respect we have for ourselves.
- A blow to your self-esteem can affect everything else in your life.
- Self-esteem involves a complex interaction of thoughts and feelings about yourself and the feedback that you get from other people.
“I’m afraid I’m going to be fired,” Marlene* told me. “Nothing I ever do is right, even when I do exactly what my team leader tells me to do. Maybe she just doesn’t like me.” She looked down at her hands, then back at me. “Or maybe I’m really just not any good at the job,” she said.
Marlene was going through a hard time. It seemed that nothing in her life was going well. It was hard for her not to blame herself for all of the difficulties. From an outside perspective, it seemed pretty clear that while she might have contributed to some of the problems, some of them were outside her control and, in fact, had little to do with her at all, other than that they impacted her in unpleasant ways.
Her boyfriend of two years had decided to take a job in another state and, as part of the change in his life, had ended their relationship. “He says that he doesn’t want to have a long-distance relationship,” she said. “But if I’d been a better partner, maybe he wouldn’t feel that way.”
When our self-esteem takes a blow, it can affect everything in our lives, including how we feel about ourselves, our jobs, our physical appearance, and our mental abilities. It can even affect how we feel about where we live and what we do for pleasure.
Janeese,* for instance, told me that she felt stupid around her oldest daughter, who was always criticizing her and putting her down. “I know I’m not stupid,” she said. “I’m well-respected at work, and the younger employees look up to me. But my daughter’s attitude is that I’m a stupid old woman, and the weird thing is, that’s how I feel when I’m around her. I love her, and I’ve always admired her and loved to be with her. But now I hate spending time with her, and I’m so grateful when she leaves. But it still takes me a few days to get my self-confidence back. I get to work, and someone says something positive about something I’ve done, and I’m surprised.”
Self-esteem is the confidence we have in our own capabilities and value and the respect we have for ourselves. Some people have more self-esteem than we might think they deserve; others have less. How does that work? And what can you do when, like Janeese or Marlene, other people’s behavior or attitudes interferes with your ability to value yourself?
Self-esteem is interesting in that it’s made up of a complex interaction between your own thoughts and feelings about yourself and the feedback about yourself that you get from other people. This interaction probably starts as soon as we are born and goes on through our lives. For instance, in the days before we knew about attention deficit disorders and learning differences, many children with these difficulties grew up with low self-esteem because they were told they were lazy or that they weren’t paying attention, or were purposely creating problems.
Clients often tell me stories of experiences with teachers, classmates, and teammates that confirmed or disproved images of themselves constructed through this interplay between themselves and others—in this case parents and siblings, most often.
The same happens in adult relationships. A child who tells one parent she hates them can make that parent feel bad. If the other parent reinforces the bad feeling, it can damage the parent’s self-esteem. But if the other parent responds with support, maybe telling the so-called “hated” parent that they’re doing a good job, that it’s good that the child can express their feelings, and that it’s also good that the parent can remain loving and firm at the same time, both parents’ self-esteem may improve.
At work, when a senior person criticizes you, it’s easier to accept the criticism if they or someone else at the job also offers occasional positive reinforcement, or if outsiders provide positive feedback that counteracts the criticism. It’s also easier if you have some ongoing positive feelings about yourself.
Marlene and Janeese found themselves in the difficult position of listening to someone criticize them at moments when their self-esteem was already low. This meant that they didn’t have good resources for taking the criticism in stride. They lost their sense of value in the face of further external negative feedback.
How to Combat Negativity
There are many suggestions on the internet for boosting your self-esteem. But remember: it’s really hard to boost your self-esteem on your own. Try to think about people who might be most likely to give you positive feedback, and then try to find a way to engage with them. It’s fine to call a friend and ask if they think that you’re the worst parent in the world—that is, as long as you’re pretty sure that they don’t. But since reassurance doesn’t always work (like when you know, for instance, that your best friend will always tell you you’re good), here are some other ways that engaging with others can make you feel better about yourself, without asking directly for positive feedback.
- Do something fun with someone you enjoy being with. Just interacting with that person will boost your self-esteem, simply because you will know that you are both having a good time.
- Do some act of kindness for someone else. They don’t have to thank you. They don’t even have to know it was you. But this kind of silent engagement can boost your self-esteem simply because you know you did it. (And yes, even if you did it with the express purpose of feeling better about yourself.)
- Take a walk or a bike ride somewhere where you’ll see other people, and smile or nod or say “hi” to someone along the way. Simply relating to others can boost your self-esteem.
- Sign up for a class or other kind of activity. Interestingly, the anticipation of engaging with others and learning something new can improve self-esteem.
- Listen to someone else. Getting out of your own head and psyche by genuinely listening to and thinking about someone else can greatly improve how you feel about yourself.
The main thing to keep in mind is that self-esteem is interactive. It can be hard to raise your self-esteem on your own; but changing whom you are interacting with, and spending time with other people who you like being with and who are enjoying being with you, can make you feel better about yourself.
*Names and identifying info changed to protect privacy.
Facebook image: tativophotos/Shutterstock
LinkedIn image: MilanMarkovic78/Shutterstock