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Content Note: This article discusses suicide and mental health issues, including depression, anxiety, and eating disorders.
Despite what many of us may have been told: learning a new skill, having a fit body, finding love, or having lots of money, are not remedies to low self-esteem. Nor do they have a significant influence on building low self-esteem. In fact, cultural influences that glorify these types of “success” may even hinder the process of self-esteem development, because we fall for what's “expected” of us, instead of embracing what we authentically need or want.
Why is self-esteem so important?
In short, it's the “health of the mind” (Branden), which reaches into all facets of our lives.
What is Self-Esteem
Self-esteem is an inside job.
Firstly, its development is dependent on the understanding of what self-esteem is.
If you do a quick search for the definition of self-esteem, you may get the following results:
💛 Positive self talk
Although the self is undoubtedly involved in building and maintaining self-esteem, these are not synonyms to self-esteem; rather, they are pieces to a whole.
Nathaniel Branden was a giant in the psychology of self-esteem. He was a psychotherapist, specializing in its mechanics.
In his book The Six Pillars of Self Esteem, Nathaniel describes self-esteem not as something we are born with or without, but rather:
“…a fundamental human need. It's impact requires neither our understanding nor our consent. It works its way within us with or without our knowledge. We are free to seek to grasp the dynamics of self esteem or to remain unconscious of them, but in the latter case we remain a mystery to ourselves and endure the consequences.”
So then, what exactly is self-esteem?
What is this mysterious thing that ‘works its way within us' whether we want it to or not?
Whether we are aware or not?
In essence, self-esteem is the event and the perpetual action of trusting oneself and believing we are deserving of happiness and peace, and challenging any external or internal sources of contradiction (i.e., negative feedback or messages).
Of course, that is a simplified definition, and as Nathaniel Branden has pointed out in his book:
“The value of self esteem lies not merely in the fact that it allows us to feel better but that it allows us to live better – to respond to challenges and opportunities more resourcefully and more appropriately.”
How then do we begin to respond to challenges and opportunities more resourcefully?
Even before responding to those challenges, how do we learn to identify what's impacting our potential for resourcefulness?
The answer: self-awareness.
Living Consciously and Self Evaluations
Self-esteem requires the act of living consciously.
“We perceive consciousness as the highest manifestation of life. The higher the form of consciousness, the more advanced the form of life.” – Nathaniel Branden
Living consciously means being aware of the self – not sleepwalking through life – and being “responsible toward reality” (Branden).
It's about living pro-actively, understanding one's needs and desires, having control over and taking responsibility of one's reactions. It's about accepting the facts of life, and knowing when you have the power to change something in a healthy sense.
In essence, living consciously means not being a stranger to the self or the reality in which the self lives. It includes positive self-evaluations: having a positive self-concept and staying loyal to the truth. This gradually improves our well being.
Human Being and Life Events
Having high self-esteem does not exempt us from having flaws, life's challenges, social expectations, or emotions.
What high self-esteem does, however, is it allows us to feel anger, sadness, fear, and pain without self-judgement, negative feedback, and with the ability to handle the cloudier, more trying moments in our conscious lives. Self-esteem means giving ourselves grace for mistakes made, and believing we have the competency to right our wrongs.
In other words, high self-esteem recognizes human emotion and error as a gift and a signal to change direction or continue on the current path.
But, what happens if you don't improve self-awareness, and therefore don't improve self-esteem?
Self Esteem and Your Mental Health
The relationship between mental health and self-esteem is entwined.
Although mental health problems can negatively impact self-esteem, low self-esteem can also increase the risk of certain mental health problems.
A Personal Story
I spent my early twenties in an outpatient program for bulimia nervosa.
I had suffered from this disease for a few years. The turning point for me was when I started paying attention to the narratives I was telling myself about me.
I learned the acronym “ANTS” (automatic negative thoughts). If I thought about my brain like a computer, I downloaded these ANTS as an operating system software. Everything I did was filtered through and by them.
This time of my life was painful and dangerous. I was suffering from anxiety and depression, which often led to panic attacks and thoughts about death. I knew if I didn't make a change, the worst was yet to come, so I thought, “why not try something new? Worst case, you end up back where you started.”
If I could hate myself as much as I did, then could I not experience the opposite?
At that point, I had nothing left to lose, so I committed to trying.
First, I began paying attention to my thoughts. Of course, I started recognizing the ANTS almost immediately.
An example would be:
Every morning before taking a shower, I would analyze my body in the mirror, and remind myself of all the “unpretty” parts. When I realized this is what I was doing, I stopped that behavior, and began challenging the internal, negatives comments.
This is where I began to uninstall that software and download a new one: positive feedback, positive self-talk, and healthier core self-evaluations.
From here, I was able to identify other behaviors that were perpetuated by the ANTS, and was able to eliminate those as well (i.e., dwelling on past mistakes, anticipating future confrontations, dilemmas, etc).
The remarkable thing was, with each confrontation of a negative thought, a behavior in which that negative thought influenced was exposed to me.
For example, when I went for a walk alone, I was often preoccupied by what others thought of me. I would get overwhelmed by the idea of being “seen,” and want to close myself indoors. One day, as I was walking, I felt that anxiety and investigated it. When I understood it was a preoccupation of the fear of being seen, I turned my focus to something else – something present.
I would tell/ask myself:
💛 Find the most beautiful, nearby tree/plant/flower. What makes it so beautiful?
💛 Do you hear that bird? Listen to it intently.
💛 What is something you are looking forward to today, this week, this weekend? Tell yourself why!
About a year into remission, I realized that the pain I had felt was due to low self-esteem. Low self-esteem was triggering certain behaviors, and those behaviors were being reinforced by ANTS. It sounds complex, but Eating Disorder Solutions calls this psychological science the “cycle of eating disorders,” which looks something like this:
Negative feelings/Low self esteem > Restriction/Control of eating > Rules are too hard > Loss of control/'Overeating'/Cravings > Failure > Negative feelings/Low self esteem
When I understood this process, I was finally able to break the cycle. In order to influence self-esteem positively, I had to work on healing my disease, one day at a time. That meant living consciously, evaluating myself and the world around me in a realistic and positive way.
Remember: stay loyal to the truth.
Of course, not every case is as clear-cut as mine was. Seeking professional medical advice to help decipher the chicken or the egg conundrum can offer clarity on your needs during the process of developing higher self-esteem.
Both poor self-esteem and positive self-esteem profoundly impact our mental health, only in different ways. Let's take a look at how each manifests themselves.
What Low Self Esteem Looks Like
As you saw in my personal story, low self-esteem can be harsh and perpetuate negative or dangerous thoughts, feelings and behaviors.
If you have low self-esteem, you may experience the following:
💛 Negative self talk, and blaming yourself when things “go wrong”
💛 Low self-worth or self-image
💛 You dwell on past mistakes and beat yourself up over them
💛 Body image issues, which may lead to disordered eating or a full-fledged eating disorder
💛 The belief that you don't deserve love or happiness
💛 Lack of self-confidence, self-respect, and/or self-efficacy
💛 You are self-centered and/or exhibit narcissistic traits
💛 Easily influenced by others, or trust other peoples' opinions more than your own
💛 Believe others are better than you
💛 You deal with substance abuse issues (i.e., drug abuse)
💛 You experience depressive disorders, depressive symptoms, anxiety, panic attacks, and/or paranoia
“I have never worked with a depressed personality whose child-self did not feel hated (not merely ignored or rejected) by an older part.” – Nathaniel Branden
💛 You obsess over what people think about you
💛 You can't handle people's feedback or criticism of you, and may even hold a grudge towards people who offer those to you
💛 You have a difficult time asserting your needs, wants and desires
💛 You are afraid of change or trying new things
💛 You don't feel comfortable being vulnerable in your relationships
What Healthy Self Esteem Looks Like
If low self-esteem has the ability to perpetuate negative or dangerous feelings, thoughts and behaviors, healthy (or positive) self-esteem has the power to do quite the opposite.
If you have high self-esteem, you may experience the following:
💛 Positive, forgiving and compassionate self talk
💛 You give yourself grace when you make a mistake
💛 You don't dwell on the past – you focus on the present and future
💛 You have a healthy concept of self, including body image
💛 The belief that you do deserve love or happiness, and understand what those look like for you
💛 You are self-confident, have self-respect, and self-efficacy
💛 You trust yourself to make the right decisions, and make necessary changes when needed
💛 You do not perceive others as threats to your self worth
💛 You assert yourself and your opinions, and are open to others doing the same
💛 You value the honesty of others
💛 You know your strengths and weaknesses
💛 You know what you need, want, and desire, and are pro-actively moving towards those things
💛 You are growth-oriented
💛 You see vulnerability as a strength, and a way to deepen connections with people
How to Build Self Esteem
There is no magic pill or button to go from low self-esteem to high self-esteem. As you saw in my personal story, it is a process. Each step is like a layer being peeled back, revealing something raw and undiscovered.
The journey from one to the other is the reward.
Like building a muscle, it takes consistent attention and action. That attention and action itself builds self-esteem because you are proving every day that you can rely on you!
Yes, committing to building your self-esteem is, in and of itself, deeply impactful.
As mentioned before, self-esteem development is foundational for a better life. In other words, your level of self-esteem directly correlates with the life experience you are having.
If you check more items off the low self-esteem list than the high self-esteem list, chances are you're having a difficult time, or are in denial of said difficulty.
Luckily, low self-esteem is not permanent.
Improving self-esteem is possible and, dare I say, necessary. The following is an unexhausted list of ways you can positively influence self-esteem, and in doing so, positively impact your overall well being and life experience.
Tangible Self Esteem Building Tools
These tools are tangible, tried and true. There is nothing on this list that I have not utilized at one time or another. To be honest, they were paramount in my recovery from low self-esteem (and bulimia nervosa).
If you take just one item from this list and apply it on a daily basis, you will reap the benefits.
Get Professional Help
Self-actualization is a life process made easier when you have professional support.
We aren't all equipped with the right information or tools to navigate something as profound as self-esteem development.
Advocating for your mental health is a powerful move, and one of the best ways to do so is finding a mental health professional that is right for you.
Discuss your needs with your general practitioner, see if they have resources or a referral program. You can also checkout online professional services, such as Better Help.
Crush the ANTS Journal
Keep a journal with you throughout your day. Any time you feel an automatic negative thought creep up, write it down. Then, next to it, write a counter thought. But ensure that the counter thought is based in truth! Your inner critic cannot debunk truth.
You are assigned a new project at work, and you immediately feel anxious about it. When you investigate that anxiety, you realize an ANT is telling you, “I can't do this. I'm in over my head. I always fail. Everyone is going to know I'm a fraud!”
Counter truth: “I have been praised by my work in the past. I was assigned this project because they trust me. If I go step-by-step, I will do just fine.”
You see, the counter truth doesn't need to be some extravagant compliment to yourself, just a truth that proves the ANT is bogus.
This can also be applied if you compare yourself to others. Learn to appreciate someone for who they are separately from you. Their worth does not disvalue yours.
Notice the good and true
Call it gratitude or tuning into the positive; have a designated time where you write down, or speak aloud, five to ten things that are good and true to help rewire negative thoughts, and prime your mind for positive feedback.
💛 What are five to ten good and true things that happened today?
💛 What are five to ten good and true things about yourself?
💛 What are five to ten good and true things you've accomplished?
💛 What are five to ten good and true things you're looking forward to?
💛 What are five to ten good and true things that make you smile (or laugh)?
You can repeat the same prompt over and over, with different answers, or you can switch it up. Just take your time in responding, and really let the good and true sink in.
Consult Your A-Team
If you've been around for a while, you've heard me mention this before. For those who aren't familiar, your A-Team is a close group of people that you trust with your well being. They are people who you can count on and who want the best for you.
Although self-esteem is an inside job, sometimes we need external support. That's where these guys come in.
Reach out to your A-Team (separately or together, that's up to you to decide), and ask them one or more of the following questions:
💛 What are my strengths?
💛 What do you like/love most about me?
💛 What is something unique and positive about me that I don't necessarily recognize in myself?
Although this can be a great exercise, I do not recommend leaning on your A-Team everyday in this capacity.
Becoming dependent on other people's validation is counterproductive to building self-esteem. However, when you do get the answers to these questions, keep them somewhere accessible for you to look at when needed. But most of all, practice believing them and recognizing those things in yourself.
If you do not have a group you feel safe to do this with, finding support elsewhere is always recommended – be it through a medical or mental health professional. Having people to speak to and lean on during this process will aid you in your development.
Another important point to make here:
Consider putting distance between yourself and people or situations that don't hold space for you and your personal growth.
Although this process is more about the attainment of positives, rather than the elimination of negatives, we are still loyal to the truth. Which means, you may need to cut certain people, activities, or situations loose (even temporarily) in order to improve self-esteem.
Create a joy list!
Yes, write down everything you love to do or would love to try. These should be activities that support your mental well being. Once you've completed your list, commit to doing one of those things a week.
Not only does this give you something to look forward to, but it exposes you to new facets of yourself! Also, you may meet new people.
Examples may include:
💛 Take a writing class
💛 Join a yoga class
💛 Find a social meetup in your area
💛 Join a book club
💛 Go to a sporting event or concert
💛 Start an A-Team brunch club
Buy and Utilize The Six Pillars of Self Esteem by Nathaniel Branden
This book changed my life.
Not only does he provide an in-depth understanding of self-esteem and its impact, he also includes a full program to building self-esteem, covering the six “internal sources of self-esteem”:
- The practice of living consciously
- The practice of self-acceptance
- The practice of self-responsibility
- The practice of self-assertiveness
- The practice of living purposefully
- The practice of personal integrity
The guru of self-esteem said it:
“Your life is important. Honor it. Fight for your highest possibilities.” – Nathaniel Branden
You Are the Answer
What most of us don't realize is the small, consistent breaking of patterns has powerful, long-term effects. In fact, that is the answer to poor self-esteem; that is the remedy to building a healthy sense of self!
Replace negative self talk with self-awareness, conscious living, positive feedback, support, and implementing joy, day by day, little by little. The game-changer really is this:
Do you believe you deserve a life of love, happiness, and strong self-esteem?
Because I believe you do!
Until next time,
Live well, friends!
Quean Mo xx