There’s been a lot of hype about self-esteem in recent years. Thousands of books, research and articles teach us why the concept is so essential to us as human beings and tell us what steps we need to adopt in our everyday lives in order to reach the craved state of balanced self-respect.
We all want it because we believe that we can’t go without it—for all sorts of reasons. In fact, we are often told that confidence is needed for everything from personal and professional success, relationships, mental and physical well-being, happiness, to just feeling good or having a positive self-image. Or to simply function as normal individuals and have a sense of fulfillment and purpose.
However, it is easy to fall into the common trap—i.e. blaming the lack self-esteem—be it real or perceived— for all our misfortunes in life, and trusting that once we find that magic formula to help us boost our self-assurance, everything will somehow fall into place.
Well, not so fast.
True, for years now, many psychologists and the media have been labelling self-esteem, or the lack of it thereof, as one of the greatest public issues of our modern society, the root of all evil.
Therefore, we are led to believe that by solving the confidence puzzle, life will be wonderful again. And such common statements may not be so far-fetched and completely untrue, although incomplete. Generalizations, especially when it comes to such an essential and dear to all of us matter, may be a bit dangerous. There are some misconceptions about self-esteem, which many of the self-help books and articles somehow neglect—in terms of what it means, why we need it and how it impacts our lives.
Firstly, psychologists agree that there are two main types of self-worth—one is called global or trait self-esteem, and the other—state or domain. The former is our general opinion of ourselves—whether we mostly like or dislike the man in the mirror on any given day. It is believed to be relatively stable and enduring. The latter, in contrast, is linked to a particular event—something that makes us feel good or bad. Such as a bad day at work or flanking that test in school, or receiving unfavorable feedback. This type of self-worth fluctuates constantly depending on what happens to us. In other words, it is contingent on externalilites—it can give us a great boost of confidence or it may throw us into a no-sunshine mood. Pretty quickly too.
Therefore, it is only logical that there are different strategies that lead to a boost in our self-assurance—some that can give us long-term self-fulfillment and respect, while others—can make us feel over the moon, just when we need a quick shot of confidence right now. Long-term sustainable confidence is, of course, harder to achieve—it entails a gradual change in our thinking and behavior. It takes time to reach that coveted level of self-love.
Domain self-esteem, nevertheless, because it is conditional, for many of us may come as a bit easier to control. But it’s not as simple as it sounds, however. In order to know how to self-influence our feelings of worth, we need to have good self-knowledge first, just so that we are able to pinpoint the domains which matter to us. Because the main thing about state self-esteem is that it is sourced from the areas which we consider significant. For instance, when we are in college, academic success is quite important. In fact, it is often taken as a proxy for how smart we are, which, in turn, is a predictor for our future successes. Therefore, academic achievements are a domain which can influence our sense of confidence.
So, to be able to effectively boost our self-esteem, we have to understand which domains have the true ability to do so for each of us. Such deep self-knowledge may lead us to the realization that certain things we deemed major are, in fact, irrelevant to our happiness and future, or if they are important, then we can formulate better strategies to increase our accomplishments and feel fulfilled in these respective areas. Simply put, a desire to “just” lift our self-worth, without knowing the actual negative influencers in the first place—the things or domains which make us feel down and have the potential to do long-term harms in our lives, is not going to lead to the anticipated improvements.
The silver lining is that there are many avenues we can focus on in order to improve how we feel about ourselves—long- and short-term. Some of them are below:
- We have to know what our strengths and weaknesses are, so we can paint a realistic self-portrait and value ourselves properly.
- We have to ensure that we are basing our confidence on the relevant domains or strengths. So, if we feel unhappy about some area of our life and believe it is a source of our low confidence, we need to ask ourselves these two questions:
- Is this really really relevant to me and my life circumstances? For instance, we all want to look good but should we really feel of a lesser worth if we don’t look like a Victoria’s Secret model? That is, ask yourself—if I am, let’s say, 15 pounds over my “ideal” weight today, am I truly inferior to others because of this? And,
- Is that thing that influences my self-esteem will still be of such importance to me in 10 years? Do I see my career and life success directly depending on becoming better in that domain? For example, should your self-esteem plummet because of the negative feedback you received on the job, which you dislike, if you consider starting your own business, which you are passionate about? Most likely, the success or failure of that endeavour would be one source of your true confidence, not your current job. Or will the fact that you don’t look like a model prevent you from getting that partner promotion? Therefore, don’t let things that are truly unimportant to your future plans to impact your sense of self-worth today.
- Be kind to yourself. Yes, it is good to have lots of money and a great career, and we absolutely have to try and give our best performance, but if we don’t quite get that stellar future we dreamt of—hey, take a break and take it easy. It doesn’t mean that we are worthless. We need to take another look at our priorities and re-evaluate what matters to us. Maybe the reason why we are not the CEO of our company is that family matters more to us. Or, again, that our true interests lie outside of this job. Whatever the reason, we need to find: 1. Our true calling and goals 2. Ensure they are compatible with our skills and talents 3. Learn to forgive ourselves when we fall short of our expectations. Pushing ourselves too hard often leads to anxiety and depression. Therefore, the obsessive pursuit of self-esteem and success may make us very unhappy and exhausted in the end.
- Ditch comparisons. The only person we need to measure up against is ourselves—are we better off today than a year ago or five years ago? Wanting to have the house, the car, the lifestyle of our neighbour, who is an entrepreneur, for instance, and we are not, is not a healthy ambition. You can’t compare apples with oranges. Instead, we need to explore our own talents and skills and think of ways to put them to work, so when we look back few months from now, we can see some tangible self-progress.
- And also—the only person we need to seek validation from is ourselves. Research has shown that low self-esteem makes people so uncertain that they often seek others’ approval to feel worthy. They run into the danger of becoming people-pleasers. High esteem individuals, in contrast, focus on self-enhancement, growth and learning in order to build favorable self-evaluations. Developing our competences and knowledge will give us far more self-and others-respect than any external dependencies.
- Finally, we should remember that self-esteem, although important, is not all we need to feel fulfilled and happy as individuals. Some scientists even suggest that we shouldn’t go after self-esteem at all. It is not a cure-all medicine. Instead, they believe that we need to explore alternatives such as, focusing on meaningful goals, building rewarding relationships and networks, exercising compassion, or simply practicing unconditional acceptance—of ourselves, others and life. These, in a roundabout way, will lift our sense of pride, accomplishment and self-respect. And our confidence too.
So, one way of boosting our self-esteem may be to not think too much about it. Rather than focusing exclusively on ourselves, we can craft goals which include the people who matter to us. Think bigger than our own ego. And along the way, simply be thoughtful and caring with others.
A word of caution—we should carefully restrain ourselves from aiming at too much and especially unfounded confidence—it is the dangerous kind as it taps into the territory of narcissism and arrogance. And it can lead us to similarly unwanted destinations as too low esteem.
So, the next time we decide to take on the journey toward improving our self-esteem, we need to remember that the process is susceptible to what I call “the meteor shower effect.” That is— certain things, events or people have the ability to destabilize us and truly affect our sense of worth; others are just smaller pieces which have only very negligible effects (which we often can learn to control) and yet—some parts just pass us by without any impact.
To lift our self-esteem, we need to first learn to recognize these different types of meteors and how hard they do (or have the potential to) hit our confidence levels. Hence, once again, self-knowledge comes in handy here.
Sometimes, however, we have to also be aware that the negative influencers are not there at all—it may be all perceptional—so, boosting our self-assurance may just be a matter of re-evaluation and shifting our perspective. Because as the famous novelist Anais Nin once said: We see things not as they are but as we are.
And then, changing “as we are” can make all the difference in the world.