Note: This article was originally published in the Spring 2005 edition of MeadowLark, the magazine for The Meadows alumni.
Self-Esteem: An Inside Job
By Kingsley Gallup, MA, LISAC
The concept may be nebulous, but it's by no means inconsequential. Our very lives are a testimony to our self-esteem, the condition of which is the distinguishing difference between surviving and thriving. Consider the following questions:
Do you live by the credo, "If I can't do it perfectly, then why do it at all"?
Are you carrying the weight of the world on your shoulders?
Do you bend over backwards to please others?
Is it hard for you to forgive yourself?
Is self-care selfish?
Do you "shape shift" to fit your particular setting?
Do you go one up or one down?
Are compliments hard to handle?
When someone says "I love you" do you silently wonder, "What's wrong with them?" maybe even, "I'm not sure I want to be with the kind of person who would want me."
And so, what's the state of your self-esteem? How miserable are you making yourself? For each of us, there comes a time when we are faced with our own human frailty. It is in these moments we are confronted with the state of our self-esteem. We discover how we really think and feel about ourselves. We may find that we have simply been operating in survival mode, having mastered an array of techniques for disguising our self-loathing. The good news is to make a change we need not look far. The answers lie within.
Pia Mellody has defined self-esteem as the internal experience of one's own preciousness in the face of one's human frailty. It is a total reality experience, and it comes from embracing the concept of inherent self-worth and applying it to self.
Consider what self-esteem is not- keeping in mind that the absence of self-love can be masterfully disguised. Genuine self-esteem is not about adaptations. It is not about measurement and comparison, nor is it about "should-ing" and shaming ourselves. Self-esteem is neither other esteem (the esteem others have for us) nor reality-based esteem (esteem that comes from comparing our reality to another person's reality to determine how we measure up). Self-esteem neither goes one up nor one down. And it cannot be acquired externally.
The kicker is, external esteem seekers tend to gravitate toward those from whom acceptance and love cannot easily be found. We flee from those who want us and pursue the rejecters. Perhaps we learned external esteem seeking early on. Perhaps it was how we learned to garner worth and value. It failed us then. And it fails us today. Genuine self-esteem, on the other hand, cuts beneath externals to inherent worth and value. It is constant, rather than situational; enduring, rather than fleeting. It is a mature and unconditional love. And yes, it truly is an inside job.
Breaking the shackles of our histories and reclaiming our preciousness hinges on the internal work of shame reduction. Much like faith and fear, so too are shame and self-esteem contrasting forces: more of one, the less of the other. It's the carried shame, that toxic carryover from our histories, that cripples. Letting go of this shame is an act of self-love. It is motivated out of an awareness of the truth of who we are- inherently precious, worthy and valuable.
Building self-esteem hinges on exposing our harsh inner critic- you know, that critic who without our awareness shames us... blames us when things go wrong... and calls it simple "luck" when things go well. That inner critic is dishonest. It exaggerates our failures; it calls us names; it records all past mistakes and transgressions. Sadly, this critical voice may be so familiar we hardly notice its destructiveness.
Recovery is about coming to our own assistance. In doing so, we match our healing action steps to our unique histories, giving ourselves today what we didn't get then. If we were falsely empowered as children, says Pia Mellody, we need first and foremost to base our sense of self-esteem on the concept of inherent worth. We stop controlling, manipulating and caretaking others, focusing instead on self-care and interdependence. Self-care is not selfish. It's not a character flaw to ask for help! We learn to love ourselves in the face of our humanity - as human beings rather than doings.
If we were disempowered early on, we need also to develop self-esteem from the concept of inherent worth. We learn to use boundaries accompanied by an attitude of moderation, so as to start living in action rather than reaction. We take responsibility for our own issues of self-care.
All of this involves stepping out of our comfort zone. It entails not only thinking our way into feeling and behaving but also behaving our way into thinking and feeling. It's the "act as if" principle. We say goodbye to our adaptations – to the coping mechanisms that perhaps helped us survive less than nurturing histories. We find gratitude for our insights and in so doing, become liberated from resentment. We learn to change the one person we can change. After all, if we want something we've never had before, we've got to do something we've never done before!" (Drina Reed) In this spirit, here are some thoughts for developing self-esteem:
Do an accurate self-assessment, listing positive and negative traits. Then, clean up the negative statements by making the statements factual, not judgmental. Remember, self-esteem is based on an accurate self-assessment.
List important positive traits. Repeat them frequently with feeling.
Accept the things you cannot change. Don't confuse an unchangeable cause with an unchangeable trait.
Become a change agent, a self-helper. Attend to your wants and needs, identifying and respecting what fulfills you. Your number one responsibility is yourself.
Identify the internal critic inside you. Write about it. What messages bring you mental misery?
Use affirmations to challenge negative cognitions. Tailor them to counteract individual self-defeating cognitions. Confront the internal critic.
Eliminate shame-based self-talk. It drains and discourages. It distracts us from identifying and fulfilling our needs, abilities, interests and goals.
Watch out for victim language. People and events do not cause feelings. They simply trigger mental habits.
Adopt responsibility language. Instead of "I can't," "I should" or "I'll try," use "I can," I will" or "I choose to." As Henry Ford once said, "Whether you think you can or you think you can't, you're right."
Set achievable goals and seek out situations in which the probability of success is high, places where you will stretch, but not overwhelm.
Be proud of who you are. Don't try to be someone else. Rely on your opinion of you for that's the one that matters.
Be patient. Our self-concept reflects years of experience and self-evaluation. Seeds were planted in our subconscious long before we had a say. Debunking the internal critic is a daily practice.
Today, we have choice. We can drape ourselves in the cloak of self-love. We can let go of the old to grab onto the new, remembering that recovery isn't changing who we are but rather letting go of who we are not! (Claudia Black) We can choose no longer to accept the lies we learned about who we were, embracing instead the beauty of who we are- perhaps for the first time.
No man is rich enough to buy back his past. As such, the best redemption is recovery. We can embrace the pain of the past and burn it as fuel for our journey. We may not have had choice early on, but today we do.
This is mind, body and spirit work, the fruits of which are nothing short of freedom, authenticity and acceptance of self and others. How liberating for those of us who have long played to an audience, denying the truth of who we were to come to love ourselves - not in spite of our humanity, but because of it!
This self-esteem journey is a homecoming of sorts. It's a coming home to self- to a place we have always known and to a place that we've never known. It's both liberating and daunting, familiar and foreign. It is the essence of authenticity and the ultimate soul work. And pretty soon, our hearts become strangely warmed. We have arrived home at last.