It’s one of the most common concerns I hear in my practice. Clients worry that their self-esteem isn’t high enough for them to succeed in relationships, work, school — almost anything. Not feeling good about themselves, they feel that changing their direction in life is impossible. They want to feel better. They want to feel they deserve better. They want to feel confident and competent again. They want to talk about it in session so they will feel good enough to make changes in life.
Pop psychology supports the idea that feeling good about yourself is what it takes to have a positive self-esteem. One book promotes the idea that it’s important to look in the mirror and say “I love you” to yourself every morning. Other books suggest that we need to put post-it notes all over the house saying things like “You are special”; “You are beautiful inside and out”; “You deserve the best”.
What the writers (and readers) of these tips don’t seem to understand is that feeling better alone won’t make any difference in a person’s life. In 2003, Roy Baumeister and his team made a study that reviewed fifteen thousand (!) studies of self-esteem and its relevance to social, occupational and academic success. Two hundred of the studies were dropped from the data because they were flawed either in their methods or conclusions. But the other 1300 demonstrated that having high self-esteem, when defined as having feelings of positive self-worth, did nothing to improve study participants’ grades, friendships, romantic relationships or careers. Baumeister had been a strong believer in the value of positive self-regard as key to one’s success. At the time of the retrospective review, he is quoted as having said that the findings were the biggest disappointment of his career.
So — If feeling good about yourself doesn’t make for success, what does? Research has affirmed that people need more than a sense of positive self worth to do well. Those feelings must be grounded in being a decent person who lives decently and who is active in helping others.
Achieving success in relationships, school and work requires the constant interaction of feeling good about yourself with doing good in the world. Doing good makes people feel good. Having those good feelings toward self and others then provides the positive energy to do more good which makes people feel even better which gives them strength and energy to be even better contributors which makes for better feelings of self-worth and so on and so on.
That constant loop of doing good — feeling good — doing good is important. If we stick to the idea that feeling good is all one needs, even bullies, criminals, philanderers, and sociopaths can have high self-esteem. They feel very good about what they do and for getting away with it. In contrast, a healthy positive self-esteem is based on doing things that support healthy relationships with our family members, friends and coworkers and that somehow make our community a better place.
Feeling good comes from acting good, not the other way around. The good news, then, is that we don’t need to wait around for our feelings to change to build our positive self-esteem. There are things we can do every day to make those good feelings happen.
If one of your New Year’s Resolutions is to develop a more positive self-esteem, consider doing things like these:
5 ways to build your self-esteem this year
- Pay it Forward: It’s the time of year when opportunities to “pay it forward” are everywhere. Anything you do to ease another’s life or to improve your community will bring a smile from the recipients and a good feeling in yourself. Pay for a stranger’s coffee. Give a homeless person a warm scarf. Offer to care for your grandkids for a few hours so their parents can shop or just go out for a walk. Check in on an elder in the neighborhood.
- Make things to donate: If you are crafty, there are many organizations that can use your skills. You’ll feel good if you do good by creating such things as mastectomy prostheses for Knitted Knockers or blankets for children in need for Binky Patrol. For other possibilities, check out Crafting from the Heart.
- Volunteer. Every community has organizations that need the helping hands of volunteers, not just this time of year but all year ‘round. Volunteer jobs can take as little as an hour or can become a full time endeavor. They can involve lots of people or only a few, meeting the same folks all the time, or a constant change of participants. Choose one that fits your, interests, your temperament and your availability. You’ll feel better when doing something that matters.
- Make gratitude a verb: Being grateful is important. Acting grateful is even more so. Resolve to do something to thank someone at least a couple of times a week. Send thank you cards when people, even strangers, have done something for you or for others. Express gratitude to the kid who bags your groceries or the maintenance workers who keep your community looking good. Write a positive letter to the editor of your local newspaper, expressing gratitude to an unsung hero (teacher, first responder, youth leader, etc.) who went above and beyond.
- Act “As if”: Act “as if” you have the energy and time to do good things. It’s not at all a new idea. Turn of the 20th century psychologist, Alfred Adler, advised his clients to act as if they already could do the things they believed they should in order to help them recover from mental illness. Alcoholics Anonymous urges their members to “fake it ’til you make it” to support their sobriety. If you practice being a person who feels good and does good, it will eventually become the truth.
Happy New Year, Everyone.