Have you wondered about what self-esteem is and how to get more of it? Do you think your self-esteem is low? Do you know how to tell? Do you know what to do about it?
Self-esteem answers the question, “How do I feel about who I am?” We learn self-esteem in our family of origin; we do not inherit it.
Global self-esteem (about “who we are”) is normally constant. Situational self-esteem (about what we do) fluctuates, depending on circumstances, roles, and events. Situational self-esteem can be high at one moment (e.g., at work) and low the next (e.g., at home).
Low self-esteem is a negative evaluation of oneself. This type of evaluation usually occurs when some circumstance we encounter in our life touches on our sensitivities. We personalize the incident and experience physical, emotional, and cognitive arousal. This is so alarming and confusing that we respond by acting in a self-defeating or self-destructive manner. When that happens, our actions tend to be automatic and impulse-driven; we feel upset or emotionally blocked; our thinking narrows; our self-care deteriorates; we lose our sense of self; we focus on being in control and become self-absorbed.
Global self-esteem is not set in stone. Raising it is possible, but not easy. Global self-esteem grows as we face our fears and learn from our experiences. Some of this work may require the aid of a psychotherapist. In the meantime, here is what you can do:
- Get sober. Get help through 12-step groups to stop self-destructive behaviors. Addictions block learning and drag down our mood. Identify them and replace them with self-care.
- Practice self-care. Make new lifestyle choices by joining self-help groups and practicing positive health care.
- Identify triggers to low self-esteem. We personalize stressful events (e.g., criticism) by inferring a negative meaning about ourselves. A self-defeating action often follows. Each event can, instead, be a chance to learn about ourselves, if we face our fear of doing so and the negative beliefs about ourselves that sustain the negative meanings.
- Slow down personalizing. Target personalizing to slow impulsive responses. You can begin to interfere with these automatic overreactions by using relaxation and stress management techniques. These techniques are directed at self-soothing the arousal. This allows us to interrupt the otherwise inevitable automatic reaction and put into play a way to begin to face the unacknowledged fears at the root of low self-esteem.
- Stop and take notice. Pay attention to the familiarity of the impulse. Our tendency is to overreact in the same way to the same incident. Awareness of the similarity can be the cue to slow our reactivity.
- Acknowledge reaction. Verbalize, “Here I go again (describe action, feeling, thought) . . . ” Actively do something with the awareness rather than passively note it. The result is to slow the impulse and give ourselves a choice about how we want to respond.
- Choose response. Hold self-defeating impulses. Act in a self-caring and effective way. By choosing to act in a more functional way, we take a step toward facing our fears.
- Accept impulse. Be able to state the benefit (e.g., protection) of overreaction. We won’t be able to do this at first, but as we become more effective, we will begin to appreciate what our self-defeating impulse had been doing for us.
- Develop skills. We can provide for our own safety, engender hope, tolerate confusion, and raise self-esteem by learning and using these essential life skills:
- Experience feelings. “Feel” feelings in your body and identify your needs. When we do not respect our feelings, we are left to rely on what others want and believe.
- Optional thinking. End either/or thinking. Think in “shades of gray” and learn to reframe meanings. By giving ourselves options, we open ourselves to new possibilities about how to think about our dilemmas.
- Detachment. End all abuse; say “no” to misrepresentations and assumptions. By maintaining personal boundaries, we discourage abuse by others and assert our separateness.
- Assertion. Voice what you see, feel, and want by making “I” statements. By expressing our thoughts, feelings, and desires in a direct and honest manner, we show that we are in charge of our lives.
- Receptivity. End self-absorption; listen to others’ words and meanings to restate them. In this way, we act with awareness of our contribution to events as well as empathize with the needs of others.
This article was adapted from Growing Ourselves Up: A Guide to Recovery and Self-Esteem, with permission of the author, Stanley J. Gross, Ed.D.