Dear Neil: My self-esteem has not been very good recently. Exactly what is low self-esteem? Can I change my low self-esteem and make it higher by doing more things that feel good to me?
Wanting More In Vancouver
Dear Wanting More: When self-esteem is low, we tend to neglect our friends, family and colleagues—the people who normally comprise our support system; we commit systematic suicide—the taking of our lives in little doses, cigarette by cigarette, Danish pastry by Danish pastry, drink by drink, overworking, etc.; our will-power deteriorates and our weight and nutrition suffer.
When self-esteem is low, we are more apt to be spectators rather than participants in life; we feel more burned out; we take fewer risks, especially those risks related to intimacy; we quit saying to the important people in our lives what matters most to us—and what we feel and need and want; we fritter away our time more; we let our love relationships slip; we procrastinate more; fear runs our lives and we lose contact with what we feel and what we want out of life.
If I have positive self-esteem, I feel able to make appropriate decisions, and I act as if I’m competent—and confident—in my own skills and abilities to cope with the challenges life presents me. I feel deserving of happiness.
Lots of things can make us feel good for awhile—a great ice cream sundae, new clothes, a compliment, some success at work—and that doesn’t mean that your self-esteem is going to be better. Those are shallow feel-good experiences that are very temporary.
Among other things, self-esteem consists of living consciously, which requires us to be committed to a lifetime of continuous learning. Living consciously also requires of us a desire to understand our mistakes, and an eagerness to correct them.
Self-esteem requires self-acceptance—which is about being on my own side—to be for myself. It is refusing to be in an adversarial relationship to myself. It entails my willingness to experience, without denial or invasion—what I think, what I feel, what I desire, what I have done and what I am. It is the refusal to regard any part of myself—my body, my emotions, my thoughts, my actions, my dreams—as alien or “not me.”
Self-esteem also requires the practice of self-responsibility. This requires that I be willing to take responsibility for my actions in the attainment of my goals, and that I accept responsibility for the achievement of my desires, for my choices and actions, and for the level of consciousness I bring to my work and to my relationships.
Further, self-esteem consists of living self-assertively—treating my thoughts, feelings and desires with respect rather than hiding them. It requires me to live purposefully, figuring out what my goals and purposes are in my life, and going after achieving those goals.
A great book on this subject is Nathaniel Branden’s The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem (Bantam).