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Self-Esteem Means Esteem for Others, Too

young woman and her reflection
 

You may have heard it said that you can’t truly love another person if you don’t love yourself. I wholeheartedly believe this to be true, and I think it speaks to the “mirror-type” relationship between self-esteem and other-esteem. Basically, the esteem you feel for others tends to reflect, or mirror, your own level of self-esteem.

Let’s look at a couple of examples.

Low Esteem for Others

In extreme cases, people whose self-esteem is so damaged that they feel worthless may engage in criminal activity that hurts other people or damages property. Having no compassion for themselves (which they would if they enjoyed healthy self-esteem), these people find it hard to access compassion for their victims.

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High Esteem for Others

Sometimes, treating others well is simply a mark of your own healthy self-esteem. But you might point out that it’s perfectly possible (even common) for people with low self-esteem to treat others better than they treat themselves.

How is a person with low self-esteem able to have such high esteem for other people? Where’s the mirror effect in this scenario?

The answer lies in what’s beneath all that good behavior directed at others.

If you scratch the surface of this “esteeming-others” behavior, you’re likely to find not genuine affection or respect, but fear of abandonment or rejection. The good behavior toward other people is motivated not by esteem for them, but by something more like fear of losing their approval.

So the true level of self-esteem (low) is reflected in a secretly low opinion of others, masquerading as kindness.

Think about it: Constantly putting others above yourself could be like saying, “I don’t believe you are good, strong, or mature enough to handle it if I don’t please you, so I’m going to be extra nice so as not to upset you.”

Here are five aspects of self-esteem that are reflected in relationships with others:

1. Respect for efforts made, not just results.

High self-esteem places a value on trying as well as succeeding. If I have good self-esteem, I’ll give myself credit for trying even if I fail.

This doesn’t mean pulling the wool over my eyes and pretending I succeeded when I didn’t. I don’t need to prop myself up with lies if my self-esteem is intact.

Mirror effect: Similarly, I recognize your efforts even if things don’t go perfectly.

Let’s say we had an argument and you get me a greeting card that says, “I’m sorry.” It’s a musical card that plays a song you thought I might like.

If I don’t like the song, but there was no way for you to know that, I can still recognize your effort to reconcile with me. I’ll focus on that, and it will be meaningful to me that you tried.

2. Acceptance of limitations.

If I have high self-esteem, it gives me the security of knowing that, even though I’m a flawed human being, I am worthy at a basic level anyway.

I don’t have to shut my eyes to reality; once I know what they are, I can accept actual limitations of talent, intellect, strength, etc.

I don’t have to do everything perfectly or even very well. I have my strengths, others have theirs, and there’s room for all of us in this world.

Mirror effect: If you have a limitation that affects me, such as an inability to multitask that drives me nuts, I can see it as a limitation just like the ones I have, rather than a personal attack on me.

3. Acknowledgment of accomplishments.

It feels good to be able to acknowledge my achievements. If I can celebrate my successes, I can enjoy yours, too.

Mirror effect: Your accomplishments don’t take away from my good feelings about myself, nor vice versa. But unless I can acknowledge my own accolades, yours will feel equally unimportant, overblown, or even toxic.

4. Embrace of human-ness.

If I’m allowed to be human, so are you.

If I’m not, then you’re not.

5. Care taken with emotions.

How I treat myself when I have difficult feelings will be how I feel toward you when you express emotions.

If I can’t stand to cry, if I’m frightened of my own anger, if I refuse to engage with my grief … your emotions will be equally frightening to me.

Mirror effect: If I recognize my emotions as normal and important parts of me, to be heeded and worked through, then I’ll welcome your expression of your feelings.

Water seeks its own level, and so does esteem. Learning to genuinely value yourself will help you value others and enjoy relationships more.

© Copyright 2013 by Tina Gilbertson, MA, LPC, therapist in Portland, OR. All Rights Reserved.

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Comments
  • Jake December 24th, 2013 at 3:00 AM #1

    I believe with all my heart that this lack of love for one self is what is at the heart of most bullying cases that we are seeing today. When you don’t feel good about yourself then there are those who make it their intent to make everyone around them feel bad too and once they find a target that they know they can succeed with then they place all of their efforts on this one person. I am saddened to think that there are those people who feel so low about themselves that they would want someone else to feel the exact same way but I suppose it’s true that misery loves to have company.

  • Tina Gilbertson December 24th, 2013 at 2:22 PM #2

    I couldn’t agree with you more, Jake. Many people believe that bullies have high self-esteem, but in my experience, nothing could be further from the truth.

    Thanks for bringing up such a perfect example of what this post is about.

  • Jake December 26th, 2013 at 4:08 AM #3

    Thanks Tina, I do believe that this is a conversation that has to be had, no matter how difficult it is. This is behavior in the extreme that is hurting far too many people, but without having that talk, it is never going to stop.

  • Dylan December 27th, 2013 at 5:46 AM #4

    I fail to see how there are so many people who expect others to treat them with love and kindness when they are unable to extend the same to them. Even when I want that from others I know that if I am not giving out that same kind of vibe then how can I expect that in return? How are there so many other people out there who fail to recognize that too?

  • cecilia December 28th, 2013 at 6:21 AM #5

    One thing that could possibly help is not just to teach children about self worth and their own self esteem while they are in school but the need to teach them to respect others and sharing that esteem with others too. I think that a lot of times we get very focused on building up the individual and while that is important this works for some kids but not for others. Why not also teach them that it is just as importa for them to try to build that up in other kids too? That it is much more beneficial to build others up than to tear them down? That this helps you feel good about yourself too but in an entirely new and much better way?

  • Tina Gilbertson December 28th, 2013 at 12:57 PM #6

    Good point, Cecilia! I would add that *how* we teach children to esteem others is at least as important as what we say to them on that topic.

    Children who find themselves on the receiving end of adult respect and compassion will easily absorb the lesson of esteeming others.

    But if we don’t walk our talk by holding children in high esteem, no amount of lecturing will get the message across.

    Thanks to everyone for taking the time to leave your thoughts. It’s great to hear from you.

  • Natha Horbach January 4th, 2014 at 7:41 PM #7

    I have also noticed over the years, as I have been able to strengthen my own self-esteem, I am much less likely to feel jealousy of other’s achievements or good luck, and more truly happy for them.

  • Rhonda R. Hudgins-Bundy February 9th, 2014 at 7:57 PM #8

    I found your article doing research for an essay in my Literature class [52 y/o true college freshman], but I saw the comment about teaching children not only their worth, but to respect and build worth in others. For almost 5 years I was on staff in a church nursery and I always said yes ma’am, yes sir, no ma’am, no sir, please, thank you and all those polite, but respectful things to my little ones, just as I wanted them to do with me and others, whether their own peers, parents, siblings, all others.

    It’s amazing how respectful a 2 y/o can be, when they’ve been given respect. You could see in their eyes when I [Miss Rhonda to them] would answer yes sir or thank you, ma’am … they knew they were really worth something.

    A lot of adults, especially visitors asked me why I’d answer a toddler with yes sir. I always said, if I showed them respect and value, they’d do the same for themselves and others. And they always made me proud. Some are teens today and they’re my Facebook friends and I still heard from them from time to time.

  • Tina Gilbertson February 10th, 2014 at 8:41 AM #9

    That is so lovely, Rhonda! Kids are not a different species after all. They want to be respected, appreciated, and understood as much as you or I do.
    (I was going to say, “Maybe more,” but when I really think about it, adults and children probably have similar needs for the good stuff.)
    It says a lot that your efforts to respect those children are still appreciated all these years later. Enjoy.

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