Some of the differences in which people approach personal standards have to do with self-esteem.
People with high self-esteem tend to have high, yet realistic expectations of themselves; they’re not afraid to aim for a star and put in the work to get there. On the other hand, those with injured (low) self-esteem tend to live with either unrealistically high or unnecessarily low standards. They are often perfectionists or underachievers. Or both.
Neither the high nor the low self-esteem folks consistently meet their own standards. We’re talking about human beings after all, not robots. But it’s the effects of not meeting one’s standards that constitute another difference between high and low self-esteem.
Let’s first look at how people with injured self-esteem relate to the concept of standards. Because low self-esteem acts like a fun-house mirror, distorting our perceptions, it’s often hard to know what level of standards is appropriate. Should we strive to be perfect in everything we do or should we not bother to try hard, because nothing we do matters anyway? What would a happy medium between these two extremes look like?
Because of this confusion, those with lower self-esteem frequently suffer under the weight of unrealistically high standards. Let’s say, for example, that I have low self-esteem, but I’ve finally decided to do something about the clutter in my home. I might set an unnecessarily difficult goal of removing every piece of clutter in every area of my home, including the garage, in one day. When I fail to reach that goal, I berate myself by saying, “I never follow through on anything.”
Setting goals that are almost impossible to achieve sabotages our efforts to feel good about ourselves, and is a sign that our standards may be too high. Commonly known as perfectionism, having too-high standards points to injured self-esteem.
The flip side of impossibly high standards is unnecessarily low expectations. Deciding to live with an uncomfortably disorganized home instead of a clean, tidy one might be an illustration of a low standard. Sometimes one lowers one’s standards on purpose, out of necessity; it’s important to pay attention to general patterns. Here are more examples of low expectations:
• Dating the first person who shows an interest in you;
• Interviewing for a job in which you have no interest;
• Settling for poor service;
• Saying, “It doesn’t matter,” when asked your preference.
There are many ways too-high and too-low standards might manifest. They could show up in our work, relationships, appearance, children, vacations, dreams for the future, thoughts about the past, or any other aspect of our experience. When self-esteem is low, distorted standards can perpetuate a cycle of trying too hard or not hard enough, resulting in chronically impaired self-esteem.
In healthy self-esteem, our standards for ourselves tend to be high, yet achievable with sufficient effort. Unlike many people with lower self-esteem, those with good self-esteem are willing to work hard even with the risk of failure. They know that failing at something is not a sure sign that they’re incompetent, but simply an indication that they need to try harder, get more help, or alter their expectations. They’re willing to do all of these things because they can afford to; they don’t need to defend against persistent feelings of inadequacy.
Those with high self-esteem can suffer when they fail to meet their own standards. They are certainly capable of feeling ashamed, disappointed, and diminished. All human beings are capable of these emotions; emotions are not self-esteem-dependent. The difference is in what happens next. In individuals who enjoy healthy self-esteem, these uncomfortable feelings motivate them to take positive action. But in those with injured self-esteem, these same feelings are a dead end.
In summary, while low self-esteem can make personal standards confusing and disappointing, high self-esteem enables us to set and achieve realistically high standards for ourselves, and to enjoy a feeling of competence. The vicious circle of low self-esteem and unrealistic standards becomes, on the other side of the fence, a delicious circle of high self-esteem and high satisfaction with self and life.
If you think your personal standards are off—either too high, too low, or some combination of these—start paying attention to people you respect. What are their personal standards? How do they respond to challenges? Are they devastated when something they do isn’t perfect? Do they give up at the first sign of defeat? Having a role model gives you a picture of what you’re shooting for. Adopting appropriate standards for yourself, you’ll find, will increase the quality of your life more than you could have imagined.
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