Self-Esteem Growth: Stay True to Your Roots, Not Your Leaves

Oak tree and meadowIf I asked whether you spend most of your day feeling cool and confident, you’d probably laugh at me, right? We’re all constantly working on knowing who we are and feeling OK about ourselves. And too much of the time we’re looking for this feedback from the outside—other people, accomplishments, a number on the scale—instead of looking inside ourselves.

There’s a metaphor I love to describe this phenomenon. I liken people to beautiful, old oak trees. Our trunk is where our strength and sense of self is. It’s literally grounded, connected to the earth through a network of roots, and it’s solid, hefty, and multilayered. Up higher are the branches, and at their ends lay the leaves, constantly blown around by wind or rain. If we think of other people’s opinions (or traffic, or problems at work, or financial worries, etc.) as the weather, and our sense of self as the leaves, we can see how quickly and often we get battered.

When we “live” up in our leaves, we feel that we’re easily swayed or, worse, hammered by outside influences. If we can work on “living” in our trunks, we feel solid, unable to be knocked down.

So how do we get out of our leaves? First, we recognize what we’re doing. For instance, if you’re feeling a lot of anxiety and depression, this could be a clue that you’re worried about how other people see you. Anxiety commonly carries a message of “I have to be perfect or other people will feel let down.” Depression often sounds like “I’m not good enough.” Both of those statements, and the hundreds of other, similar ways we beat up on ourselves, lose track of how we feel about ourselves, and instead are all about the way we think we come across to others.

When you recognize that you’re being hard on yourself because you’re worried how others will perceive you, label that: I’m doing it again—I’m in my leaves. Then turn your attention to your trunk.

Your idea of your trunk will take some time to develop, but it can be a fun project. First, come up with an image. You can look online for a lovely photograph of a tree, remember one you grew up with, or create your own fantasy picture. Next, think about the qualities that make you unique, and that you feel good about. Your values, strengths, and dreams are a good place to start. By making lists and spending some time considering these characteristics, you may come up with a stronger sense of who you really are and what you like about yourself.

When we “live” up in our leaves, we feel that we’re easily swayed or, worse, hammered by outside influences. If we can work on “living” in our trunks, we feel solid, unable to be knocked down.

Values are how we decide what’s important to spend our time on, and if our lives fill us with a sense of purpose. If we’re not clear on where our values lie, that can make us feel lonely, alienated, or confused, and open us up more to being manipulated. Thinking about your values can get you in touch with your spiritual beliefs, lessons from relatives or mentors you admired, or books or movies you’ve felt inspired by. You can use a worksheet, such as this one, to calculate how you prioritize aspects of life.

Listing strengths can be really challenging for people battling low self-esteem. If you’re one of them, this exercise may take some time. You can use an online tool like the ones at the Institute on Character, or you can just sit and try to list 15 things you like about yourself. Fifteen is an important number. Many people can list five pretty easily, and then can strain to come up with 10. Fifteen takes thought, creativity, and commitment, and the mere act of investing the time often makes people feel better. If you truly can’t finish the list, ask relatives, friends, or coworkers to help.

Finally, look into your dreams. What did you want to be when you were a kid? Was there anything you felt passionate about as a young adult? For many of us, we tend to be our most idealistic in our teens and twenties. We find causes or have goals that are lofty and principled. By looking at those, or remembering them, we can get in touch with what fires us up and makes us feel committed—and passion and commitment are two of the most important qualities shared by happy people, according to the field of positive psychology.

By turning our attention from our leaves (the outside judgments of other people, the annoyances of daily life) to our trunk (the inside assets and standards we appreciate about ourselves), we can worry less about what other people think of us and concentrate more clearly on who we know ourselves to be. Which is the very definition of self-esteem.

© Copyright 2016 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Vicki Botnick, MA, MS, LMFT, therapist in Tarzana, California

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • minnie

    minnie

    March 2nd, 2016 at 8:07 AM

    awww what a beautiful analogy

  • Melissa O

    Melissa O

    March 2nd, 2016 at 11:06 AM

    Oh yes, the leave and the flowers are what shows on the outside. But what is inside? The roots? That is what you are made of, and it is those things that give you your ultimate strength and perseverance.

  • Todd L., LCSW

    Todd L., LCSW

    March 2nd, 2016 at 1:29 PM

    Very intriguing and thought provoking article! Thanks for the share and healthy reminder for me to stay true to my roots!

  • Matthew

    Matthew

    March 4th, 2016 at 7:29 AM

    Do you ever think about the possibility of leaving those roots behind and planting something in life that is new?

  • Pearl

    Pearl

    March 4th, 2016 at 10:42 PM

    I agreed totally and the easiest way to back to your center is through medutation

  • Martine

    Martine

    March 5th, 2016 at 7:39 AM

    But I would go a little further with this
    and say that the leaves are simply the outward expression of who you really are on the inside.
    Just because you focus on that doesn’t mean that you have to lose sight of the other. I think that if it is a part of you then you have to embrace the whole you.

  • William H.

    William H.

    March 6th, 2016 at 7:45 AM

    Healthy plants need healthy environments and we can work together to find ways to promote healthy physical, psychological and social environments that encourage growth.

  • Rhett

    Rhett

    March 7th, 2016 at 6:51 AM

    I love this, a very picturesque way of describing life and what we should and should not be doing to provide a strong foundation for our own tree of life.

  • Vicki B

    Vicki B

    March 7th, 2016 at 3:46 PM

    Thanks for your comments, Todd, Minnie and Rhett! Melissa and Martine, I love the way you take the metaphor even further. The great thing about this idea is how you can make it your own, use it in a way that inspires you personally. Matthew, that’s an interesting perspective, to want to re-plant. To me, self-esteem starts with acceptance, so I guess I wouldn’t want to leave my roots behind. But I can understand wanting to a new start and feeling empowered to move forward.

  • Violet

    Violet

    May 31st, 2016 at 10:15 PM

    Quite inspiring. I have found a new way of looking at self esteem. Thanks for sharing.

  • Anue N

    Anue N

    January 5th, 2017 at 4:15 PM

    Self esteem and resilience come from within through our understanding and connection to our roots, rather than from external sources of praise and recognition and/or disconnection, emotional cut-off, and estrangement from our roots.

    “I spent 10 years studying this question how do we build resilience,
    going beyond just sort of being and hoping that nothing happens,
    to making our selves capable of absorbing the kinds of things that can happen in this world, both as adults, and as children, and as family’s. And the answer, which is a very long talk, but if I only have a few minutes I can tell you the answer is, and you would not imagine that this would be the case, the answer is establishing yourself as a trans-generational person. That is learning about the history of your family.

    Learning about the history of your family and where you fit in
    to the context of this family, which has, when you learn the stories
    of the family, a oscillating history. If you ask your family, you will find
    that they have had good times and bad times intergenerationally. Your grandparents may have had a rough times, your parents may have had, but the history of an oscillating family is one in which good things happen and bad things happen. But the lesson from the oscillating family history is that, although bad things happen, we come back from them. And when we hear the stories of our family, we also learn about heroes in our family, which give us reason to believe that we are special, and we are capable, and we’re competent, and we survive. And that’s adaptational health
    or, adaptational wellness.

    This takes work. So you need to see that as something you have to do, just like exercise.” ~Marshall P. Duke, Ph.D.

  • trish

    trish

    April 11th, 2018 at 2:34 AM

    This is helpful. I’m currently working with a client who, whilst acknowledging the good aspects of his parents and their own journey in life, had a lot of poverty, alchohol, violence and truama in early life and would prefer if his children didnt know the extent – he doesnt want to shatter their image of their [now deceased] grandparents, who were living in much easier circumstances, no alcohol use and had mellowed and changed considerably when they knew them. My client knows about the difficult early childhood of his parents but trying to get him to have compassion for his own part of the story and childhood is proving to be a challenge for him.

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