Self-Esteem for the Holidays: Part II

A woman happily plays in the snow alone.In part one of this series, we met Melinda and Sharon (composites, not actual people), two women for whom the holidays mean obligation rather than joy. We saw how Melinda was primarily concerned with who would be most disappointed if she didn’t spend the holidays with them, and Sharon spiraled into debt, buying presents for everyone under the sun.

The holidays are a perfect time to practice “courage under fire.” So much is expected of us, and we want to be there for others. But self-esteem demands that we behave with integrity, honesty, and fairness. When we’re not being fair to ourselves, self-esteem suffers. We are literally failing to esteem ourselves. Putting others first is a noble choice… but only when it is a choice.

Too often, our giving is a knee-jerk reaction to our own feelings of inadequacy. “If only I can make others happy, I will be good enough,” whispers the voice in the the back of our minds. Low self-esteem convinces us that we aren’t good enough unless we’re giving something—our time, our money, our energy, our attention—to someone else who might want it.

What if you were to think about what you want for the holidays this year? What are your expectations? Who do you want to please you with their presence, or their presents?

But hold on, what about the old saying: “It’s better to give than to receive?”

There is truth in that statement. But are Melinda (“I should spend the holidays with…”) and Sharon (“I need to get a gift for…”) really giving? Are they truly experiencing the joy of giving to others, or are they managing their relationships with approval-seeking behavior?

When we peel away the veneer of generosity, we might discover that what Melinda and Sharon are actually doing is manipulating the people in their lives. They are trying to control others by giving time and money in exchange for approval and goodwill. Manipulating people, consciously or not, is something we do when self-esteem is low and we feel powerless. We need their approval, desperately, just to feel okay, so we do whatever is necessary to get it.

Both Melinda and Sharon need to move into a place of self-approval, but they can’t gain self-approval simply by wishing to feel that way. The only way to do this is through gaining a new experience of themselves through new behaviors. Each woman will need to face her fears and take the risk of doing some reality testing. This will likely involve communicating clearly, instead of acting on assumptions about what others want.

What happens if Melinda lets everyone know exactly what she wants to do this year? Will everyone get angry and disown her? More likely, some will understand and others will be disgruntled. Melinda will likely feel she is being selfish, and some people might help her feel that way. She will have to tolerate a sense of disapproval.

Sharon can do reality-testing by buying fewer gifts for fewer people. What really happens if she doesn’t give the shirt off her back? Will she still be loved, or even liked? She will have to tolerate her own feelings of guilt or fear about not giving enough.

This is the price of integrity. This is why we continue to try to please others: pleasing people may be a drag sometimes, but it’s easier than tolerating the feelings that come up when we don’t.

If they can withstand their own discomfort, both women might be surprised by what their risk-taking uncovers. Melinda might discover that her mother is perfectly happy spending Christmas with friends. Sharon might learn that some people are actually relieved not to get such extravagant presents!

Melinda and Sharon will never know what lies on the other side of their reality-testing until they take the risk of changing their current behavior. They can’t keep doing the same thing and expect to feel different about it. Nothing will change until they change their behavior. Self-esteem is heightened when we face our fears with courage, tolerate difficult feelings, and navigate uncomfortable interactions with honesty and genuine caring instead of compulsive self-sacrifice.

The holidays provide many opportunities for us to practice esteeming ourselves, as well as others. Start small, communicate clearly, and be compassionate with yourself no matter what happens.

© Copyright 2010 by By Tina Gilbertson, MA, LPC, therapist in Denver, Colorado. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.

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.

  • 6 comments
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  • emma t

    emma t

    December 21st, 2010 at 3:09 AM

    you are so right when you say they are actually not experiencing the joy of giving their time and resources…i just thought about it a minute and asked myself how often have i felt the joy of giving…the answer was “not too often”…i shall now try and do things that will actually mean something to me,even if it is about giving to somebody else…

  • Shannon

    Shannon

    December 21st, 2010 at 5:34 AM

    What a great read. I know that I have experienced the very same thing, trying to give to make others happy while all the time I remained miserable. It has to be about giving from the heart and not giving just to seek some kind of approval from family.

  • gr

    gr

    December 23rd, 2010 at 11:48 AM

    this is just so true!we hardly give attention to ourselves and out needs when we are busy with something that is important for us.although this happens with a lot of people it is still unchecked among most of them.

  • Ishbel

    Ishbel

    December 23rd, 2010 at 7:00 PM

    I would love, just once, to have our whole extended family decide that everybody can go where they want, see who they want and top it off by making it a gift-free year too (except for the kiddies). What a gift that would be! I think I’ll be broaching that subject in plenty of time for next Christmas. :)

  • Steve

    Steve

    December 24th, 2010 at 1:31 PM

    “Putting others first is a noble choice… but only when it *is* a choice.” And a big Amen to that, Tina! We get so wound up we forget we do have options. The idea of knowing I choose to do whatever I eventually do makes me feel better and less cornered.

  • Tina Gilbertson

    Tina Gilbertson

    December 31st, 2010 at 7:02 PM

    The idea of checking in with ourselves before we go giving our time and energy away to others is attractive. But it’s so hard to put into practice!

    I recommend baby steps to change a habit of giving too much; start by just giving to yourself sometimes when nobody’s around. See how it feels to pay attention to your own needs. Get used to that feeling before taking on the holidays next year.

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