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.
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 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Tina Gilbertson, MA, LPC, Self-Esteem Topic Expert Contributor
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