People often speak as if self-esteem were based on a self-evaluation of your skills and talents. We’re encouraged to think about the things we’re good at in order to improve our reputation with ourselves. Liking certain things about ourselves is certainly valuable. But, as many people who suffer with low self-esteem can tell you, knowing you perform well at something can’t replace the inner peace of healthy self-esteem.
Even thinking of things you like about yourself – your sense of humor, your generosity, your reliable nature – often just feels like a mental exercise that never really touches your baseline level of self-esteem. Rather than thinking of self-esteem as the result of an evaluative process, think of it as the natural state of all human beings at birth.
No one is born with low self-esteem. At birth, we are not yet aware of all the wonderful and significant things about the person we are. And yet, we still manage to feel just fine about ourselves as a little bundle of needs demanding to be met. The question of self-worth is not on our radar when we enter the world.
As babies, under normal circumstances, we enjoy taking in the sights, sounds, textures and smells around us. When we’re hungry or wet or scared, we cry. We don’t consider whether we are worthy of being fed or receiving nurturing. We only know that we want it. In other words, we come into this world pre-programmed with self-acceptance. Then comes childhood.
It would take a saint, a social vacuum, and the perfect alignment of stars to raise someone without the child ever feeling badly about them self. Consequently, most of us emerge from childhood feeling inadequate. Our natural esteem for ourselves is eroded or injured as we grow into adults – in some of us far more than others.
Though we may not think about it consciously, some of us live with a familiar level of discomfort inside. We criticize our thoughts, feelings and behavior before others can beat us to it. This is low self-esteem. While low self-esteem originates in an accumulation of early experiences of feeling “bad,” it is perpetuated in the present by a constant stream of internal self-criticism.
When working with clients who are suffering with low self-esteem, I often note that the problems that bring them to therapy are exacerbated by self-criticism. The process of unrelenting self-criticism often comes in the form of negative self-talk. Such critical thoughts are often a re-creation of the original caregiver-child relationship.
Negative self-talk reduces the heart’s ability to heal from emotional wounds. Thus, it may be helpful to think of high self-esteem as the opposite of self-criticism. People who enjoy high self-esteem do not engage constantly in criticizing themselves. This is not to suggest that high-self-esteem folks think everything they do is great.
On the contrary, those who enjoy higher self-esteem hold themselves to personal standards, and regularly evaluate how they’re doing. The difference is that, when they (inevitably) disappoint themselves, they don’t conclude that they’re “bad” or unworthy. They simply acknowledge their errors and make a note to try harder next time.
If you feel you suffer from low self-esteem, pay attention to how often you criticize yourself in your mind. If you’re like many people, you may be barraged so often with self-criticism that you don’t even notice it consciously! It’s like the operating software on a computer; it runs all your programs invisibly in the background.
To replace your operating system with one that serves you better, promise you’ll be kinder to yourself in your mind, and then do it. Root out and expose the critical voice inside that won’t cut you a break. Also, seek out relationships with people who help you feel accepted and appreciated. A good therapist will engage with you in this kind of healing relationship, providing you with a model you can build on in the future.
You can not change what happened to you in the past, but you can change how you treat yourself in the present. If you’re not accepting and esteeming yourself today, you deserve better treatment from the most important person in your life: you.
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