Seeking Self Esteem

Finding a sound basis for our self-esteem can be a serious challenge when the world encourages us to look in all the wrong places

When you’re not grounded in your true self, you measure your own worth by how others measure your worth. You’ll try to prove how fast, how successful, how great you are.

Unhealthy Self Esteem

We live in a world fueled by unhealthy self-esteem. The most visible way it does this is by encouraging performance-based esteem, where people measure self-worth with reference to how well they’re doing at work, financially, or in competitive sports. But there are other forms of self-esteem, such as placing too much stock in other people’s acceptance of you. And then there is our tendency to acquire things to feel better about ourselves, to show that we matter because of what we have. All of these forms of self-esteem become unhealthy when taken to extremes. Let’s look a little more into these methods of unhealthy shoring ourselves up, before considering how to reduce their influence on your self-esteem by making a commitment to yourself to stop trying to please the world.

Performance-based self esteem

I can value myself if I land a big sale for my company. If I pull long hours to get the product out the door, and then let my colleagues know that I made it happen through my own heroic efforts. More privately, if I can be a superstar lover and please my partner, I’ll know I’m worth something.

The problem is, you’re only as good as your last performance. And then, there’s that younger, more determined guy waiting in the wings who could be a threat. The one who is hungrier, doesn’t have kids, is willing to give it all. How fragile it can be to base your self-esteem on your performance. There is always the knowledge that sooner or later you will be outdone. It’s a cold world out there and you have to keep fighting for what you have. You spend a lot of energy fighting to avoid the shame of failing to perform like a demigod. Your family won’t appreciate your work ethic so much as resent your absences. And you end up feelings curiously empty, privately uninspired, but assume that this is just the way it works. Workaholism exemplifies the person with a performance-based self esteem.

Basing self esteem on your Possessions

What is a consumer, but the buyer of products? You get something you wanted, but there will soon be something you need next. The message is, you are not enough as you are. You feel the need to supplement what you have with a shinier gloss. The messages of advertising completely saturate our screens with images of luxury and beauty that we aspire to attain. “I deserve it, after all the work I’ve put in.” And I didn’t make the cut, unless I have the luxury life.

The things you buy provide you with an inanimate entourage, a collection of artifacts that reflect your aspirations. The hope goes, if you have the new AirPods, the right bag, the right e-bike, a great apartment or kitchen remodel, a luxury car or a luxury girlfriend, you have arrived. But the feeling of satisfaction is fleeting and ultimately leaves one feeling empty. “What is happiness?” asks Don Draper. “It’s the moment before you need more happiness.” You will never be satisfied this way, but may go on chasing it regardless. The insatiable consumer exemplifies the person with self esteem based on their possessions.

Basing Self-Esteem on What Others Think

You ask others, in various ways, am I worthwhile? If you think I’m worthy, I can start to feel worthy, even if I have my doubts. I need you to keep telling me how worthy I am. Isn’t that what friends, lovers, are for? To be supportive, to offer validation?

It can get confusing, because wanting to be loved, cared for, and given attention are basic human needs. However, when you come to depend on the affirmation of others, this can set you up for trouble. You can become like an addict, craving the fix of attention and the engagement of others. If they don’t give you the validation you require or start to have their own inconvenient needs, it feels bad, and you get irritable and miserly with your attention. Or you could end up in a relationship where you feel you are being used. Your boss, your partner, or a so-called friend can dangle the reward conditionally, so that you jump through the hoops to earn it. Sex and Love addicts exemplify those who depend on others to shore up their self-esteem.

Taking Stock

You might recognize your own behavior to some extent in these categories. Were you ever taught in school, or even at home, how to go about establishing a healthy sense of self-esteem? We could all benefit from taking “Emotional Literacy 101.” Given that it’s still not on offer in the course catalog, what are some qualities we can think about developing as we go about trying to build healthier self-esteem in ourselves?

  1. Live with humility. When you feel good about your abilities, your work ethic, or creative capacity, you can carry your own supply of self-worth. On those occasions when others discover your talents and abilities, you can rightly indulge a surge of pride in your skills and talents being recognized.
  2. Speak the truth. It can feel very grounding to speak the truth of your emotions without fear of upsetting others, provided you do it in a way that is not intended to hurt them. This involves risk. Are you brave enough to try it?
  3. Aim not for perfection, but to be good enough. To appreciate yourself for the ways you try every day to be better. It can take some work to dissect the urge towards perfectionism. Therapy can be very helpful for those who are curious enough to want to know more about reclaiming one’s life from the urge to be perfect, and the inevitable shame around imperfection.
  4. Respond thoughtfully and wholeheartedly rather than reacting impulsively. This helps you to feel like you’re the master of your ship and that you are not needlessly stoking conflict with the people you love, which then causes shame and distance.
  5. Be accountable for what you say and do. It can feel like a bruise to the ego to accept criticism. But when we can do so, we can often provide others with the acknowledgment they need to make things right. When you take responsibility for your words and actions, you build your self-esteem.
  6. Claim your own mind. Rather than following the lead of others, take the time and make the space you need to think for yourself. Having one’s own mind is not about going it alone. It can be more far more enriching and rewarding when you are able to make sense of your thoughts and feelings with another person. What ultimately provides self-esteem is when you feel you have developed a thoughtful ground for your beliefs and can be aware of your own biases. When your deep feelings and longings can be accepted by the people you trust.

When you start to reflect on how you try to feel good about yourself, self-esteem can be built over time. Developing greater self-awareness is a critical step for those who wish to create a more sustainable foundation for their self worth. It is also much easier said than done. For some people, all they have ever known is the relentless drive to achieve, to acquire, or to please.

Whether through therapy, mindfulness, journaling or talking regularly with a trusted friend or partner, there are many ways to go about this. It can be incredibly rewarding and help you to lighten up towards yourself when you stop trying to please the world and to develop self esteem that does not depend so much on external factors.


It’s evening, you’re tired from work. She is upset. A part of you wants to hear her out, but a bigger part wants her to put it away so you can enjoy a relaxing evening. You have to deal with her, so you try a few of the usual tricks. If she’s mad about something you did, you bristle and get defensive. Did something happen to her that has nothing to do with you? Try to solve the problem or play it down. She might accept this, but then again, she might get even more upset.
Does this sound familiar?
Of course, she might detect that you don’t want to hear it and get angry with you, tell you what a selfish slob you are. She doesn’t want you to solve any problems, why can’t you hear her out? You think, why is she so hell-bent on wallowing? Nothing seems to help. Now you’re frustrated and hurt, you didn’t need all this drama. You feel resentful too and want to disengage. You might pour a drink, turn on the TV, walk into the other room. Find a way to distract yourself from the tension that she introduced.
Wanting to approach your partner’s painful feelings is hard. Most of us don’t welcome pain. You don’t like to suffer, or even witness another’s suffering. Especially when you’re tired. The bad news here is that if you want more intimacy, you have to be willing to feel some of what she’s feeling yourself. You’re going to need to let it in and feel the discomfort it brings. Relationships can be a place to develop emotional muscle. Or call it emotional intelligence. It gets easier with practice.
Sometimes you might notice yourself going too fast into problem-solving mode. You might notice that you are intent on not letting her bad mood affect you. A long term relationship is a long-term training program. When she sees you are making an effort to hang with her in the dark places, she can feel she can rely on you. When there are no immediate solutions, at you’re there with her, and that can be all that matters in the moment. Leave the problem-solving for later, if it’s needed at all.

Brene Brown studies emotion. Check out this short clip she created about empathy.

Thinking about Medication for Depression?

If you have felt down, discouraged, isolated, lack motivation, or no longer enjoy work or personal relationships as you used to, you might be clinically depressed. Many people consider antidepressant drugs when they feel this way. It can be an easy step to take, though many have reservations. Today, anti-depressant drugs are viewed as the first-line treatment for clinical depression, but there are good reasons to think twice before signing up for the pills, which experts agree are not effective except in cases of severe depression.

When you lose employment, it’s normal to feel sad, discouraged and anxious. Experiencing the loss of a loved one can be very intense and complex, overlapping with symptoms of depression. Modern life has many people living physically isolated from one another, with one quarter of American adults living alone, and even when the isolation is not geographical it can be emotional; the lack of direct emotional contact with others is an increasing social phenomenon. One of the most painful forms of isolation can be the experience of living with a partner with whom you do not feel connected.

Modern Times

The impact of loss and isolation and the technology-mediated societal changes we are living through today do not directly signify an increase in psychiatric disorders. Yet feelings of meaninglessness can easily infiltrate the sunniest of dispositions. People are often quite resilient and recover from losses on their own or perhaps with a little help from a spiritual counselor, family member, friend or therapist. Sometimes, normal sadness turns into a more serious depression. Depression can be recognized because of how much it impairs normal functioning. It becomes increasingly clear to friends, colleagues and family that something is wrong, though men and women may show it differently; men can isolate themselves, experience increased fits of anger and turn to substances or sex for comfort. Isolation doesn’t help matters.  Suicidal thoughts can turn towards planning, energy levels plummet, you can’t bring yourself to eat and lose the sense of pleasure in the things you used to enjoy. If you, or someone you know fits this description, it can be cause for alarm, and it becomes important to visit a doctor or therapist to assess your condition. Sometimes symptoms of depression may be caused by physiological issues, so it’s important to get a full physical to rule this out. In the rest of this article, I’ll be considering the implications around the use of anti-depressants on mild and moderate depression.

The Stats

To get a sense of the state of medication in the US, here are some numbers: the Center for Disease Control (CDC) reports that a full eleven percent of Americans over twelve years old take an anti-depressant. Primary care doctors are responsible for the majority of this prescribing. Most primary care doctors lack specialized psychiatric training in depression, anxiety and ADHD yet are the main prescribers of medications to treat these conditions, and physician office visits tend to be quite brief.

Few people wish to identify themselves as having a mental illness and don’t feel at ease in starting to take a drug. This may partly explain why doctors usually don’t diagnose people with clinical depression even when prescribing anti-depressants. People often have trouble consistently taking their medications, and some drop out as soon as they start to feel a little better, or perhaps a little worse. Side-effects of anti-depressants can range from dizziness, drowsiness, upset stomachs and loss of sexual appetite.

Consider that after hundreds of studies, we now know that anti-depressants are only marginally more effective than a placebo in clinical trials for mild to moderate depression. This is a shocking finding given how antidepressant medications are considered the first line treatment for depression.

The Chemical Imbalance Theory

From a medical perspective, the practice of treating depression with a pill comes from the chemical imbalance theory, the view that chemical imbalances in the brain give rise to mental illness. The assumption behind this traditional view of depression is outdated by modern research. Most of the time, it is not faulty wiring, but the effects of one’s isolation, of common sadness and self-defeating thoughts arising from difficult life circumstances or transitions that can lead someone to depression. Many people who suffer from depression experience constrained thoughts that seem to be stuck in a loop. When feelings of sadness and isolation lead to negative self-evaluations and unhelpful actions or inactions, a vicious cycle can be set into motion. Taking a drug like an SSRI to alleviate depression does not directly address the cognitive or emotional processes that gave rise to the imbalance. At best, in cases of severe depression, chemical treatment can help the brain to break away from the vicious cycle of depression. At worst, prescribed for mild depression, it can cause severe side-effects or even lead to the emergence of psychotic symptoms, hence the importance of regular checkups.

Non-Medical Interventions for Depression

It is commonly known that exercise helps with depression in mild and moderate cases, but it can be difficult for people who are depressed to get motivated to exercise. One study reported by the Harvard Medical School Health Publications showed that to gain a benefit from fast walking, it must be done for 35 minutes a day 5 days a week, or for 60 minutes 3 days a week. This sort of exercise has been shown to be ultimately more effective than anti-depressants as it leads to lower recurrence rates for depression. Studies of Yoga practice have shown similar results, with two 90-minute sessions of Hatha Yoga classes each week leading to significantly reduced depression, anxiety and pain. Group activities such as yoga can also help by providing a sense of belonging to a group, which people who otherwise feel isolated often can find very reassuring.

Therapy for Depression

Of the treatment options that seem to work well, group therapy, couples counseling and relationally and emotionally-focused individual psychotherapy have all been shown in studies to be comparable or more effective than anti-depressants around relapse. Couples counseling promotes supportive emotional bonds between couples that shield individuals against adverse conditions, so that you potentially lead a life reassured that your partner has your back. Groups can offer a valuable sense of community and the sense that you’re not alone, that others face issues as bad or worse than your own. The interpersonal connection of individual psychotherapy can allow people to develop internally, reshape their relationships and develop new perspectives on the world. When therapy provides the space to talk through difficult feelings and foster greater self-awareness, depression may gradually yield, allowing for a more honest accounting of one’s life and prospects.

Therapy for Men who Struggle in Relationships