Searching For Self Esteem

Finding a sound basis for your self-esteem can be a serious challenge when the world encourages you 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 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. There is our tendency to acquire things to feel better about ourselves, to show that we matter because of what we have. These forms of self-esteem become unhealthy when taken too far.

Let’s look a little more into these fragile ways of boosting ourselves, then we’ll turn our attention to how to create a more solid foundation for self-esteem.

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. He’s hungrier, doesn’t have kids, is willing to give it all for the prize.

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 outperform.

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 become like an addict, craving the fix of attention and the engagement of others. If they don’t give you the validation you need or start to have their own 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.

What you can do about it

Do you might recognize any of your own behavior in what I have described? 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.

Developing greater self-awareness

When you start to think about how you manage your self-esteem, you can create a more resilient source. 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.

Bruce Hearn is a therapist who works with men, women and couples in San Francisco. His work includes a focus on helping people with issues around self-esteem. To book a free phone consultation, call 415-598-8956 or email email hidden; JavaScript is required.