Finding a sound basis for your self-esteem can be a serious challenge when the world encourages you to look in 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
Have you ever felt good about yourself because you did well at work? Because you made a good financial decision? Or because you did well at a competitive sport? These are ways of obtaining self-esteem through your performance in the world.
Another way you may increase your self-esteem is by seeking other people’s approval. If they approve, you’ll be accepted, you’ll be ok.
And then, you might sometimes buy things to feel better about yourself, to feel that you matter because of the things we own.
These are common ways of meeting a need for self-esteem that becomes unhealthy when taken too far. In this article I’ll look a little more into these fragile ways of feeding the self-esteem, and then consider some healthier options.
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 taught to value yourself? If so, was it along one of these lines?
No matter what you learnt, you are free to question the assumptions you were raised with. In the list below I’ve put a few qualities that offer a glimpse into some healthier forms of relating to ourselves and the world.
- 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. When others discover your talents and abilities, you can feel good about your skills and talents being recognized.
- 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?
- Aim not for perfection, but to be good enough. This might be tough for you perfectionists out there! Can you appreciate yourself for the ways you try every day to be better? It can take some work to change a perfectionistic mind. 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 shame around imperfection.
- Slow down your reactions. Make it your goal to respond thoughtfully and wholeheartedly rather than reacting impulsively. If you are being a responsible partner and not needlessly stoking conflict with the people you love, you keep them closer.
- 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.
- Claim your own mind. Rather than following the lead of others, try to think for yourself. This doesn’t mean go it alone. It can be more far more rewarding when you can make sense of your thoughts and feelings with a partner.
Developing greater self-awareness
When you start to think about how you value yourself, you can create a more robust source. Developing greater self-awareness is an important path for those who wish to create a more reliable foundation for their sense of self worth. Some people have never known anything but the relentless drive to achieve, to acquire, or to please.
There is no single path that works for everyone. Some try therapy, or a mindfulness practice. Some take up journaling or prioritizing regular conversations with a partner or a close friend. Whatever the path, it can be very liberating when you can stop trying to please the world and develop self esteem that does not depend quite so much on external factors.