2.25.2006

Self-Esteem

This is a slightly revised version of the material on self-esteem in Messages. I like this better because it’s more involving—with the self-test paralleling the text discussion. And I also added the brief section on recalling your successes.

Self-esteem is a measure of how valuable you think you are; people with high self-esteem thinking very highly of themselves whereas people with low self-esteem view themselves negatively. Before reading further about this topic, consider your own self-esteem by taking the following self-test.

Test Yourself: How’s Your Self-Esteem?
Respond to each of the following statements with TRUE if the statement describes you at least some significant part of the time FALSE if the statement describes you rarely or never.
1. Generally, I feel I have to be successful in all things.
2. A number of my acquaintances are often critical or negative of what I do and how I think.
3. I often tackle projects that I know are impossible to complete to my satisfaction.
4. When I focus on the past, I more often focus on my failures than on my successes and on my negative rather than my positive qualities.
5. I make little effort to improve my personal and interpersonal skills.
How did you do? TRUE responses to the questions would generally be seen as getting in the way of building positive self-esteem. FALSE responses would indicate that you thinking much like a self-esteem coach would want you to think.
What will you do? The following discussion elaborates on these five issues and illustrates why each of them creates problems for the development of healthy self-esteem. So, this is a good starting place. You might also want to log into the Natinoal Association for Self-Esteem’s website (http://www.self-esteem-nase.org). There you’ll find a variety of materials for examining and for bolstering self-esteem.

The basic idea behind self-esteem is that when you feel good about yourself—about who you are and what you’re capable of doing—you will perform better. When you think like a success, you’re more likely to act like a success. When you think you’re a failure, you’re more likely to act like a failure. Increasing self-esteem will, therefore, help you to function more effectively in school, in interpersonal relationships, and in careers. Here are five suggestions for increasing self-esteem that parallel the questions in the self-test.

Attack Self-Destructive Beliefs
Challenge those beliefs you have about yourself that are unproductive or that make it more difficult for you to achieve your goals—for example, the belief that you have to succeed in everything you do, the belief that you have to be loved by everyone, the belief that you must be strong at all times, and the belief that you must please others (Butler, 1981). Replace these self-destructive beliefs with more productive ones, such as “I succeed in many things but I don’t have to succeed in everything” and “It would be nice to be loved by everyone, but it isn’t necessary to my happiness.

Seek Out Nourishing People
Psychologist Carl Rogers (1970) drew a distinction between noxious and nourshing people. Noxious people criticize and find fault with just about everything. Nourishing people, on the other hand, are positive and optimistic. Most important, they reward us, they stroke us, they make us feel good about ourselves. To enhance your self-esteem, seek out these people. At the same time, avoid noxious others, those who make you feel negatively about yourself. At the same time, seek to become more nourishing yourself so that you each build up the other’s self-esteem.

Work on Projects That Will Result in Success
Some people want to fail, or so it seems. Often, they select projects that will result in failure simply because they are impossible to complete. Avoid this trap and select projects that will result in success. Each success will help build self-esteem. Each success will make the next success a little easier. When a project does fail, recognize that this does not mean that you’re a failure. Everyone fails somewhere along the line. Failure is something that happens; it’s not something you’ve created, and it’s not something inside you. Further, your failing once does not mean that you will fail the next time. So put failure in perspective.

Remind Yourself of Your Successes
Some people have a tendency to focus, sometimes too much, on their failures, their missed opportunities, their social mistakes. If your objective is to correct what you did wrong or to identify the skills that you need to correct these failures, then focusing on failures can have some positive value. But, if you just focus on failure without any plans for correction, then you’re probably just making life more difficult for yourself and limiting your self-esteem. To counteract the tendency to recall failures, remind yourself of your successes. Recall these successes both intellectually and emotionally. Realize why they were successes and relive the emotional experience when you sank the winning basketball or aced that test or helped your friend overcome personal problems. And while you’re at it, recall too your positive qualities. For a start read down the list of the essential interpersonal skills on the inside covers and check off those you’d consider among your assets. To this list add any other qualities you number among your positive qualities.

Secure Affirmation
It’s frequently recommended that you remind yourself of your successes—that you focus on your good deeds; on your positive qualities, strengths, and virtues; and on your productive and meaningful relationships with friends, loved ones, and relatives (Aronson, Cohen, & Nail, 1998; Aronson, Wilson, & Akert, 1999).
The idea behind this advice is that the way you talk to yourself will influence what you think of yourself. If you affirm yourself—if you tell yourself that you’re a success, that others like you, that you will succeed on the next test, and that you will be welcomed when asking for a date—you will soon come to feel more positive about yourself. Self-affirmations include statements like: “I’m a worthy person,” “I’m responsible and can be depended upon,” “I’m capable of loving and being loved,” “I’m a good team player,” and “I can accept my past but also let it go.”
However, not all researchers agree with this advice. Some argue that such affirmations—although extremely popular in self-help books—may not be very helpful. These critics contend that if you have low self-esteem, you’re not going to believe your self-affirmations, because you don’t have a high opinion of yourself to begin with (Paul, 2001). They propose that the alternative to self-affirmation is to secure affirmation from others. You’d do this by, for example, becoming more interpersonally competent and interacting with more positive people. In this way you’d get more positive feedback from others—which, these researchers argue, is more helpful than self-talk in raising self-esteem.
Identification with people similar to yourself also seems to increase self-esteem. For example, deaf people who identified with the larger deaf community had greater self-esteem than those who didn’t so identify (Jambon & Elliott, 2005). Similarly, identification with your cultural group seems also helpful in developing positive self-esteem (McDonald, McCabe, Yeh, Lau, Garland, & Hough, 2005).

As in the previous edition, a cautionary note is added in one of the questions for discussion:
Popular psychology and many television talk shows (especially Oprah) emphasize the importance of self-esteem. The self-esteem camp has come under attack from critics, however (for example, Bushman & Baumeister, 1998; Baumeister, Bushman, & Campbell, 2000; Bower, 2001; Coover & Murphy, 2000; Hewitt, 1998). Much current thinking holds that high self-esteem is not desirable: It does nothing to improve academic performance, it does not predict success, and it even may lead to antisocial (especially aggressive) behavior. On the other hand, it’s difficult to imagine how a person would function successfully without positive self-feelings. How do you feel about the benefits or liabilities of self-esteem? Would you have included this topic in this text?

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