Self-esteem is a measure of how valuable you think you are; people with high self-esteem think very highly of themselves, whereas people with low self-esteem view themselves negatively. The basic idea behind building 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. Conversely, when you think you’re a failure, you’re more likely to act like a failure. When you get up to give a speech and you visualize yourself being successful and effective, you’re more likely to give a good speech. Increasing self-esteem will, therefore, help you to function more effectively in school, in interpersonal relationships, and in careers. Before reading about ways to increase self-esteem, consider your own self-esteem by asking yourself how true (or false) each of the following are about you:
_____ 1. Generally, I feel I have to be successful in all things.
_____ 2. Several 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 focus more often 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 social skills.
”True” responses to the questions would generally suggest ways of thinking that can get in the way of building positive self-esteem. “False” responses would indicate that you are thinking much like a self-esteem coach would want you to think.
Attack Self-Destructive Beliefs. Challenge beliefs you have about yourself that are unproductive or that make it more difficult for you to achieve your goals. Here, for example, are some beliefs that are likely to prove self-destructive from Pamela Butler.
1. The belief that you have to be perfect; this causes you to try to perform at unrealistically high levels at work, school, and home; anything short of perfection is unacceptable.
2. The belief that you have to please others and that your worthiness depends on what others think of you.
3. The belief that you have to take on more responsibilities than any one person can be expected to handle.
Self-destructive beliefs set unrealistically high standards and therefore almost always lead to failure. As a result, you may develop a negative self-image, seeing yourself as someone who constantly fails. So 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 drew a distinction between noxious and nourishing people. Noxious people criticize and find fault with just about everything. Nourishing people, on the other hand, are positive and optimistic. Most important, nourishing people reward us, they stroke us, they make us feel good about ourselves. To enhance your self-esteem, seek out these people—and avoid noxious people, 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.
Identification with people similar to yourself also seems to increase self-esteem. For example, in one study deaf people who identified with the larger deaf community had greater self-esteem than those who didn’t so identify. Similarly, identification with your cultural group also seems helpful in developing positive 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 these projects are impossible to complete. Avoid this trap; select projects that will result in success. Each success will help build self-esteem, and each success will make the next success a little easier. If 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 necessarily something you’ve created. It’s not something inside you. Further, your failing once does not mean that you will fail the next time. So learn to 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 focus on failure without thinking about 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—the feelings you had when you sank that winning basketball or aced that test or helped that friend overcome a personal problem.
Secure Affirmation. An affirmation is simply a statement asserting that something is true. In discussions of self-concept and self-awareness, as noted in this chapter, the word affirmation is used to refer to positive statements about you, statements asserting that something good or positive is true of you. It’s frequently recommended that you remind yourself of your successes with self-affirmations—that you focus on your good deeds; on your positive qualities, strengths, and virtues; on your productive and meaningful relationships with friends, loved ones, and relatives.
Self-affirmations include statements such as “I’m a worthy person,” “I’m responsible and can be depended upon,” and “I’m capable of loving and being loved.” 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.
Some researchers, however, argue that self-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. They propose that the alternative to self-affirmation is to secure affirmation from others. You’d do this by, for example, becoming more competent in communication 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.