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Looking for self-esteem in all the wrong places

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If I were to search for the central core of difficulty in people, it is that in the great majority of cases they despise themselves, regard themselves as worthless and unlovable. In some instances that is covered by pretension, and in nearly all of us these feelings are covered by some kind of a facade. – Carl Rogers

Munching along wearily through their lowly life, caterpillars might notice butterflies soaring freely overhead. One or two of the envious ones might try to be like them, pasting on wings and jumping from the trees! But instead of flying, they fall. People with low self-esteem tend to do the same, trying to be what they are not. They hope to gain approval from others so that they can feel good about themselves. For caterpillars and humans alike, this can be self-defeating.

Self-esteem means esteeming yourself. Yet many people have the mistaken belief that their self-worth comes from people or things outside themselves. They believe that others are responsible for their happiness, then blame others for their unhappiness. Self-esteem, however, is determined not by what others think of you, but by what you think about yourself.

How to build self-esteem

People are looking for self-esteem in all the wrong places, through:

  • What they do. Doing too much for others, often at their own expense. Many people are more “human doings” than human beings.
  • What they have. Confusing “net worth” with “self worth.” Collecting money and possessions, never getting enough.
  • What they know. Trying to impress others with facts and figures, degrees they’ve earned, the places they’ve been, and books they’ve read.
  • Who they know. Name-droppers and celebrity-seekers may feel their “borrowed” status gives them more importance.
  • How they perform. Putting on an act in order to gain friends and influence people.
  • How they look. Investing time and money into appearance, equating self-esteem with how attractive they are to others.
  • Who they are with. Seeking a desirable partner, or the “right” group (church, political party, school).

Any of these—doing a good job, looking good, being funny, having beautiful friends—can be an important part of our self-esteem, especially if these things are a genuine complement to our well-being. The problem arises, however, if we feel we have to impress or please others to prove that we are okay.

If we depend on approval from others in order to feel we are worth something, we give up power over our own self-esteem. Demanding or manipulating for approval is also an attempt to control others. We may fish for compliments, but if we “catch” one, we probably won’t believe it. The path to self-esteem comes from gaining our own approval and affirming our own worth.

Self-esteem and love go hand-in-hand. If I believe I am not lovable, it’s hard to imagine that anyone else might really love me—even when they really do, and make every effort to show me! If I despise myself, I can’t love my kids, my spouse, my siblings, my parents, or my friends. And if I don’t care for myself, I don’t take very good care of myself.

On the other hand, when I do love myself, I become more loving and lovable. When I cherish myself, I take good care of myself and have an increased sense of my worth. All my relationships, in turn, are enhanced. Unconditional self-esteem is based on unconditional love for oneself.

Remember, self-esteem is an inside job. As Eleanor Roosevelt said, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent!”

You alone are responsible for your own self-esteem. Only you can give yourself self-respect. Only you can give yourself self-acceptance. Only you can give yourself self-esteem. And you alone are responsible for your self-esteem.

Self-esteem means esteeming yourself. It means knowing and affirming that you are valuable, lovable, worthwhile, and capable. It involves respecting yourself—and teaching others to respect you. It means treating others respectfully because they deserve it.

Low self-esteem doesn’t feel good. In fact, it aches. And what does our high-speed society teach us to do with pain and discomfort?

  • Deny. Like the time I fell skiing, felt pain and thought, “it’s nothing.” I stood on my broken leg, compounding the fracture, and passed out.
  • Distract. When our favorite show comes on TV, we may immerse ourselves with the story of the day and forget our problems and concerns.
  • Drug ourselves. Take a pill or a drink to put ourselves out of our misery.

Everyone uses these strategies of avoidance at times. They can provide a brief vacation and give us time to regroup. But they can also get us into big trouble. Wanting to forget or control pain, people drink, take drugs, smoke, or eat. But the positive feelings are short lived. Drugs can stop the pain of low self-esteem, but can do nothing to raise it. These strategies of avoidance are actually the highway to chronic pain and addiction. When we deny, distract, or drug ourselves, we do nothing about our true problems.

Instead, we need to accept the fact that pain and discomfort are a part of life. They are messengers bearing important information. We need to pay attention to the tension or the pain. What is the message? What do I need to change in my life? Then we can take responsibility for ourselves. When we change something, learn something, and gain personal power, our self-esteem goes up a few notches.

Self-esteem creates natural highs. Knowing you’re lovable helps you to love more. Knowing you’re important helps you to make a difference to others. Knowing you are capable empowers you to create more. Knowing you’re valuable and have a special place in the universe is a spiritual joy in itself.

Imagine what your life would be like if you knew that:

  • You are more lovable and beautiful than you know.
  • You are more powerful and important than you think.
  • You are the source of your own self-esteem.
  • You can choose the path through life that you desire.
  • You are responsible for yourself, first and foremost.
  • You are okay just the way your are.

Positive self-esteem is the choice to respect, accept, and love yourself fully. It is a commitment to yourself, and the best gift that you can give and receive.

More Inspiration: You might also find this article on women and anxiety helpful.

Author: Louise Hart with an Ed.D. in the prevention-based field of Community Psychology, Louise Hart’s presentations and books deal with matters of the heart—positive parenting, emotional well-being, self-esteem and assertiveness. Author of “On the Wings of Self-Esteem” and “The Winning Family,” she is also a speaker. Learn more at: www.upliftprograms.com


  • Alex Hurst is a writer for HUM@Nmedia covering Optimyz and Silver magazines in print and digital editions and is based in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

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