Self-esteem is a tricky concept. Even though everyone who doesn’t have good self-esteem knows what it feels like to lack confidence and self-worth, defining self-esteem is difficult.
When wrote my thesis on self-esteem two decades ago., there was no consensus on the definition of self-esteem. Even though two decades have passed, there is still no consensus. If self-esteem is difficult for lay people to define, the same applies to researchers!
The two components of self-esteem
When I help clients strengthen their self-esteem, I use the theory of self-esteem proposed by Nathaniel Branden. In Branden’s theory self-esteem has two components.
The first part of self-esteem is self-efficacy. This part is important because we need to feel that we are able to cope with the basic challenges that life brings.
The second part of self-esteem, self-worth, is equally important. We need to feel that we are worthy of happiness and love.
You can have high self-esteem in one component and you could have low self-esteem in the other. Therefore, you can be confident in some situations but lack confidence in others. For example, you can be confident in your academic studies and lack confidence in your romantic relationships.
If your self-esteem is high in both parts, you believe that: 1. You can solve the problems in your life and 2. You are a good person who deserves to be in a relationship feeling loved and respected.
How does self-esteem develop?
The roots of self-esteem usually lie in your childhood, teens and early adulthood. It takes 25 years for the human brain to mature. Therefore, in order for children and teenagers to understand themselves, others and the world, they need help from adults.
The way your parents, other important adults and your peers spoke to you and about you in your childhood and teens, impacted your perception of yourself. If you we were told that you were lovable and capable with many good qualities, as a result you grew to believe that to be true. However, if your parents were cold and unloving and your peers bullied you, it was unfortunately more difficult for you believe that you were worthy of love and a capable person.
Parents and educators seldom purposefully want to crush a child’s self-esteem. Certainly no parent starts their parenting journey wanting to be as bad a parent as possible.
In many cultures, parents believed that praising children was foolish. Most parents and educators are now fortunately much wiser and recognize the difference between talking about a child’s behavior and their personality and character.
How can I raise my self-esteem?
You may have by now recognized that your self-esteem is low in self-efficacy or self-worth or both. Next you want to do something about it. Though strengthening your self-esteem will take time, start with these three steps.
1. Is this happening now or is this my past haunting me?
To begin with, separate the past from the present. This means that you need to pay attention to how you speak to yourself. Ask yourself: Am I talking to myself negatively? Do I actually believe what I say to myself about myself?
Let’s say you are struggling to find a job. You say to yourself “who would want to hire me?”
Start by recognizing old historical voices and leave them where they belong: in the past. At first, all you need to do is to recognize which voices are current and which are old. Later, you will be able to gradually create more space between yourself and the historical voices. Those voices will slowly fade into the background.
2. Label your behavior, not your character
Secondly, if you mess up, be mindful of how you speak to yourself about the situation.
Everyone messes up. Everyone makes mistakes. You are not alone.
Are you criticizing your character, your core? Are you telling yourself you are stupid or incompetent?
Or, are you telling yourself that you made a mistake? Are you telling yourself that the mistake will not define who you are?
The more you practice identifying how you speak to yourself about yourself, you will learn to notice your own negative dialogue sooner and stop it.
3. Who you are today does not predict who you will be tomorrow
And finally, recognize that you can and will change even if you are not happy with who you are today.
For instance, maybe you’re unhappy with your career path because of the choices you made about your studies. You may be unhappy about your past romantic relationships as well as your friendships.
In this situation you have two options. You can hit your head against the proverbial brick wall and tell yourself that you will never find fulfillment, success and happiness because you are a failure.
Or, you can acknowledge that life is not what you would like it to be right now. Accept that this is where you are today.
Tomorrow is not here yet. You have not yet taken the next step. You can and will change. Your life can and will change.
You need to first stop hitting your head against that brick wall because it will only give you a headache.
Acknowledge where you are today.
You can practice to become more accepting of who you are today. That self-acceptance will do wonders. You can have your aspirations and know where you want to be in the future.
To summarize, change is based on two components: self-awareness and self-acceptance. You need know who you are and accept how you are in this moment.
Read our latest blogs to find out in more detail how you can strengthen your self-esteem and live a happier, more fulfilling life.
Start by downloading our free journaling workbook.
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Matleena Vanhanen is a licensed Counselling Psychologist with over 20 years of experience working in Europe and the Middle East. She has a practice of couples and individual therapy at the MapleTree Center in Dubai.