Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Understanding Self-Esteem

For the next few weeks on Tuesdays, I’ll be writing about self-esteem and how to develop it. And for those who don’t need to increase their self-esteem, I’ll address some “do not do” dating behaviors on Fridays. Today being Tuesday, let’s launch into self-esteem.

Self-esteem and self-regard are at the foundation of any kind of lasting happiness. Without self-esteem and self-regard you will accept less than what you deserve. You’ll take a job that’s not very challenging, a salary that’s too low or you won’t risk trying for that promotion. You may allow others to treat you disrespectfully. You may treat yourself like crap, too--just listen to how you talk to yourself about yourself. Without self-esteem and self-regard you will not have the confidence to go after what you want--including, of course, pursuing a girlfriend.

Naturally, if you already know you have difficulties with self-esteem, none of that is news to you. You see it in your paycheck every week or you feel it every Saturday night when you once again have no date. The question is: what do you do about it?

First, you must understand where your lack of self-esteem comes from, then you must go into action to combat low self-esteem with the concrete exercises I’ll discuss later.

Self-esteem is built at an early age, so, yes, you can blame your parents if you didn’t turn out so well.

An anxious caregiver sends the message that you are not good enough. If you were good enough, the caregiver wouldn’t have to worry so much, but s/he knows you’ll likely screw it up (whatever it is) and so s/he worries. And then so do you. “Will I just embarrass myself if I ask her out and she says ‘no’?” “If I screw up this product launch, will they find out I’m a fraud? Better let someone else take the lead on this one.”

The overprotective caregiver sends the message that you will hurt yourself if you take risks, and moreover that you will hurt the caregiver if you take risks. Babies and toddlers are very protective of their parents. They have to be. Without their caregivers, they literally can not survive. So if you had an overprotective parent as a small child, you learned very early not to do anything that would risk your relationship with your parent, whether that meant not trying activities that seemed physically unsafe to your parent, or whether it meant not leaving their sight to do anything on your own. Risk for you has become associated with danger and potential abandonment or censure. So you stick with what’s safe, what you know you’re already good at--getting graduate degrees, doing the Sunday New York Times crossword in pen.

Or maybe you had a parent that was a perfectionist. Nothing was ever good enough. If you made your bed like you were asked to, your mother would follow behind and remake your bed because you didn’t do it right. What does that teach you? For one thing it teaches you not to make your bed. And it teaches you to let other people do things for you since you’ll just screw them up. Once others do things for you, you lose chance after chance to build up your sense of competence in the world. You can’t build competence if you don’t engage in new activities and thus prove to yourself that you are capable of doing them. A perfectionist parent teaches you that you can’t do anything right, even the simplest task like making a bed. Perfectionism makes for a self-conscious child. It makes it difficult to perform any task, especially a new and unfamiliar task, if you feel you’re being scrutinized while you do it. So you don’t engage in the conversation about Shakespeare because you can’t remember if he wrote in middle or modern English--nor are you willing to ask and look dumb. You learn not to do anything or say anything that might be--the Force forbid--wrong.

What do you do now? Is it just too late for you if these patterns and attitudes have already been established in childhood?

Not at all. Stay tuned for exercises to build self-esteem. Next Tuesday: Building Competency

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