What no one told you about self-esteem

By Sakuni Weerasinghe

Earlier this week, I happened to be reading How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie, in which he thinks out loud the following: “We nourish the bodies of our children and friends and employees, but how seldom do we nourish their self-esteem?”

If you stop for a minute to think of this, you may realise that self-esteem happens to be a largely neglected factor when it comes to our self-care on the daily. You may treat yourself to a nutritious meal, have a solid sleep routine in place, give yourself the downtime you need by watching a few movies on Netflix, etc., but what do you do within the day that has a direct impact on boosting your self-esteem?

Irrespective of the tines we are bombarded with the message “believe in yourself” in glittering fonts on social media, how often do we really take a look at ourselves and think “yes, I really do believe in myself”? Often we may adopt a cynical attitude and dismiss reasons to work on our self-esteem. Is self-esteem really important anyway?

Well, let’s take a look.

Self-esteem can be simply described as the way we look at ourselves. A personal evaluation, if you will. It encompasses how we think and feel about ourselves with respect to our worth and personal value. It is the degree to which we like ourselves and appreciate different aspects of ourselves. This includes our beliefs, thoughts, actions, habits, and appearances. Our experiences, particularly childhood experiences, contribute to the formation of self-esteem. It is influenced by a multitude of factors including our experiences at home, in school, any illness or disability we may have been subjected to, life events we have endured, and how others in your environment (family, friends, peers, neighbours, etc.) have responded to you.

As of recent, we have been also considering the role that media plays in the development of self-esteem. Even as adults, we are surrounded by messages from the environment around us – whether at work or in our personal relationships that either enhance or diminish our self-esteem. For example, prickly words by a co-worker or a rude comment under your Instagram selfie can lead most of us to review our opinions of ourselves based on how strongly we internalise them. As such, our self-esteem can be affected in a matter of minutes.

Often we refer to self-esteem across a dimension: Low self-esteem and high self-esteem. Here’s something no one told you: High self-esteem isn’t always healthy as had been previously thought. One study even found that those with fragile high self-esteem tended to be more verbally defensive in terms of blaming others, and giving excuses for offensive behaviour. So let’s review them in terms of unhealthy self-esteem and healthy self-esteem.

Unhealthy self-esteem looks like:

  • Constant criticism of ourselves
  • Constantly berating ourselves for mistakes made and a lack of forgiveness
  • Hypersensitivity to criticism from outside parties, considering constructive criticism as personal attacks
  • Irritability
  • Worry, low mood, frequent anxious feelings
  • Trouble with decision-making 
  • Frequent comparisons with others
  • Perfectionism
  • Difficulty accepting compliments
  • Persistent feelings of insignificance and inadequacy

In contrast, healthy self-esteem looks like:

  • Seeing both strengths and weaknesses and accepting them
  • Feeling confident in oneself
  • Assertive in expressing needs and opinions
  • Confident decision-making; no back and forth
  • Deep sense of appreciation of oneself and others
  • Accepting others as they are and hence having deeply respectful and loving relationships
  • Making it a point to live by their personal values every day
  • Mistakes are seen as a learning experience
  • Realistic expectations out of oneself and others

So how do you improve your self-esteem?

Set realistic expectations of yourself

Make it a point to review your to-do list on the daily and note if you have bitten more than you could chew. Release yourself from the need to tick off everything off an extensive list, and remind yourself that it is okay if you don’t get everything done. 

Catch yourself when you make comparisons with others

If you’re scrolling through your social media and you catch yourself saying “I wish I had X, Y, Z as her/ him”, tell yourself to STOP! After all, things are not as they seem on social media anyway. Remind yourself that your journey is yours alone and cannot be compared to that of another. It directs unnecessary pressure on yourself.

Have a self-appreciation journal

Make it a point to journal at least one thing you love about yourself or what you did during the day. For example, if you have helped out a friend with studying, appreciate how thoughtful and generous you were in dedicating your time to help him or her. The key is to genuinely appreciate these values about yourself. This would also enable you to identify personal values in yourself, and live by those values. You can also make it a point to celebrate the small wins of the day.

Compliment someone

Kind words of appreciation can really make someone’s day. Notice something a friend or family member or even a complete stranger has done and appreciate them. You may do this in word or action, such as by giving them a personalised gift such as a handmade card. The key is to be as specific as possible when it comes to the way you appreciate them.

Draw yourself

To appreciate how far you’ve come, try to draw a timeline of life events you have endured and what they have taught you, and your accomplishments including both career/educational accomplishments as well as personal and social accomplishments. List the characteristics and values you have acquired throughout your life and draw your current self at the end of the timeline representing these characteristics and values. You can take this activity a step further and brainstorm ways in which you can build on these values and carry them on in the future.

Make sure you work on your self-esteem each day. You’ll soon notice its effects on your whole wellbeing.

Pro tip: Surround yourself with family and friends who help you see the best in yourself and raise you up.