STEP FIVE: What are the ways to build self-esteem? Have the courage to change the things you can: List the ways you could improve. Become a good self-helper. And develop self-accepting attitudes.
Deci and Ryan (1994) speak of contingent self-esteem as distinguished from true self-esteem. Contingent self-esteem is like conditional love; your self-acceptance or self-love is based on living up to your and other's expectations--passing all the tests of life. So, you feel good only when things are going well. This tenuous, conditional self-esteem is not a secure foundation (and is associated with an external orientation, such as seeking money, fame, and attractiveness). On the other hand, true self-esteem, according to Deci and Ryan, involves a more secure, solid sense of self and self-acceptance, regardless of what happens in the outside world (and is associated with intrinsic motivations, such as seeking relationships, self-improvement, and serving others). Of course, contingent self-esteem might even be gained by being proficient at something you don't value (like pretending to like someone or being a thief) but true self-esteem comes only when your actions are highly valued and freely chosen or self-determined. Examples: true self-esteem and pride comes when you study for joy, not just for grades; when you play sports for fun, not for Dad's attention; when you do your job to help others, not just to get paid. Also, your self-esteem grows in proportion to your goodness, e.g. the self-esteem gotten from your glibness in selling an over-priced product is less than that gotten by a caring kindergarten teacher who is loved. When positive action, especially the it-did-my-soul-good-to-do-that kind, comes from your true self, then you will feel true self-esteem.
It is becoming clear that building self-esteem isn't just silencing the unreasonable internal critic, accepting your faults, and emphasizing your good traits. The healthy, confident, efficacious person assumes responsibility for his/her life. The self becomes a change agent, a self-helper. The task is to realize the self-improvements you could make, to know how to make changes, and to feel confident about your self-help ability. And...
Coopersmith (1967) suggested that high self-esteem requires two things: setting high goals and some success in reaching your goals. In other words, you must DO SOMETHING. Contrary to popular opinion, self-esteem in children is not related to good looks, being tall, mother being at home, and social or economic status of the family. Kids who like themselves had parents who set high standards (yes, expected politeness and housework, not "do your own thing"), showed respect for the child (democratic decision-making where everyone is heard) and showed love (not necessarily overtly but in terms of caring about "how things are going"). You can't change the past but you can talk to yourself. You can say such things as "don't be lazy just because you were pampered as a child." You can DO SOMETHING!
If you assume responsibility for improving your life, if you learn to have more control over your life, and if you put in time and effort on good causes, you will like yourself better and others will admire you. So, in a sense, all self-help enhances self-esteem. Conversely, self-esteem facilitates self-help (Bandura, 1977b). For instance, good students feel responsible for doing well while poor students blame teachers, the school, or the tests (Coleman, 1966). Chapter 6 gives several specific suggestions for countering feelings of inferiority. At the very least, ask yourself "what do I fear doing that I would like to do?" Then imagine overcoming that fear and make plans to develop these skills.
Think of it this way. In addition to getting better at what you are doing now, i.e. in your current life style, you might need to diversify. For example, when a person specializes or concentrates too intensely, as some say "putting all your eggs in one basket," there is a risk of feeling and being adequate in only one way. (Perhaps persons who feel inadequate tend to find a niche and stay there.) For instance, a mother devotes herself exclusively to raising the family but feels useless and lonely when the nest is empty; a secretary devotes her life to her job but realizes in her 50's that she has given up too much for $1000 a month; a manager works 70 hours a week but finds out later that his efforts and the programs developed were not really appreciated; the athlete who is a star in high school or college discovers he has no career skills and few are impressed with his previous stardom. Perhaps all of us need several ways to feel good about ourselves, ways to further build our self-esteem and to prepare for the future. Make sure your life goals are ethical and an expression of your true self.
STEP SIX: Write a list of your more important positive traits. Repeat them frequently with feeling.
Many of us are afraid to brag, even to ourselves. But we need to know our strengths. Make a list of your good traits, using the list of positive and negative characteristics from step 3 (also include the strengths you added to your list of weaknesses). Make the list as complete as possible. What good traits do your friends, your parents, your teachers, your idols have? Do you have some of those traits too? If so, add them to your list. No one needs to see your list, put down everything you like about yourself, everything that is good. If you have difficulty thinking of positive traits, this may mean you have an overwhelmingly severe critic. Ask your friends for suggestions.
Write several simple positive statements about yourself. Examples: "I care for my family and friends; I'm loving and giving" or "I'm fun to be with, people enjoy me" or "I'm a serious student preparing for life." Repeat statements like these, which are true of you, several times a day, perhaps followed by a reward. Put your positive traits on cards and stick them up where you will see them often. When relaxing, spend 10 minutes thinking about specific incidences in which you were good in the past and fantasize about situations in which you could use your good traits again in the future. All of these methods accentuate your positive features. What is most important is that you remember the positive when the internal critic attacks you.
Think of what you have rather than of what you lack. Of the things you have, select the best and then reflect how eagerly you would have sought them if you did not have them.
-Marcus Aurelius, 30 B.C.
STEP SEVEN: Self-help books, support or growth groups, and insight techniques offer a variety of esteem building methods.
A shelf full of self-help and how-to-be-successful books emphasize positive thinking (memories, self-evaluations, and expectations) and refusing to let the negative thoughts drag you down (Dyer, 1976; Lazarus, 1984; Maltz, 1970; Stone, 1962). For example, Lazarus cites Dorothy Susskind's method called ISI--Idealized Self-Image. The idea is this: if you repeatedly picture yourself having the traits and skills you want to have (including the ability to change), you will keep working on self-improvements and gradually come closer to your ideal self. Thus, a scared person can imagine doing whatever is frightening, a quiet person can imagine expressing opinions and telling stories, a golfer can imagine hitting the golf ball straight, and so on. Fantasies will help but success requires practice, practice, practice and DOING SOMETHING.
There are some rather spooky notions expressed in this area, e.g. tell your unconscious lies--positive lies--and it will believe you and work to make you this way (Helmstetter, 1986). Thus, a worrier might say, "I don't worry. I solve problems quickly, then relax and enjoy myself." A severe self-critic could recite, "I am special and unique. I like myself. I am confident, fun, wise, interesting, loving and good." A procrastinator would repeat, "I carefully plan my time and follow my schedule. I'm full of energy; I never goof off or put off tough jobs." There is no evidence whether self-statements such as these work or not. Obviously, it takes more than fantasy to be a top sales person; I want my surgeon to have more training than how to say "I'm really great with a scalpel." But, probably ideas do precede action in most cases.
Mental health professionals did not consider any book very helpful in building self-esteem (Stantrock, Minnett & Campbell, 1994). My students find two books, besides McKay & Fanning, especially helpful: Johnson (1986) and Briggs (1986). Additional useful books are Burns (1993) who has a 10-day self-esteem building program, Wegscheider-Cruse (1987) who stresses self-acceptance, Gardner (1992) who focuses on children's self-esteem but is more for therapists, Palmer (1989) who addresses teens and young adults, and two good books by Branden (1983, 1994) who is a recognized scholar in this area. Johnson (1986) emphasizes doing your own self-evaluations and weaning yourself away from others for your self-esteem. Also, stop the senseless collection of negative comments about you by others and stop comparing yourself unfavorably with others. A recent book (Bednar & Peterson, 1995) found low self-esteem in many disorders; they focus on getting their clients to attack their problems with coping skills rather than just liking themselves better. Three other books, Truchses (1989), Sanford & Donovan (1984), and Bepko & Krestan (1990), address the problem of low esteem in women as related to our culture's demands that women be self-sacrificing and of service to others. Cash (1995) helps people get a better body image. Lastly, Taubman (1994) has attempted to go deeper than curtailing the internal critic and accentuating the positive. He calls it developing "deep confidence" based on knowing yourself and your psychological history very well.
Other ideas for building self-esteem are: develop a support system, develop a set of values and live them (chapter 3), develop positive attitudes (method # 9), and learn to feel special and unique. It seems that we learn to think of and treat ourselves as we have been treated by others. Therefore, if you lack self-esteem, it is very important to avoid negative, critical friends, relatives, co-workers, and others as much as possible.
You can gain an understanding of the development of your self-concept by remembering the nicknames you had as a child and young person, remembering how your parents introduced or talked about you to others, and remembering how others responded to you when you did something bad or destructive and when you were good and helpful. Try to see the connections between childhood experiences and your current self concept. Other memory and fantasy experiences may give you more insight (see autobiography in chapter 15). At different stages of your early life, remember what you needed from others, such as your parents, that you didn't get. Then, see if you can understand how those wants (and the neglect of those needs) caused you to feel certain ways about yourself. Also, hold a conversation between your confident self and your insecure self; see how they feel about and explain each other. Draw your "life line," showing the highs and lows of your life, and see how your self-esteem varied with the peaks and valleys. Figure out how to have more peaks.
Your self-concept reflects years of experience and self-evaluation. There are no magical ways to quickly change your opinions of yourself. It will take a few days to get to know and record the internal critic. Challenging or shutting up the critic and achieving the purposes of the critic in healthy ways may take weeks. Honest self-assessment followed by self-improvement where possible means big time investments--daily work for months.
Although the internal critic makes us miserable, we believe what it says about us. If we feel inadequate, inferior, and unable to change, where does one get the motivation to spend hours trying to improve? To some it seems hopeless, just like being depressed. Sometimes, no doubt, the self-depreciating person will need outside help from a therapist and/or a support group.
In our culture, many of us have high hopes that are impossible ambitions. Thousands want to be president or an astronaut. Perhaps millions want to be a sports star or musician. Most will have "faults" (and/or bad luck) and fail to achieve their highest goals. Our task, therefore, is to strive for our major goals despite the stress, and, at the same time, learn to accept the inevitable failures and frustrations as they occur. We want to compete and be "above average," but half of us must, by definition, be below average on any given trait or skill. Learning how to gracefully accept our limitations is part of methods #3, #4, and #9.
Effectiveness, advantages and dangers
The reader is reminded, again, that there are many ways to change one's self-concept. This method tries to reduce the negative self-evaluations by focusing on the actual internal words or thoughts about ourselves. McKay and Fanning (1987) cite no supporting research for this method in their book, but similar cognitive methods have been effective. The procedures are reasonable but much research is needed. As mentioned in chapter 11, there have been a few cases in which repeating positive statements just prior to smoking a cigarette has improved self-esteem (Homme & Tosti, 1970).
One advantage of this method, as described here, may be that it concentrates on the harmful details of our thinking and encourages us to emphasize the positive. Perhaps we aren't as bad as we think we are; maybe we have overlooked ways of improving; maybe we neglect a lot of our good points; maybe the destructive part of the critic isn't needed. Yet, the focus is a disadvantage of this method too. Most people are not accustomed to reviewing their thoughts for errors (see method #8). When we are in a down mood, the excessive self-criticism seems absolutely true. A new and different approach to your most intimate thoughts and feelings is required. It is hard to question what we have always believed to be the truth; it is hard to think of an important trait, one that defines your basic self, as changeable. But, that is exactly what has to happen when low esteem is changed to high esteem. Swann (1996) discusses some "self-traps" that make gaining self-esteem difficult.
Building self-esteem is considered by many psychologists and educators to be so vital to good mental health, education, and physical health that research interest in this area should stay high. However, in an excellent review of self-esteem research by Kohn (1994) there is little hard data showing that self-esteem is related to helping others, academic achievement, or good citizenship. Kohn says the current self-esteem building programs in school aren't working. He thinks this is because high achievement, for example, produces self-esteem, not the other way around. Unfortunately, this interpretation of the data may lend some support to the misguided conservative position opposing to all affective education (conservatives distrust change). I think the "basics" should not just be the "three R's" but also self-understanding and self-control, relationship skills, and practical career skills; these skills would surely increase our self-esteem.
Another new theory challenges the practicality of merely increasing positive thoughts about one's self. Mark Leary, a psychologist at Wake Forest, believes that humans, being very social animals, have great sensitivity to how we are getting along with others (see Psychology Today, Nov., 1995). Just as any movement in our environment attracts our attention, an angry face in a crowd stands out. When we detect any indication that we might be rejected, our feelings of self-esteem immediately plummet. It is a signal to mend our relationships. Low self-esteem may associated with depression, tension, joining gangs, drugs, etc. because sensing that we are rejected causes us to feel bad, self-critical, and hopeless. Thus, the way to correct the sinking feeling of low self-esteem is not to force yourself to think positive thoughts about yourself but rather to take action to improve your relationships with others.
There may be an even bigger issue. What if the modern self-concept, becoming more and more individualistic, is completely misdirected? For instance, what if I focus so much attention on my goals, my assets, my failures, my self-awareness, and my self-criticism, that I lose sight of the rest of the world? What if I take this self-centered orientation because that view serves society's and industry's need for me to feel insecure and threatened, resulting in my buying many expensive things that I really don't need to own exclusively by myself? What if instead of seeing myself as one lone person in the world competing against everyone else (except maybe spouse and children), threatened from many directions, and subject to criticism from every quarter, I saw myself primarily as merely one among many in a cohesive community (a small town, an important business, a needed profession, etc.) or, even, as just one person among 5 billion intelligent, fair humans? Only 50 years ago, many people saw themselves primarily as a loved, secure part of an extended family or of a religious group, much more than they saw themselves as an isolated, self-aware, self-dependent, morally confused, self-critical individual. Thus, perhaps re-defining the human "self" is not impossibly difficult to do. And, perhaps how you define your self is crucial to how you interact with others. Perhaps as long as humans think of themselves solely as individuals ("I am me "), they won't join in forming a caring, loving community ("I am us "), they won't cooperate and share, they won't put aside individual wants and advantages for the good of the group. This deserves serious thought (Cushmen, 1990; Taylor, 1989; Etzione, 1993).
A similar but more sinister view is that the people in power want to stay in power and "advantaged" ... and what better way to maintain the status quo than to direct each individual's attention to how he/she feels about him/herself (rather than towards the faults of the system or needs of others) and to how it is each person's job to help him/herself (Kohn, 1994)? Carried to an extreme this would divert us from building together a better world. But, is there is any reason why we can't have high self-esteem and also be highly involved in caring for others (indeed, that may be the best way to self-respect).
Naturally, some possible problems can be found with any specific social or educational program for building self-esteem, but it would be hard to fault effective efforts to overcome an overly severe inner critic that depresses us and interferes with our being successful and good to others.