“Everything that happens to you is a reflection of what you believe about yourself. We cannot outperform our level of self-esteem. We cannot draw to ourselves more than we think we are worth.” ~ Ivanla Vanzant
There’s a funny scene in the Ben Stiller movie, Meet the Fockers. He takes his future in-laws to meet his quirky parents. Both families have their co-dependence issues. Its never going to go well. In any case, the scene that relates is when the Fockers reveal their “Wall of Gaylord” which is a shrine full of tenth and eleventh place medals and awards for things like horse shoe throwing. Gaylord’s Dad Bernie (Dustin Hoffman) says,
We’ve always tried to instil a sense of self in Gaylord without being too goal-oriented.
As always, there’s more than a little wisdom in the humor. We too often, even subtly, tie self esteem to performance, and exacerbate the problem. This is where we get self esteem so backwards. We think that by praising someone that we are building their self esteem, when in reality we might just be building them up for a fall.
But telling someone they’re special is just as much of a trap. It seems like that would build self esteem, but it can just as easily leave someone feeling entitled and confused in a world that doesn’t treat them like they’re special. The Byrnes and the Focker families represent both sides of the problem. On the one hand, the Byrnes family (Robert de Niro) prides achievement, and no one is good enough for his princess. On the other hand, the Fockers pride self expression, and can’t quite let their little boy grow up.
They both make the same mistake, from opposite sides. They both try to “instil” things in their kids, from the outside in. Self esteem has to come from within because its how you see yourself, and not how you think (or hope) other people see you. Its SELF worth. and no praise can ultimately convince you of something you don’t believe inside.
Self esteem is an insidious problem in the world. On a Northern Exposure episode (Did anyone else just love this show?) Ed told the Native American shaman about his struggle with low self-esteem. “You know,” said the wise mentor to his protégé, “low self-esteem is the cause of nearly all the suffering in the world.”
This is SO true. How do you know if you have self esteem issues?
Do you have trouble saying “No?” It could be a self esteem issue, because you don’t value your time!
Do you have trouble asking for help? It could be a self esteem issue, because you don’t think you deserve help!
Do you set your prices too low? It could be a self esteem issue, because you don’t value your services!
Do you apologize for things that are not your fault? It could be a self esteem issue, because you’re really apologizing for who you are.
Do you have trouble committing to relationships or expressing affection? It could be a self esteem issue, because you don’t really believe that you are lovable.
Do you get super jealous? It could be a self esteem issue, because you don’t really think you could hold the interest of your partner.
Do you spend a lot of time comparing? It could be a self esteem issue, because you want a point of reference for how you see yourself?
Are you a perfectionist? It could be a self esteem issue, because you’re desperately seeking approval in ways that you know will never satisfy you.
There are so many subtle forms of self sabotage. Those of us with low self esteem, yes I’ve had my own life long battle with low self esteem, do things to confirm what we have grown to believe about ourselves over many years. It becomes a familiar, but false, comfort.
Of course you don’t realize that’s what you’re doing at the time. How could you? That sort of self awareness requires the ability to see yourself clearly, and this is the heart of the self esteem problem. You don’t even see yourself clearly in a mirror, let alone seeing the deeper goodness and value.
Once you have some self awareness, or more likely when you have moments of self awareness, you see what you’re doing. Then you stop looking for outside affirmation to prove you’re worthy or outside criticism to prove you’re not.
We can help to build each other’s self esteem, but we can’t control or manipulate it. Its a personal journey within.
Here are some things we CAN do to support each other;
1. Point to the Light
We CAN point each other to what we see in the other person, and hope that they see it too. Hafiz said,
I wish I could show you when you are lonely or in darkness the astonishing light of your own being.
We can’t show people their light, but we can point to it, notice it and appreciate it until beauty becomes seen to the bolder.
2. Be Specific
We can’t tell people they’re special, because so is everyone else. If everyone’s special, the whole notion becomes meaningless. We CAN be specific. We can tell people what we specifically value about them. People are smart enough to see through vague and disingenuous praise. Be specific, and don’t lie.
Inaccurate praise is confusing. If you tell me I’m a good singer, I will learn not to trust my own instincts to never sing outside of the shower, and also that your praise is dishonest. Its far better to gently let me know not to give up my day job, and assure that I have other things going for me than singing.
3. Focus on Qualities more than Achievements and Looks
If we only tell boys that they’ve got big muscles and only tell girls that they look pretty, we shouldn’t be surprised that they start to value those superficial things. And even if it’s true, these things fade so quickly. To help build self esteem, focus on more lasting qualities. Praise your kids for being empathetic and caring. Tell them you noticed how well they negotiated conflict. Focus on the sort of qualities that relate to the whole person, and not just one, changing achievement.
4. Don’t Shy Away From Difficult Feedback.
We get self esteem backwards when we think it has to do with how good you are at things. Self esteem is about knowing yourself honestly. Its about accepting (even appreciating) yourself as you are, faults, foibles and all. Its not about being perfect, its about being perfectly okay with who you are.
Self esteem that is built from the inside out, based on self acceptance, breeds resilience. We learn to keep going, even when voices inside and out are telling us to self destruct. Self esteem makes us strong for all the ups and downs of life’s journey, not just puffed up in short lived ego trips.
5. Spend Time In Company That Builds A Realistic Sense of Self Appreciation
In a moment of disarming honesty, Steven Winterburn said,
Before you diagnose yourself with depression or low self-esteem, first make sure that you are not, in fact, just surrounded by assholes.
Surround yourself with people who lift you higher, in all of the ways I’ve talked about above; hang with people who are real and allow you to be real, people who don’t need you to be certain things to feed their egos and people who allow you to change and grow constantly. This is friendship and it truly makes a difference to self esteem to have friends who trust you.
With a healthy sense of self you can appreciate who you are, and say to the world,
“Don’t try to fix me, I’m not broken…” ~ Evanescence