Although the term “self-esteem” is a very general term, most of us have a pretty good idea of the concept. As you would expect, it is better to have generally positive self-esteem, which can help us in many ways, including our thoughts/opinions about ourselves, our emotions, our behavior, and our social life. As you would expect, all of these areas can be affected in a negative way by low self-esteem. This is important because low self-esteem will cause greater stress, and improved self-esteem will enhance your overall resilience to the negative effects of stress.
COGNITIVE FACTORS IN SELF-ESTEEM
Three psychological or mental habits can erode self-esteem: negative labeling, rejecting positive feedback, and making unfavorable comparisons. If you regularly give yourself negative labels such as “loser,” “unattractive,” or “failure,” this will definitely affect your self-esteem. If you hold on to those labels, new life experiences like doing poorly in a particular class /job assignment or having a relationship end will then strongly reinforce the label or self-image. Holding onto a negative label forces you into an all-or none view of yourself. If you hold onto any negative labels, you need to begin challenging the basis of those specific beliefs as soon as possible. As discussed in a prior blog, you can use rational self-talk to counter various negative labels as an “irrational or unhealthy belief.”
The second psychological habit is rejecting positive feedback, which can be a mental habit as well as a behavioral habit. Individuals with low self-esteem psychologically filter out positive comments or feedback because it does not fit with their perception of themselves. Behaviorally these individuals react to positive feedback or compliments by discounting them, saying things like “oh, I was just lucky,” or it wasn’t that big of a deal.” If this is the case for you, you want to start accepting positive messages. It’s much better when complimented to say something like “thank you, I appreciate that,” or “it was nice of you to say that.” Try to practice both mentally and behaviorally accepting positive messages from others to enhance self-esteem.
The third mental habit that is damaging to self-esteem is making unfavorable comparisons between yourself and others. From a rational perspective, it is important to recognize that all of us can find others who are “better” with respect to certain qualities. Think about Labron James, Lyndsey Von, etc. Who could compare themselves favorably to these elite athletes in terms of their skills in their sport? However, comparing yourself to others is not the best measure of your self-esteem. It would be irrational to think that you could compare favorably to everyone else on all or even most of your personal qualities, not just athletic skill. Each of us has to do our own inventory of our strengths and begin to value those areas in which we are satisfied, proud, and genuinely positive. None of us can be perfect, but each of us must learn to recognize our qualities that are positive and strive to correct those that fall short.
BEHAVIORAL FACTORS IN SELF-ESTEEM
The cognitive factors discussed above focus on belief systems and mental habits that can damage self-esteem. Behavioral factors focus on things you are doing or not doing that make you disappointed with yourself. Although none of us is perfect, it does not mean that we cannot improve in certain behavioral ways if this is important to our self-esteem. For example, if you have very few hobbies or extracurricular activities, and this limits your confidence or social contacts, you could identify some behavioral changes that could improve this. You could learn a new skill (e.g., playing chess, bowling, shooting pool, taking a dance, yoga, or acting class, etc.) that might open new social opportunities. If you are not very athletic and if playing a sport would improve your self-esteem, participating in a sport by taking lessons for an individual sport (e.g., tennis, golf, karate) or taking a chance on a team sport in school or at your company (e.g., softball teams, bowling leagues, or biking or ski clubs) could be a positive step. However, you do not even have to participate in a sport to deal with any lack of athletic skills if that is what affects your self-esteem. You could accept the fact that you are not athletic using cognitive coping skills, and focus on doing something that is more meaningful and positive to you. You could become a volunteer at a community organization, learn to play a musical instrument, or join an after-school club or work group even though these have nothing to do with athletic skills. Many community organizations like Habitat for Humanity can provide great opportunities for your involvement. The main behavioral point here is to do positive and meaningful things that enhance your self-esteem. Resilience is often directly related to finding and establishing these meaningful activities throughout our lifetime.
SOCIAL FACTORS IN SELF-ESTEEM
In addition to the cognitive and behavioral factors that can enhance or hinder your self-esteem, social factors also play a key role in your self-esteem. Being accepted by others is likely to enhance both social skills and self-esteem. Although it is irrational to strive to be loved and accepted by everyone, it is imperative to find and nurture some healthy social relationships. Learning the skills for positive well-balanced relationships is a key task to start developing as early in life as possible. It is important to keep in mind that the quality of friendships, not quantity is most important. It would be better to have one or two really close friends and a handful of good relationships than to be elected “prom queen” or “captain of the football team.”
Sometimes shyness or social anxiety will be a barrier to establishing these needed social relationships. If this is the case, you would want to find safe non-threatening activities or good environments to spend your time around others who have similar interests. If you avoid too many social opportunities, you will not be able to make the social connections that can then lead to positive relationships. As mentioned above, getting involved in making some behavioral changes in your lifestyle will involve getting into these social environments and overcoming some of the social anxiety you might feel. Take small steps if necessary to build your confidence to expand healthy social networks.
In summary, our self-esteem is very important to your overall well-being in many ways. For resilience to stress, avoid the mental traps and irrational beliefs that limit your confidence and self-esteem. Take charge of the things about which you are dissatisfied and change your behavior whenever possible with reasonable goals and expectations of what you can change and what “imperfections” you need to accept about yourself. Since your social life will be an important factor in self-esteem, work to improve your own skills and develop the willingness to take the reasonable but necessary risks to expand your social network to a level that is right for you. These cognitive, behavioral, and social skills will be extremely helpful in many arenas throughout your lifetime. Improved self-esteem will definitely improve your overall resilience to whatever stressors you might encounter.
Tony Ciminero, Ph. D. is an author and clinical psychologist based in South Florida. His consulting firm (Ciminero & Associates, P.A.) provides crisis intervention services world-wide. His most recent book publications include the iCope book series. For additional resources, explore iCopeWithStress.com.