I know a lot of people who don’t have much self-esteem.
I used to be one of them, in fact.
Having low self-esteem can be a self-perpetuating cycle. You feel bad about yourself, and so you look outside of yourself to feel better. You look for validation from other people. You care a lot about what other people think. You are more easily suggestible. You worry that people don’t like you, and of course you’re worried because you haven’t learned to like yourself! In extreme cases, you let someone new in your life (a significant other, a boss, a close friend), and your identity changes radically because of that relationship.
(Note: I’m not talking about small changes and compromises. Those are normal. New people encourage us to try new things, to learn new things, to think about things differently, and that’s great. But have you ever known someone who got into a new relationship and then it was almost like they were a different person? That’s what I’m talking about.)
The problem is, getting external validation from other people is never enough. It never lasts. It’s like putting a band-aid over a large gaping wound that needs stitches. Maybe it stops the blood flow, maybe it keeps you from dying, but it’s not going to heal right. It’s probably not going to heal at all. And so then you just always have this inflamed wound, causing you constant pain, ripping open again at the most inconvenient times.
But it’s not so obvious with self-esteem. I’ve seen people who want more money, more advancement in their career, more friends, more compliments, more awards. And it’s not that wanting any of these things is inherently bad. The problem occurs because all of these things, if you achieve them, do make you feel really good for a short period of time. So it feels like they work, and you stay caught in the cycle.
Meanwhile, if you don’t achieve these things that you want, if you fail (because failure is, after all, a part of most successes) or even if it simply takes you a bit longer than planned, it can damage your already vulnerable self-esteem even more. Which also keeps you caught in the cycle.
Plus the genuine way OUT of the cycle feels…well, it feels corny. Corny and fake and maybe even a little bit embarrassing. It’s not something our culture teaches us is important. It’s something that’s easy to pay lip service to but a lot more difficult to internalize.
So what is the way out? It is in cultivating a relationship with yourself. A loving, kind, respectful relationship. A relationship in which you get to know who you are, and you take a look at all those wounds, and you learn how to love yourself anyway, in spite of whatever flaws you find, in spite of whatever has happened in the past, in spite of failure or disappointments or trauma or mistakes. Maybe even BECAUSE of those things, if you’re feeling especially ambitious.
This can be a difficult thing to do. Your jerkbrain has been getting a lot of practice saying mean things about you. So you have to institute habits to get practice saying loving things instead. You have to practice listening to yourself and learning who you are. You have to practice looking at your shortcomings and then being gentle about them. Meditation, affirmations, mindfulness practice, journaling, stopping and thinking before making decisions, catching negative self-talk and re-casting it, giving kind pep talks, taking care of yourself so you feel better: all these things can help.
And eventually the idea that it doesn’t matter what other people think is not just a thing you know you’re supposed to think. You actually believe it. Not that other people aren’t important, that’s not it, but that you are also important, and you are, after all, the main character of your own life, so you are perfectly entitled to be in the driver’s seat. Other people’s opinions still matter, and listening to the people you are close to is still important, but ultimately you will make up your own mind.
Your feeling of self-worth is no longer strongly tied to anything or anyone but yourself. It is yours and yours alone.
And just as you would do for a relationship with your significant other or a close friend, you keep working on your relationship with yourself. You keep giving it attention and love. Sometimes you might slip a bit, you might get busy and caught up in other things, but then you’ll come back and you’ll remember and you’ll do the relationship maintenance that will keep it strong and growing.
Self-esteem comes from yourself (hence the word SELF-esteem). No one else can give it to you. And in times of hardship, you will reach for that relationship, that core of who you are, and instead of bringing you down further, it will give you solace and strength.
My relationship with myself is the most important relationship I’ve ever had.