Emotional Health · Health

The Elusive Quest for Healthy Self-Esteem

How does this translate to child-rearing advice? Besides the obvious suggestions of recognizing and praising your child for his or her “real” self and actual achievements, it means putting them in situations where they can learn and achieve in a realistic manner. That means the parents and educators must accurately assess the child’s developmental level and abilities. In today’s hyper-competitive world that is often forgotten as our kids are pushed further than their natural limits.

Meanwhile, how does an adult with damaged self-esteem cope or compensate, or, ideally, heal psychic wounds left by negative self-worth? I have known wonderful people who feel like they have less right to exist than an insect. One accomplished woman I treated said she felt honored that she had the right to vote, as if somehow she was less deserving than every other citizen—which is how she saw herself. I have worked with a fashion model who said she understands that she is seen as attractive since she is paid to have her picture taken but that she has never once felt pretty or even attractive—in fact, she knows that she is really ugly. While most of us do not have such extreme distortions in our self-image, maintaining an accurate self-image is a true challenge for many.

I often think of the metaphor of a kitchen stove when imagining this issue. People with healthy or good enough self-esteem have a pilot light on their stove. When they need energy, warmth, creativity (the list is long), they need only turn the switch and a burner will light. Many others of us have no pilot light. To light those burners, a flame must be provided from an external rather than internal source—a lover, a performance review, etc. If that flame is not forthcoming, or if the burner is blown out, real suffering occurs. The theater, for example, is full of stories of glorious actors who cannot sustain a feeling of worth between performances. No matter how great the applause, by the following night the glow has disappeared and they need the approval and love of the audience all over again to feel good.

For many, the landscape of self-esteem is a malevolent garden: good feelings and accolades are like day lilies—gone in hours, but any bad feelings, memories, mishaps are as powerful as the strongest of weeds. No matter how many times you try to remove them, they keep growing back, while the beautiful “flowers” are long forgotten and seem to have no lingering fragrance at all.

One easy recommendation would be to surround yourself with those who appreciate you and help you learn to “light your pilot” or “tend your garden.” But for some people with low self-worth, an attraction exists to others who mistreat them or make them feel bad. When they meet such a person, it feels “like home”—here’s someone who feels familiar, who recognizes me. Thus, it can become an ongoing, circular problem for the “unworthy” person, whose internal feelings are constantly being validated in her external relationship. It’s sort of the opposite of the person who surrounds himself with “yes men,” who only validate his view of the world. The person who feels unworthy seeks out “no men.”

So how is such a person supposed to fight against these feelings? Trying to become more self-aware, with or without the help of therapy, can help you limit the tendency to seek out toxic relationships that validate a poor self-image. Another cognitive tool is to try to consciously dwell on your positive traits and accomplishments, giving them at least equal or more time than the negative ones. A person with feelings of low self-worth is like a jury constantly judging the accused, but worse, a jury with detailed access to every bad act that she has ever committed. Very few of us would be acquitted under such harsh scrutiny. Instead, try giving yourself the benefit of the doubt, weighing the positive more, and remember that the best parts of yourself are no less true or real than the worst. Your positive thoughts may be more delicate flowers than the weeds of low self-esteem, so try to nurture them with tender, thoughtful attention and care.


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  • Patricia Volin January 25, 2016 at 10:02 am

    Excellent article. It’s a good one to keep on hand and read again, as the quest for healthy self esteem never seems to go away for many of us.

  • Phyl Dupret October 5, 2015 at 8:54 am

    WOW…a wonderful article for everyone to read and absorb…………

  • Deborah Harkins October 1, 2015 at 1:01 pm

    One of the most insightful and helpful articles on an important subject that I’ve ever read.

  • Jeanie October 1, 2015 at 7:52 am

    A very insightful article.

  • Lois Alperstein October 1, 2015 at 7:07 am

    An important issue that I unfortunate see often in my 25 year old daughters friends….this should be shared on social media.