Why is it that so many people struggle with self-esteem?
I mean, there’s TONS of information out there on how to build it.
And yet most of the problems we have – narcissism, social anxiety, anger, jealousy, addiction, depression, apathy – can all be linked to low self-esteem.
So what’s the deal?
For some, it may be that:
- We either don’t realize or we deny that we have low self-esteem
- We believe self-esteem is inborn and thus unattainable for us
- We just don’t know how (or we’re too lazy) to build it
But above all, I think the biggest reason is that we simply don’t study self-esteem.
Instead, we try to find it by pursuing social status, physical appearance, material wealth, or other superficial qualities.
Frankly, these tricks just don’t work, and any satisfaction they may offer is fleeting and inauthentic.
If we really want to build our self-esteem, we can start by studying self-esteem.
So to start things off, let’s turn to a ground-breaking book by Nathaniel Branden, which is conveniently titled the Six Pillars of Self-Esteem.
What is self-esteem?
Self-esteem has two main components:
- Self-efficacy: believing we can deal with the basic challenges of life
- Self-respect: feeling worthy of happiness and success
Our self-esteem sets our expectations for our lives and for our selves. Because we act according to our expectations, what we expect of ourselves becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Causation flows both ways: our self-esteem affects our actions, and our actions affect our self-esteem.
Here are six actions we can take to raise our self-esteem.
Pillar I: the Practice of Living Consciously
Have you ever heard someone say:
- “I really should eat better, but I don’t have the will power”
- “I know I should quit smoking, but I don’t want to think about it right now”
- “I should work out more, but I’m too lazy”
They know their behavior is destructive and yet they won’t change it. In a way, they are trying to avoid or reject reality.
But we cannot change facts by denying them.
If we choose to do what we know to be wrong, we negatively impact our self-image.
We start to see ourselves as being irresponsible, powerless, or lazy, and since that’s what we expect of ourselves, that’s how we will act.
In order to break this pattern, we have to learn to live consciously.
We can learn to live more consciously by:
- Changing behaviors we know are wrong (hiring a gym trainer, cutting out soda, getting help for addictions)
- Being willing to see and correct our mistakes (being aware of our natural biases and realizing when we succumb to them)
- Being in the mental state appropriate for the moment without losing sight of the larger context (expressing our anger while being conscious enough to avoid being violent or saying something we’ll regret)
Pillar II: the Practice of Self-Acceptance
Anytime we feel embarrassed, ashamed, or anxious around others, it’s usually because we’re trying to resist or cover up a part of ourselves that we don’t like – our awkwardness, ignorance, insecurities, etc. We have not fully accepted ourselves, and we’re worried that others won’t accept us either.
But if we truly want to improve our lives, we have to first accept our current state.
For me, in dealing with social anxiety, it helped to mentally tell myself:
“Fine, I can be a bit awkward at times. I get it. That’s how I am and I can accept that. No matter what I do, some people will like me and others won’t. The best I can do is to relax and keep working on my communication and confidence.“
This was incredibly relieving!
It released the pressure from thinking I had to be cool, interesting, funny, or that I had to put on a performance and act like someone else.
Only once we can accept our shortcomings are we free to overcome them.
Try these two exercises to practice self-acceptance:
THE EMOTION EXERCISE: Focus on your feeling, breathe deeply into it, relax your muscles, acknowledge what you’re feeling, and accept it without trying to change or resist it.
THE MIRROR EXERCISE: Stand naked in front of a mirror (yeah, seriously). Look at your reflection. Tell yourself out loud and with conviction:
“Whatever my defects or imperfections, I accept myself unreservedly and completely.”
Do this several times. Accept whatever feelings of embarrassment or resistance you may feel. Now record a video and post it on SnapChat (just kidding, don’t do that…).
Self-acceptance is my refusal to be in an adversarial relationship with myself.
Pillar III: the Practice of Self-Responsibility
Have you ever offered a book or advice to someone only to have them proudly say, “Psh! I’m not really into that self-help stuff!”
Usually it’s after they’ve just spent half an hour complaining to you about all of their problems.
But guess what? When we see them months or even years down the road, they’re still complaining about the EXACT SAME PROBLEMS!!!
The Sith side in me always thinks, “Did anyone come to help you? Or are you still blaming [the government/the economy/the rain/geomagnetic reversal/Comcast]?“
What we have to realize is that no one is coming to help us.
If we want our problems solved, we can’t just sit around Instagramming ourselves watching Game of Thrones and eating nacho-flavored Doritos while expecting to one day get rich (which is what I imagine these people do…).
We have to get up and do the work ourselves!
This is self-responsibility. It means having an active orientation toward life – finding our own solutions instead of waiting for them to magically appear.
Rather than wallowing in a cesspool of self-pity and helplessness, we can choose to learn, improve ourselves, and solve our own problems.
We can learn to be more self-responsible by:
- Not wasting time blaming others – OWNing our problems and finding a way to solve them (Many poor people have gotten rich in a down economy. How can I learn from them?)
- Reading self-help books to learn how to improve ourselves (How can I improve my strategy and mindset?)
- Setting worthwhile goals and holding ourselves accountable for meeting them (Join a Toastmasters club and set a goal to give ten speeches in six months)
It’s not what happens that determines your future. What happens, happens to us all. It’s what you do about what happens that counts.
Pillar IV: the Practice of Self-Assertiveness
Do you have the right to exist?
It sounds like a stupid question, but it may not be so easy to answer.
Nathaniel Branden writes that when he’d teach classes, he’d have people go to the front of the room and declare publicly, “I have the right to exist.”
Unfailingly, the class could pick up on some thread of uncertainty or defensiveness in the speaker’s voice (and not just from public speaking. The students said other factual phrases too: “I am standing in front of the room,” with complete confidence and ease).
Try it yourself. It’s easy to do alone, but try it in a crowded food court or a bustling street corner.
Being self-assertive means that we honor our own needs, wants, and desires, and we firmly believe that they are important.
It does not mean that we are belligerent or aggressive toward others. Instead, we respect others while also respecting ourselves.
Many of us mistakenly equate being respectful with being subservient, as we are often raised to believe that what is important is what other people want, not what we want. We’re intimidated by the thought of seeming selfish or greedy and are afraid to express ourselves for fear of evoking disapproval or rejection.
But an essential part of building our self-esteem is realizing that we are not obligated to live up to anyone else’s expectations.
Our life does not belong to others and whether or not someone says we have the right to exist, the fact is, we already do exist. So who cares?
We can learn to be more self-assertive by:
- Not tailoring our personality to fit into others’ expectations (maintaining the same interests/values/beliefs no matter who you’re with)
- Standing up for ourselves and treating ourselves (and others) with respect (not letting someone else take credit for our work)
- Realizing that self-confidence does not require rationale, proof, or permission from others (focus on our own enjoyment/interest rather than gauging what others think of us)
Pillar V: the Practice of Living Purposefully
When I was growing up, Pokemon cards were all the rage.
I still remember the glorious feeling of finally getting a Charizard – the most coveted playing card. Who needed friends, girls, or school when you have a Charizard??
Then one day, my classmate showed me his collection of hundreds of rare and valuable cards (including Charizard), making my Charizard look like a lame-ass piece of junk.
I remember feeling a strange mixture of jealousy, devastation, and hopelessness as he showed off his cards, the light from their shiny holographic surfaces glistening across my tear-streaked face….
Looking back, it seems silly that a simple cartoon playing card could have seemed so important.
And yet even as adults, we often act as if external possessions and achievements will bring us self-esteem.
While great achievements may be an expression of self-esteem, they are not the cause. Instead, self-esteem comes from our capacity to achieve, rather than from our achievements themselves.
This is the idea behind living purposefully.
Living purposefully means that we pursue worthwhile goals, that we enjoy the process instead of focusing on the end results, and that we do so as an act of self-expression rather than self-justification.
If our goal is to PROVE ourselves worthy, we’re driven by anxiety rather than joy.
Anytime we identify with our work, achievements, or possessions, we’re basing our self-esteem on something unstable that is subject to economic, social, and political forces outside of our control.
Instead of identifying with our external achievements, we should instead focus on the internal virtues that make achievement possible.
We can learn to live purposefully by:
- Setting meaningful and worthwhile goals (reduce body fat by 3% in 3 months; read 50+ books in a year)
- Practicing self-discipline in working to grow our skills (spending our free time working on new challenging skills related to our craft)
- Focusing on our progress and on enjoying the process rather than on our end results (enjoying the act of playing music rather than only playing to be recognized on social media)
Power lies in the source of wealth, not in the wealth.
Pillar VI: the Practice of Personal Integrity
We have integrity when our behavior is consistent with our beliefs and values.
When they are not aligned, we are being hypocritical. We are betraying our minds and invalidating ourselves.
We may sometimes think it’s okay to lie or do something wrong because only we will know, but to believe this means that we think our own judgment is less important than the judgment of others.
If we cheat on a partner, steal from work, or exaggerate our accomplishments, even if no else one knows, we know, and we subconsciously come to see ourselves as being untrustworthy. This leads to guilt, shame, low self-respect, and low self-esteem.
When it comes to self-esteem, the only opinion that counts is the one we have of ourselves.
We can learn to practice personal integrity by:
- Being authentic, and being true to ourselves (do what you think is right)
- Being honest with others (don’t exaggerate your salary, how much you can bench press, or lie about your weight)
- Questioning our standards and changing the ones that are unhealthy or destructive
Of all the judgments we pass in life, none is as important as the one we pass on ourselves.
***For more on how to improve your self-esteem, check out the Six Pillars of Self-Esteem, by Nathaniel Branden. Do it. You know it’s right.***
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