Low on Self-Esteem? (July/August 2001)

Friday, 01 April 2011 17:43

OpenMind - Journal of the mental health association MIND

July/August 2001 issue


Dorothy Rowe

How's your self-esteem? Getting a bit low? Why not pop along to the self-esteem shop and stock up for the summer?

Well, why not. Self-esteem is always talked about as if it's some commodity. You've got it or you haven't, or you're brimming over with it, or you've let your supply run a bit low. Or is low self-esteem like low blood pressure, something that goes up and down like mercury in a barometer? People are always talking about self-esteem as if it's something you really must have, but how do you get it? What exactly is it? People talk as if they know what it is, and they say very worrying things, such as how parents can damage their child's self-esteem, but if you don't know what self-esteem is, how can you make sure that you've got enough of it or that you don't damage someone else's self-esteem?

That's the trouble with jargon. It sounds good but it's empty of meaning. There's a word, self-esteem, but it doesn't refer to anything real. You don't have a lump of self-esteem inside you that can grow bigger or smaller. 'Self-esteem' is one of those words created by people (here psychologists and therapists) who can't be bothered to think about the complexities of being a human being. They know vaguely that something is important but all they do is think up some catchy jargon and sell it to people who are trying to work out what's going on in their lives.

We don't have self-esteem but we do have ideas about ourselves and these ideas are central to every decision we make. We have one set of ideas which together gives us our sense of being a person, what you call 'I', 'me', 'myself'. Then we have another set of ideas about our sense of being a person. This second set of ideas is what we can call 'how we feel about ourselves'. Asking yourself whether you have self-esteem is a pointless question, but asking yourself how you feel about yourself is an extremely important question.

However, how you feel about yourself isn't simple. It's made up of three equally important parts.

The first part concerns how much you care about yourself. By 'care' I mean both liking and loving yourself, and taking care of yourself.

The second part concerns how much you value yourself. Where on a line between 'utterly priceless' and 'utterly worthless' would you place yourself?

The third part concerns what attributes you judge yourself on and how kindly or harshly you judge yourself. For instance, if you judge yourself on the quality of your work, do you tell yourself that only perfection is acceptable?

A person doesn't necessarily have the same kind of score on each of the three parts. Someone might judge himself very harshly on the quality of his work but see himself as being very valuable. Another person might think of herself as being valueless in society, but she's fond of herself and looks after herself. People who love and value themselves, who look after themselves and judge themselves realistically and kindly find it easy to get along with other people and they cope quite well with life. People who hate themselves, neglect and harm themselves, set themselves unrealistic targets and punish themselves harshly when they fail make sure that they live very miserable lives.

Every decision we make is determined by how we feel about ourselves. Suppose your shoes are getting old and shabby and you wonder about buying a new pair. If you care about yourself, you'll want to look after your feet and give yourself the pleasure of having some smart new shoes; if you value yourself you'll want to have shoes that reflect the value you place upon yourself; if you judge yourself in terms, say, of wanting to appear attractive, lively and friendly without having to be perfect, you'll want new shoes that suggest that you are attractive, lively and friendly but are still comfortable to wear. But if you don't care about or value yourself and you judge yourself most cruelly you'll just say to yourself, 'You don't deserve new shoes.'

So, if you're worried about your self-esteem, get three sheets of paper. At the top of the first write, 'How do I care about myself?', the second, 'How do I value myself?' and the third, 'How do I judge myself?' Take plenty of time in answering these questions, but in the end you'll know what might be worth changing in how you feel about yourself.