Self-esteem begins in childhood. We learn that we are worthy and how to love ourselves through the actions and the words of those around us. Early self-esteem theory, developed by psychologist Charles Cooley 110 years ago, places this responsibility squarely on the shoulders of parents. I believe that, today, the influences come from everywhere.
Children are exposed to media messaging at a very young age. Gender-expression expectations are presented early and often in every clothing and toy store and by almost every television show and commercial. Numerous caregivers and other external influences are a part of our children’s lives from a very young age.
Healthy self-esteem depends on getting consistent messages that one is worthy, capable and loveable. This includes being allowed to be who we inherently are… regardless of gender expression, sexual orientation, introversion or extroversion, being bookish or sporty... without judgment or shaming.
Self-esteem flourishes when we are taught skills to cope with life’s everyday problems like conflict and communication or we know how to express our emotions effectively. We need to be able to try things out and to make mistakes as an opportunity for growth.
When parents or teachers correct a child, they point out the mistake and support him to make a better choice or try a different tactic next time. Ideally we don’t shame him for trying or for getting it wrong; children should learn that that everyone makes mistakes but is still worthy of love and appreciation.
As adults we have to take that responsibility on for ourselves. If we didn’t get what we needed in the past – it is not too late to give it to ourselves today.
Here are some tips to get started:
- Find a picture of yourself as a child and write that child a letter. What did she or he need to hear? Can you give her those messages today? Post the picture somewhere to remind you that the child inside needs ongoing nurturing.
- Notice your self-talk. Is it unkind or untrue? Do you use words like “stupid” “ugly” or “loser” in your daily dialogue with yourself? . Practice interrupting your negative self-talk and replacing it with something gentler. Begin to speak with kindness as if you were someone you loved.
- Seek counselling or a support group to learn more about self-esteem and why you may be struggling with yours. If you have a history of trauma or abuse, you can not heal your broken sense of self alone and you deserve the help of a caring professional.
- Let go of perfectionism. Striving to be perfect makes us lonely and adds unnecessary stress to daily life. When you need to be perfect it is awfully hard to try something new and is likely to lead to procrastination or constant dissatisfaction no matter how hard you work at something. I recommend reading The Gifts of Imperfection by Brené Brown
- Make a list of things you are reasonably good at. It can include skills like fixing your bike, ironing a pair of pants or presenting a legal brief. It might include being a supportive friend, a witty conversationalist or a generous volunteer. Start with 10 things you are reasonably good at and try to add a few things each week to your list.
- Stop filtering out the positive and only hearing the negative. A close friend of mine calls this her “amnesia for success”. At one time she could rattle off a list of her mistakes, disappointments and paths not taken but she was hard pressed to tell you any of her amazing achievements or recognize their value next to the achievements of someone else. If you complete a project at work and you have two negative critiques and eight positive ones, do you go home and dwell on the negative? Do you find yourself going over and over what you should have done differently? Do you manage to convince yourself that your project failed and that everyone knows it? It is time to give fair and equal airtime to the positive feedback and instead of getting hung up in self-doubt, use the gift of the negative feedback to improve your work next time. Consider keeping a running list of every compliment or positive feedback you are given.
- Pursue new interests and passions. What used to rock your world when you were a kid? What might your passion be today? If you could add one thing to your life what would it be? As adults we cite time constraints, responsibilities, money and many other blocks to the idea of pursuing what we love. I am not suggesting you quit your day job to follow your dream but simply start building in an hour or two a week doing something that engages you at the core and makes you truly happy
- Keep a gratitude journal (with a nod to Oprah who I think originally came up with this idea). It works for me! Jot down a few things each day that you are grateful for in your life – big things and little ones. Your list might include café lattes, a trustworthy hairstylist, the good health of your children, mobility, the internet, your best friend, a movie that made you laugh out loud. Be sure to include things about yourself on the list. I am grateful for my ability to support a friend in crisis, my welcoming smile, big feet, and my optimistic nature. While cultivating a daily attitude of gratitude it is harder to find time for negative thoughts and you may begin to see your worth in a new light.