I believe that all of us, at various times in our lives, have felt the weight of the implicit and explicit beliefs of our society and culture, which are expanded and transmitted through different media, advertising, and are reinforced at home, at work, in institutions and in day-to-day interactions. One of them is the idea that we are worth according to certain characteristics that we possess, for what we do and have.
When you think this way it is difficult to love and appreciate yourself unconditionally and even more difficult to face temporary defeats, losses and bad times. Our sense of worth becomes dependent on external factors and varies accordingly, which affects our self-esteem. Cultivating a healthy self-esteem is a continuous work , which requires rethinking our beliefs, providing love and allowing us to grow, and which is worthwhile as it is central to our physical and mental well-being.
What is self-esteem?
Glenn Schiraldi, author of several articles and books on mental and physical health, defines self-esteem as “a realistic and appreciative view of oneself. It is valuing oneself accurately and honestly, loving, caring for and liking oneself.
It is to possess a healthy pride; to respect oneself, to feel worthy and grateful for one’s own achievements, talents , services or belonging to some family or ethnic group, etc. It is also to have a healthy humility; to believe that all people are equally valuable, to appreciate oneself with the successes and failures and to recognize how much one still has to learn.
The author explains that healthy self-esteem is different from self-destructive shame and counterproductive pride . In self-destructive shame or humility, people have a negative opinion of themselves, which is inaccurate and unrealistic. They believe they are inferior to others, experience feelings of shame and disgust. They tend to be submissive and lack self-respect.
On the other hand, people with a counterproductive pride, believe that they are superior and more important than others. They try to impress others and experience an excessive need and desire to be admired. They behave in an arrogant, conceited and narcissistic manner. These two extremes are rooted in insecurity and fear.
Schiraldi describes three important foundations for building self-esteem; worthiness, unconditional love and growth. It is essential to develop the first two of these foundations in order to focus on growth.
1. Unconditional value
This first basis for building a healthy self-esteem, invites us to recognize the unconditional and inherent value of human beings . Something perhaps difficult to assimilate for some people, given the bombardment of information that associates the worth of a person with his or her appearance, intelligence, popularity, etc.
Unconditional human value is described by five axioms developed by Dr. Claudia A. Howard (1992):
- We all have infinite, inner, unconditional value as people.
- We all have the same value as people. There is no competition for value . Even though one person may be better at sports, studies or business, and another may be better at social skills, they both have the same value as human beings.
- External factors do not add or subtract value. Externals include things like money, appearance, performance, achievements. This only increases our market or social value. Value as a person, however, is infinite and unchangeable.
- The value is stable and is never in play (even if you are rejected by someone).
- Courage doesn’t have to be earned or proven. It already exists. It just has to be acknowledged, accepted and appreciated.
Detachment from the idea of a conditioned value
Schiraldi explains that “we are important and valuable as people because our spiritual and essential being is unique, precious, good, and of infinite, eternal and unchangeable value”.
It describes how, as a newborn baby, our inner self is fundamentally good and complete, and full of potential. However, over time the inner self becomes surrounded by external elements (criticism, abuse, negative actions and thought patterns) that can hide or make it difficult to see and experience our worth, while others (love, expressing our talents, helping others) help us see and feel it more easily. These external factors change the way our worth is experienced , but not the value itself.
Understanding that our value is unconditional frees us from that constant search for approval . There is no need to do things to prove our worth, you don’t have to be like someone else to gain value. Likewise, we can face adversity and life changes better, since we understand that our worth does not come into play because of mistakes, rejections or bad situations and experiences. It is one thing to feel bad about events and behaviors and another to feel bad or ashamed of the inner self.
In the same way we begin to recognize the value inherent in others. There is no need to encourage violence, separation and inequality because of differences in race, gender, religion, economic status, etc. There is no justification for competition over the other, envy or hatred if we manage to understand this simple truth that we are all worth the same as people.
2. Unconditional love
Schiraldi, describes love as a feeling and an attitude in which we want the best for ourselves and others. It is a decision and commitment that is made every day and a skill that can be learned and cultivated through practice. Love does not define us, nor does it provide us with value, but it does help us to recognize, experience and appreciate it more easily. We all need to feel loved, respected, accepted and valuable. If we have not received this love from others, it is important that we take responsibility for giving it to ourselves unconditionally, as love heals and is the foundation for growth.
One way to cultivate love is through the practice of self-pity. Kristin Neff, a researcher and professor at the University of Texas, talks about three components that help us do this. Briefly described, the first is to be kind and understanding to ourselves, rather than critical, when we suffer, fail or make mistakes. The next component involves recognizing our common humanity. It is remembering that we are interconnected and that we all share experiences of imperfection, make mistakes and have difficulties.
Finally, the third component is full attention . The willingness to clearly observe our internal experiences (thoughts, emotions) as they are in the present moment. Without exaggerating, ignoring or judging them, in order to respond and face reality in a compassionate and effective way.
This component then focuses on developing the physical, mental, social and emotional potential that exists in us and also of sharing it with others.
Shiraldi explains that growth is a continuous process that requires effort, help and is never completely finished, but is satisfying because it arises from the secure foundation of worth, love and a feeling of calm, rather than anxiety. If these foundations are absent, successes and achievements will rarely lead to healthy self-esteem.
Similarly, developing our capabilities does not increase or change our value, because we are born with it. Rather, as we grow we see our essential self more clearly, we are expressing our value, we change the perceptions we have of ourselves, and we experience who we are with more joy and satisfaction.
Growing up consists in choosing to act in integrity with our values , eliminating behaviours that are not good for us and enjoying the process without fearing failure and worrying excessively about the results. Each person has their own path and goes at their own pace. Self-esteem, then, is a combination of self-acceptance (worth and love) and growth.
- Neff, K. (2012). Be nice to yourself. The art of self-pity. Barcelona, Spain: Oniro.
- Schiraldi, G.R. (2016). The Self-Esteem Workbook. Second Edition. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger.