Self-Esteem is Finally Taking a Back SeatJan 10, 2022
Have you noticed statements like “Seize the day!” and countless variations are distributed like splatter paint on every social media platform, coffee cup slogan and printed t-shirt?
Go for it!
Just do it!
You can do anything you put your mind to.
It’s inspiring to imagine yourself slaying goals and making the very most of each day.
But having the agency in your life to be, do or have what you truly want - first relies upon having the fundamental belief that you are worthy enough to create your best life.
For nearly 50 years, the concept of worthiness in American culture has been used interchangeably with self-esteem, and while worthiness and self-esteem have a great deal of overlap, key differences set them apart. Unless we pull back the layers to define the differences and radically evolve our thinking around self-esteem, we stand to limit our personal growth, our ability to connect with others and our own happiness.
What is Self-Esteem?
In simple terms, having a healthy self-esteem means having a positive opinion of yourself. Recognizing and appreciating your own achievements, being content with the way you look physically, having the confidence to assert yourself and feeling capable of trying new things are hallmarks of positive self-esteem.
More specifically, having a positive self-esteem includes:
- Feelings of security
- Feelings of competence
- Experiencing a sense of belonging
- Avoid rumination, and dwelling on past experiences
- Express your needs, wants and expectations
- Maintaining a positive outlook
- Establishing relationship boundaries
- Holding regard for personal strengths and skills
The opposite of this – having low self-esteem – is not a mental health diagnosis and while it might lead one to live a less fulfilling life and can contribute to the experience of anxiety or depression, low self-esteem is not necessarily dangerous.
Those who have low self-esteem are often:
- Highly critical of themselves, which can lead to feelings of shame, regret, depression or guilt
- Unable to maintain healthy relationships since they might let others walk all over them or don’t believe they are worthy of love
- Poor communicators who cannot assert themselves appropriately, which leads to passive, passive-aggressive or even aggressive or bullying behaviors.
- Perfectionists who want to conceal what they believe are their weaknesses
- Looking for any sign of disapproval from others to affirm what they believe about themselves
- Avoidant of activities they are not already accomplished in or where they have a risk of failure
- Negligent about self-care and may go as far as hurting themselves if they don’t believe they are worth caring for. This could include drug or alcohol abuse, self-harm, abuse of others or even suicide. (2)
Not a one-size-fits-all trait, self-esteem seems to have nebulous, almost transient qualities. It’s not something that once obtained cannot be lost as your opinion about yourself might vary depending upon the phase of life you’re in or even upon the situation. It begs the question – where does a healthy self-esteem come from?
Some people seem to be born with unshakable confidence and move through life undeterred by minor setbacks, failures or even criticism from others. Yet for others, no matter how much their parents, friends or teachers attempt to "build them up" or convince them of their worth, they find it difficult to believe in themselves.
Somewhat paradoxical, having low self-esteem does not necessarily lead to a person living a less productive life as sometimes those who are afraid of not measuring up actually work twice as hard to prove themselves.
Also, sometimes those who think very highly of themselves or believe they are better than other people, are less receptive to feedback and are more prone to developing narcissistic behaviors.
Self-Esteem versus Self-Worth:
The very notion of self-esteem was a term popularized in the 1980's when individualism and a "me-focused" culture flourished. We believed building ourselves into icons and setting our children up for success relied upon having a positive self-esteem.
Self-improvement never seems like a bad thing, but the downside of making self-esteem the focus is that building up your self-esteem can rely too heavily on the perceived opinions of others, competition and the good/bad comparison trap. If outside events or opinions of others can influence the way you feel about yourself, this fluctuation can also increase feelings of insecurity, inadequacy and make you believe you are a failure. This makes self-esteem an unreliable leg to stand on.
Comparing yourself against an American ideal and having rigid opinions of your performance or your qualities as a person has a dark side, as it can increase the likelihood of experiencing mental health issues like anxiety and depression. At this juncture, striving toward an unrealistic ideal does more harm than good.
Worthiness, while often identified by similar feelings and behaviors as positive self-esteem, goes much deeper. Worthiness is not something that can be shaken, as it is an inherent part of you. When you believe you are worthy, how you feel about yourself is not dependent upon how others perceive you or how many wins or losses you’ve had.
Let’s not get caught in a binary discussion that throws self-esteem out the window completely, but it’s time to put it in its place (ideally in the backseat instead of the driver’s seat).
The evolution from an emphasis on self-esteem to self-love is like America's shift from the Food Pyramid, where carbs made up the largest part of our diet, to the MyPlate, which champions vegetables and minimizes carbs for a more balanced diet.
It’s not that we’re never going to eat carbs, it’s that we rely on them less for nourishment. We simply need to place less emphasis on self-esteem and focus more on what truly nourishes our wellbeing.
So how do you develop an unwavering, unshakable sense of self-worth - a deep knowing that you have value all the time, no matter what?
The secret to really loving yourself is to love all of yourself, even the parts that aren’t picture-perfect. Developing self-acceptance is a radical notion and one that deeply impacts the way you feel about yourself. Accepting yourself, unconditionally, takes you off the roller coaster of outside perceptions and helps you relate to yourself in a kinder, gentler way.
Self-acceptance not only helps you develop a healthier, more stable mindset, but it’s also the answer to self-criticism. When you develop self-compassion and self-acceptance, it becomes easier to quiet the inner voice of negative self-talk and remember your inherent value.
Why is it so Important for Men to Focus on Self-Acceptance and Self-Compassion?
To live in congruency – meaning your outer life matches your inner truth – you must believe you are worthy of creating a life you love. Reaching your full potential while also being at peace with yourself is only possible if you also like and accept who you are.
Truly accepting yourself allows you to rely less on the approval or others, be less affected by criticism and to rid yourself of shame or guilt if you fail at something.
Your relationships will also benefit, especially your most intimate ones. Feeling free to seek pleasure, ask for what you want and refrain from jealous behavior (because you’re not constantly afraid she’ll leave you for someone else) creates closer, more trusting connections.
Without unconditional self-acceptance, you are obliged to listen to your inner critic which will always make you feel less-than or worthless in comparison with others. You'll think, "Who am I to achieve this or receive this reward or have this amazing wife or career or house?" Even if you do achieve success, you won't be able to enjoy it and will feel like an imposter.
How Do We Develop Unconditional Self-Acceptance?
Try this exercise:
A natural approach to changing what you don’t like about yourself might be to make a list of all the places you think you’re falling short and systematically change them. It’s not wrong to seek self-improvement in areas of weakness, but the problem with this approach as a solution to having low self-esteem is no matter how hard you work to change, you’ll never be satisfied. The finish line will keep moving. You’ll never feel like you are enough and you’ll continue to feel bad about yourself.
Instead of waiting to like yourself until you become “perfect”, start with accepting yourself exactly as you are – flaws and all. Here are some ways to begin developing self-acceptance.
Tactic 1: Examine Your Tribe
Think about the people you most admire and ask yourself what qualities they have. Is it possible you have some of those qualities too? Are the people you admire “perfect” or are they willing to be vulnerable and share both their wins and failures with you? Now is a good time to surround yourself with people who inspire you and feel good to be around. Notice how connecting with people you admire makes you feel about yourself.
Tactic 2: Identify What Your Pathological Critic is Saying to You (and put it in its place).
In a previous article I wrote about the inner jerk, also referred to as the pathological critic – that inner monologue of self-criticism that drags us down. Statements like, “you’re not good enough”, or “you’re stupid”, or “No one really likes you for you”. These are statements of external comparison, and we risk this commentary becoming dominant. Write down these negative statements or criticisms and determine which are associated with negative self-rating or evaluation. When you become aware of your inner critic, you can “put it in its place” by refusing to believe the negative messages it’s telling you. While you may never completely get rid of your inner critic, you can tell it to be quiet and step aside so you can go ahead and enjoy your life.
Tactic 3: Recognize what Conditions you Place on Yourself.
If you struggle to accept yourself, determine what conditions you’re placing on yourself. A condition might include statements such as, “I have to get things just right”, or “I must avoid making mistakes, or failing”.
These statements of all or nothing, wrong or right, i.e., dichotomous thinking is a form of cognitive distortion. We need to learn how to challenge and replace these thoughts that feed into the experience of self-rating and comparison.
Tactic 4: Accept Yourself Without Condition
When you truly accept yourself as-is, you’ll likely sigh with a deep sense of relief. To know you are worthy of love, just as you are right now can feel transformative. No more comparison with others, no more harsh self-criticism, and no more playing small when you know you’re capable of living a more authentic and rewarding life.
Developing an unwavering inner appreciation for yourself that’s not easily rattled by exterior circumstances takes time, but the rewards for doing the work are immense. When you practice the tactics above, you’ll begin seeing the impact that self-acceptance and self-compassion have on your life.
Whenever you are ready to ‘seize the day’, or push toward a goal, the only one you’ll be (kindly and gently) measuring yourself against is you! The best part is, you’ll remember your inherent worth, whether you hit your mark on the first try, the 100th try, or not at all, because self-love is unconditional.
If you need someone in your tribe who believes in you, you’ve already got me in your corner! I hope you’ll reach out if you’d like more support in learning to love and accept yourself.
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Simon G. Niblock, MA, LMFT, is a licensed psychotherapist, specializing in men’s mental health and wellness. He provides tailored psychotherapy services and online programs for men and is the author of the Anxiety Workbook for Men, Evidence-based Exercises to Manage Anxiety, Depression, and Worry.
Important Notice: The content in this article is for informational purposes only. It does not replace direct professional mental health, medical treatment, or professional care in any way. Seek the support of a physician or other qualified healthcare provider to diagnose and treat any mental health concern directly. Contact 911 or your local emergency services number if you are experiencing a mental health emergency.