Self-esteem is much talked about but it doesn’t mean much; it’s more useful to understand what contributes to self-esteem.

A week ago I posted The Foundations of Personal Resilience. Here’s the first in a series of posts explaining what those foundations are, and how to develop them in yourself. Self-esteem is much talked about but it doesn’t mean much.

Although self-esteem is always touted as one of the cornerstones of resilience (self-esteem gives you a sense of self-worth, they say), I’m going to tell you not to bother about it too much. Or, to be more accurate, I’m going to tell you how to focus on the components of self-esteem, rather than trying to elevate your level of something which is really only a vague, catch-all buzzword.

I’m also going to tell you that we all have down days, and an inner critic who is out to get us. The secret in being more resilient is in learning to manage these. Escaping to a higher realm of ‘good self-esteem’ won’t save you, even if you could do it.

‘Self-esteem’ is one of those pop-psychology terms that has become part of our regular vocabulary. Once used only by psychologists, counsellors and the like, it bandied about so freely that we all know what it means, right? Psychologists do, but that doesn’t mean the rest of us do.

In fact, we don’t, but we generally get the gist. If someone is talking about self-esteem they are usually talking about LOW self-esteem, and that normally puts someone at a disadvantage (when did you last hear a comment like “Oh! I know Cynthia, she’s the one with high self-esteem”?).

Low self-esteem is a curse associated with inadequate social conditions, lack of opportunity, under confidence and poor social skills.

Low self-esteem is a stigma, and if you suffer from it (you poor thing!), you’ll struggle with anything that requires that you improve yourself or your circumstances (unless you do it by antisocial, unfair or criminal means). These are all myths, but the reason that they survive is that so many people believe them.

So, if you consider that you have low self-esteem or the dreaded ‘self-esteem issues’, this is hardly a good starting point to begin to build your levels of resilience. You’d be starting on the back foot.

To summarise, here’s my starting point with regard to self-esteem and it’s role in developing resilience:

  • Self-esteem is an abstract term which means many things to different people.
  • Despite its frequent use, it doesn’t say much about a person, but it does imply that they have a problem. This is a disempowering position to find yourself in.
  • It’s very hard to get to grips with a concept which is abstract. You can’t measure self-esteem, so you can’t manage it.
  • There’s good evidence to show that self-esteem has been oversold; research shows that high self-esteem doesn’t automatically correlate with health, wealth and happiness.

High self-esteem is the holy grail of personal development. No less vague than it’s opposite, this is also a myth. Nevertheless, there’s a whole self-esteem movement devoted to (and promoting) the idea that,  if you have it, you’ll do well in life.

The term self-esteem is used to describe a person’s overall sense of self-worth and self-acceptance. In other words, how they think and feel about themselves. These are obviously important factors in wellbeing, but to lump them together under one abstract heading – especially one as loaded as ‘self-esteem’ – makes them difficult to discuss. Even then, ‘worth’ and ‘value’ are themselves relative terms which can lead to comparisons and judgments, both of which are habits that damage belief in yourself.

But self-esteem IS linked to resilience, in that many of the resources and courses aimed at boosting resilience explicitly say that self-esteem is a necessary part of any resilience programme. So what’s going on?

Self-esteem and your strengths

If ‘self-esteem’ is used to describe a person’s overall sense of self-worth and self-acceptance, let’s consider those for a moment.

  • What is your sense of self-worth? Do you accept yourself as you are? These relate to your attitudes and beliefs about you, and they are quite manageable.
  • So ditch self-esteem for now and think more about how you actually relate to yourself, and consider your strengths, abilities, and experience. These are what make you, you.
  • They’ll also be the things that others value in you, so if you can’t think of anything yourself (probably because you have low self-esteem!), ask around, but only ask people you trust.

If YOU doubt yourself or your finer inner qualities, does that necessarily mean that other people will think it too?

Anyway, so what? History is full of characters who didn’t like or value themselves very much, yet many of them are remembered for their stamina, persistence and the positive things they did. That’s why they are part of history. Privately, though, in their diaries and so forth, they often shared heart-rending tales of self-doubt and torment. But it didn’t stop them getting up and getting on with what they had to do.

If you need examples: Winston Churchill, Abraham Lincoln and Charles Dickens suffered from depression, Charles Darwin was agoraphobic, Edvard Munch suffered from panic attacks, and the list of famous alcoholics who were also resilient enough to be great achievers would fill a book. (Low self-esteem, as you know, is often given as a causal factor in alcohol abuse and addiction, and I’ve just realised the Freud had his period of cocaine addiction).

As a side-note, one characteristic of resilience often mentioned in the research is modesty; resilient people don’t crow about their achievements. They often play down their efforts and diminish themselves.

I’m a writer, so I could spend a lot of time beating myself up and demoralising myself with damning evidence that proves what a rubbish writer I am (on a bad day I produce yards of it!).

But I’m also a resilient person. I accept that there are good days and bad days. I also know, from long experience, that my mind is out to get me if I let it. I have learned to harness and use my inner critic, rather than letting it push me about.

Ask any creative person who is successful at what they do, about their moments of self-doubt. Most will be only too happy to share. Self-doubt can be managed, and self-acceptance improved upon.

The main thing is…

The key message here is: It’s great to feel good about yourself and it certainly helps with resilience, but nobody feels good about themselves (or has high self-esteem if you really must use that term), all the time. In fact, NOT feeling good about yourself, and being able to manage the negativity, IS a defining characteristic of resilient people.

See also

Inspiration, Gloss and Self-Esteem

You Don’t Have to Believe It, At First