Self Esteem: Losing it, Finding it, and Keeping it

Self esteem does not exist in the external world; it is purely a construct of the mind.  We cannot see self esteem, only evidence of it.  It is a completely subjective and internal experience.  In nature you do not see animals with self esteem issues.  If a dog doesn’t catch a ball there is no self-recrimination.  That judgment is reserved solely for humans.  A dog doesn’t tell itself that it is a bad fetcher.  Dogs just live to fetch another day.  We, on the other hand, come up with all sorts of stories about how good or bad we are, all of which affect our self esteem.

Self esteem and self reflection are directly related to each other.  Our ability for self-reflection is a double edged sword.  On one hand, it allows us to know who we are, giving our lives meaning, purpose and direction.  On the other hand, it gives us endless opportunities to create narratives about ourselves that affect how we think, feel and act.  When we tell ourselves stories about our inadequacies, we don’t feel good.  Conversely, when we tell ourselves stories about our accomplishments we often feel too good, which paradoxically can also negatively impact our self esteem.

The relationship between negative narratives and low self esteem is obvious, but our overinflated stories exert an equally potent affect.  In psychology, our overinflated stories are called the “above average effect,” which states that if we do reasonably well at something we tend to think we’ve done better than we actually have.  For example, approximately 30% of small businesses fail within the first three years yet 70% of business owners think they will succeed, and 30% of them put their odds at 100%.  This distinct mismatch with reality causes optimistic entrepreneurs to experience a sense of failure that potentially affects their self esteem.  Similarly, more than 50% of marriages end in divorce, yet 100% of the couples getting married do not think it will happen to them.  Clearly, half of them are wrong and don’t know it.

Circles of Confusion

The repetitive loop of negative narratives looks something like this: If I am shy and afraid of rejection I will go to a party and be reserved and tentative which will increase the likelihood that no one will talk to me and I will end up feeling even more rejected thereby intensifying my sense of shyness and rejection causing me to be even more timid and cautious the next time I’m at a party.  You can see that as the loop intensifies my ability to perform adequately decreases along with my self esteem.  I call these loops of increasing intensity Circles of Confusion because what began as low self esteem becomes reinforced or intensified by other people confirming for me that I am not worthy.  Without the maturity or sophistication to know the difference between my inside world and the outside world, the loop intensifies until I become, not surprisingly, confused.

ICEing the Circle of Confusion

The following three interventions are effective strategies in mitigating circles of confusion that produce low self esteem.  They are interruption, confronting and educating (ICE).

Interruption:  The endless loop of self-reinforcing self recriminations is often attached to a singular thing.  In the earlier example, if I think I’m too shy then I will focus my self-esteem on being shy and will think I won’t have any friends, won’t be accepted, and will have a hard time adjusting to new situations.  To interrupt this loop I will have to identify other areas of self esteem that I’m overlooking.  Interrupting the pattern by focusing on other areas where there is self esteem, such as being a good student, having a witty personality, or being kind will help put the negative focus on my shyness in perspective.  Although self esteem covers a wide range of behavioral variables we constantly scan for the area that validates what already believe to be true about ourselves, and if we believe we have low self esteem we will find evidence of it everywhere we look because we will only look in those places where we can find it.

Confrontation:  It often takes a jolt of energy to knock someone from a negative groove that keeps repeating into a more functional and forward looking one.  Much like a record that keeps skipping back to its original starting point, it takes someone slamming their hand down on the table to jump the needle to the next groove.  Confrontation, when used at the right time and with the right sensitivity, is a very effective tool for change.  Unfortunately, we can’t rely on other people to confront us in effective ways so we have to learn to confront our own belief system.  We can start by asking ourselves what evidence we have to back up our claims?  We often tell ourselves fictions and believe them as if they’re nonfiction.  In the example of shyness, am I shy in all situations?  Do I speak up in class, assert myself on the ball field, stand up for the underdog, or take an unpopular stand when everyone else is going along with the norm.  I may be shy and awkward around girls but that doesn’t mean that I’m shy in all areas of my life.  I may be telling myself I am shy when actually I’m simply nervous in social situations.  The more I confront my own narrative the better chance I have of telling myself the whole truth instead of just that part of the truth that reinforces my feeling of shyness.

Education:  Self esteem can be raised immeasurably when we are properly educated about its causes.  By identifying self-perpetuating loops, how self recriminating stories are created, how loops intensify over time and how they are self reinforcing often is an intervention, and a complete form of therapy, in itself.  The educational aspects of self esteem also includes the “above average effect” so people who feel they have high self esteem can begin to see how they may actually be fueling future low esteem without recognizing it.  As we have seen, overinflated self esteem is one of the causes of low self esteem although you wouldn’t know it to look at those who are perpetually optimistic.

Self esteem is a natural part of being human.  We all have it to varying degrees.  Whether it serves us or not is dependent upon how we subjectively view and measure it.  There is no mistaking, however, that it is something we must put in perspective or else we risk falling victim to our own self narratives that reinforces negative, and sometimes over optimistic, views of ourselves.  Only then can the subjective evaluation of self esteem be adequately calibrated to the objective world.

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