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Building Positive Self-Esteem

When We Like Ourselves, We Can Like the World around Us

Self-esteem refers to the feelings we have about who we are. When our feelings about ourselves are positive, we show others that we like and value ourselves—and then others tend to treat us well. But when we have negative self-esteem so that we are too critical, complaining and pessimistic about ourselves, others tend to take this attitude toward us as well. How we treat ourselves serves as a cue to others about how they should treat us.

Self-esteem is like an endless circle: If we like ourselves, we usually like other people. When we like other people, they usually like us back. When other people like us, we usually like ourselves. (Now replace the word hate wherever like appears in the last three sentences...and you can see the difference between positive self-esteem and negative self-esteem).

The thoughts we have about ourselves, or how we think about ourselves, contribute to our self-image. The feelings we have about these thoughts, whether these feelings are good or bad, are the building blocks of our self-esteem. Our self-image, and gradually our self-esteem, usually begins with our parents. As children we define ourselves the way our parents define us. Just as we may learn from our parents to see some things as good (like perhaps ice cream) and some things as bad (like filth or impudence), we also come to define ourselves in much the same way that our parents define us. Thus, if our parents treat us with love, kindness, and as if we are special and unique people, then we will eventually define ourselves in this way as well. On the other hand, if our parents treat us as if we are a bother to have around and not worth much, then we will also come to see ourselves in this way.

The way our parents treat us contributes largely to the self-esteem that will carry us into adulthood. The school years are an important determinant of self-esteem also. If our teachers and our peers treat us as if we are smart, likable and special, this will be the image we learn to live up to. By engaging in the behavior of a person who is intelligent and popular, we gradually learn to define ourselves in this way. If our teachers, however, treat us as if we have no potential and are nothing but trouble, we learn that message as well—and that is who we will become. If our schoolmates shun us or otherwise treat us badly, we learn to see ourselves according to the cues they provide for us.

Our marriages and other important relationships are greatly influenced by the level of self-esteem that we carry into them. We often choose partners and friends who will treat us in much the way we were treated as we grew up. We not only choose partners who will give us these experiences, but we subsequently engage in behavior that lets the other person know that this is the appropriate way to treat us. Thus if we bring positive self-esteem into a relationship, we will likely be loved, nurtured, and cared about as someone unique and special. On the other hand, if we go into a relationship thinking of ourselves as flawed, unworthy and unlovable, we are often setting the stage for a very unhappy experience. It sometimes occurs, of course, that we can enter a relationship with positive self-esteem, but our partner has negative self-esteem, so that a situation of great misunderstanding and even abuse can be created.

Self Esteem and the School Years

An interesting study, conducted many years ago before ethical considerations became a hallmark of research with human subjects, has shown that when teachers are told beforehand that their class of normal, average students is composed of "difficult" students with low I.Q.'s, the grades given to these students at the end of the year are indeed much lower. When the teachers are told that a class of normal students is bright and highly motivated, the students' grades turn out to be much higher. The children in these classes came to define themselves in the way they were treated by their teachers—and they acted accordingly.

Self-esteem can often suffer as the result of major losses in our lives. When our marriages fail, when we lose a job, when our health deteriorates, or when a friend cuts off contact, we often enter a self-esteem crisis and question our own value. People with a sense of positive self-esteem are able to weather these crises much better because they are able to trust in their own abilities and to take a positive approach toward unfortunate situations. They can see crisis as a chance to learn and to avoid making the same mistakes again. People with negative self-esteem often end up paralyzed by these life crises and have few personal resources for getting through them.

Some people confuse healthy positive self-esteem with audacity or arrogance , a false sense of superiority over other people. True self-esteem means that we do not have to assert ourselves at the expense of other people. Indeed, it is often those with underlying negative self-esteem who must resort to the tactic of exaggerating their own worth, usually by putting other people down. Those with positive self-esteem can acknowledge their own worth at the same time that they validate the positive qualities of others.

Self-Esteem and Therapy

One of the things that therapy does best is to address issues of self-esteem. Many of us are wounded, in one way or another, by the way we were treated as we grew up. As adults it becomes our responsibility to put closure on the damage inflicted on us by others and to move on with our lives in a healthy way. Therapy can point out the ways in which we engage in destructive patterns of behavior. It allows us to explore why we often punish ourselves and see ourselves as being less than other people. We do have the ability to change our negative self-esteem tendencies and to replace them with self-nurturing, self-encouraging, and self-enhancing behavior. When we begin to treat ourselves in a more positive way, others pick up on our cues and begin to respond to us in the special way we all deserve.


Make the decision to explore your positive self-esteem.

Each of us, in one way or another, carries a source of strength which encourages us to strive for the best in our lives. Whether we want to move into a healthier way of being for the sake of our own growth, for job advancement, for the well-being of our families, or for our physical health, there comes a time to make the commitment to explore new ways of seeing ourselves. By the time we are adults we are so used to our established ways of dealing with things that it is hard to imagine that things could be different. The journey to a happier life begins with the decision to make the first step.

Start to see yourself in a positive way.

Each of us has the capacity to see not only the negatives but the positives about ourselves. Make a list of ten of things you dislike about yourself and ten things you like about yourself. ( Warning: this can be an exceedingly difficult task!) For the ten things you dislike, turn them into positives. For example, "I am angry too much of the time" can be turned into "I have the ability to get in touch with my anger"; or "I don't talk enough in a group" can change to "I am able to listen to other people." For your list of ten things you like about yourself, repeat them to yourself several times a day. Gradually you can begin to see yourself as a person with these more positive qualities. You are replacing the old negative messages that you have always heard with new messages that will improve your self-esteem.

Tell other people about your positive qualities and accomplishments.

This is not an exercise in arrogance, conceit or bragging! Rather it is letting other people know that you acknowledge your good qualities and that they are so much a part of your life that you don't hesitate to talk about them. The real message is that you are presenting yourself to others as a person with positive self-esteem. Others will pick up on these cues and treat you as one who values the positive in both yourself and others. It may be hard to hear a compliment from another person at first since we take in what has always felt most consistent with our old level of self-esteem. When someone gives you a compliment, take it in, accept it, and thank the other person with sincerity.

Examine your relationships with others and put them into perspective.

If you want to improve your self-esteem you have to engage in relationships which are productive and which enhance your feelings about yourself. To remain in a relationship which is damaging to your self-esteem presents a major obstacle to your growth. If you see that some of your relationships are destructive, choose either to end them or to find ways to make them more positive. This can be a very difficult task since we tend to find relationships which feel comfortable and which reinforce our old ways of seeing ourselves. This is a time of hard decisions.

Take good care of yourself and your appearance.

Appreciate your own individuality, your own combination of strengths and weaknesses that make you a special person. Without a strong sense of who you are it is easy to become vulnerable to others who treat you in a negative way. Engaging in a disciplined exercise program is a good way not only of taking care of your body but also in making you and others aware that you value yourself. It is important to groom yourself and to wear clothing that brings out your best qualities. Feeling good about yourself, and getting positive feedback from others, is an essential component of developing positive self-esteem.

Accomplish goals that you set for yourself.

We need to set attainable goals for ourselves, even if they seem unimportant. By completing tasks which in the past may have gone undone (like making the bed everyday or talking to a neighbor), we can begin to take pride in our accomplishments. Learn your limitations—and don't punish yourself if you are not able to do everything you might like to do. You are not a failure if you have given your best effort. Determine what things you can do best and take the risk to try new activities. Learn the computer. Read a book a week. Take a dance class. Start a garden. Try new recipes. Join a softball team. Walk or run around the block. Explore your spirituality. Do volunteer work. Comfort friends who need help.

The world is a full and exciting place, limited only by our inability to see ourselves as special people who deserve to take part in its joys.

Working Resources is a Leadership Consulting, Training and Executive Coaching Firm Helping Companies Assess, Select, Coach and Retain Emotionally Intelligent People; Emotional Intelligence-Based Interviewing and Selection; Multi-Rater 360-Degree Feedback; Career Coaching; Change Management; Corporate Culture Surveys and Executive Coaching.

Dr. Maynard Brusman
Consulting Psychologist and Executive Coach
Trusted Advisor to Senior Leadership Teams
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