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Self-Esteem: Why we see ourselves the way we do

When my daughter was 3 years old, I remember sitting on the couch and watching her color a picture. She finished her drawing and walked over to my mom, who was visiting, and showed her what she had created. My mom stopped what she was doing and knelt to look. She told my daughter that the picture was beautiful and pointed out several specific things that were lovely about it; then my mom asked her if she would be willing to draw another one. My daughter smiled, said yes, and walked back to her crayons to produce another majestic piece of art. I sat there stunned for a few moments as some of the pieces of a larger concept came falling into place in my brain. Of all the reasons that people come to counseling, struggling with self-esteem or self-worth seems to be a common theme. What I saw in that interaction is that self-esteem is not a thing we choose to have or not have. Our self-perception is made up of thousands of moments beginning at a very young age when we begin to determine, based on the feedback from the people around us, whether we are worthwhile. Good enough. Smart enough. Talented enough. Pretty enough. Tough enough. There are so many ways my mom could have responded to her: telling her that she doesn’t have time to look at the picture; that she can draw better than what she had produced; that she wasn’t supposed to be using crayons without permission; that her brother draws better than she does. The list could go on forever of the ways that we push those we love to do or be better. If she had responded with one of those and my daughter felt as though the drawing wasn’t enough, she would not be sitting in therapy 30 years from now saying that her lack of self-worth all started when her grandma didn’t think her picture was good. Those memories wash away from us because of age and insignificance; but what doesn’t wash away is the interpretation of who we are. What she would say to her therapist would sound more like, “I just feel like there is something wrong with me and that I will never be good.” I know because I’ve heard that statement more times than I can count.

As a therapist, I don’t think I fully understood what I was doing when I wrote “increase client’s self-esteem” on their treatment plan. As though I could sit in a room with someone and inflate their sense of self-worth like a balloon. Because we refer to it as SELF-esteem/confidence/worth, there is also the implication that having or not having a sense of self-worth is an internal decision that we make; that we choose to see ourselves in a positive or a negative light.

Here is how I understand self-esteem now. We all arrive in the world with a little pilot light of self-worth. The people around us, through their words and actions, can make that pilot light grow into a nice healthy fire or they can extinguish the light altogether. How might someone have their pilot light extinguished, you ask? Many times, we focus on the extremes: abuse, abandonment, cruelty, neglect. Those will surely take their toll. However, so will comparison, failure to show up for accomplishments, ignoring the things that make someone proud of themselves, offering praise only for winning, pushing to always be just a little better.

The goal as a therapist is two-fold: to relight the pilot light and to remove the barriers for receiving the positive feedback that is coming our way. Having conversations with a client about how they are competent, kind and smart does not create a roaring fire of self-esteem; it simply relights the opportunity for them to experience others seeing them as good enough. If we do not believe the great things we are told about who we are and what we are capable of, then there is no way the fire will grow. Keep in mind that not everyone's opinion matters. As (the genius researcher and my personal hero) Brené Brown says, the names of the people whose opinions matter to us should be able to fit on a 1”x1” piece of paper. If your name is on someone’s paper, then what you say matters. It is an honor that should not be taken lightly.

A couple of years ago I was speaking at a conference out of town and the drive took longer than I thought it would. I rolled in with 15 minutes to check in, set up my talk and use the bathroom. On my way to the bathroom I saw a group of people I knew and went to say hello. As I got closer, I realized that they were in the midst of a conversation saying unkind things about the way I present, rolling their eyes and laughing. I quickly walked by without being seen and ducked into the bathroom. I had 3 minutes to get up in front of a large group to do the exact thing for which I just heard myself be criticized. Then this amazing thing happened. I realized that the insults didn’t hurt. That the fire I had built, with the help of others who provided positive feedback and compliments, could withstand having some water thrown on it. I did the talk with the understanding that those folks were not on my 1”x1” paper.

The pressure to be better often overrides the ability to just be who we are, and that takes a toll on our self-worth. From a therapist’s perspective, people can and do relight their own pilot lights with a little help. From a mother’s perspective, it’s not that my daughter has to grow up to be an artist, or a soccer player, or a musician. It’s that she has to grow up feeling like the people who love her believe that she is good enough exactly as she is. No proof or accomplishment required.

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