This topic has been on my mind a lot lately for…various reasons, we'll say. For background, I myself am a smart person (we can define that later if you like, but if you care about definitions then you're probably smart enough to qualify ;), and I'm pretty sure I've had every single self-esteem problem in the book, or damn close. I've crawled my way out of bad relationships, bad habits (including outright self-harm), and bad situations all caused by my lack of self-love/esteem/confidence more times than I really care to admit. But you don't do things like that without learning something, and if it's ok with you, Internet, I'd love a chance to share what I've learned. I'm calling this Part One because I see a potential for a lot to talk about here, and depending on Life, the Universe and Everything I may or may not write it all [UPDATE: I did in fact write Part Two and Part Three], but I at least want to have said some of this stuff — Ideally, I'd like to talk with some people about it, too, so feel free to chime in if this speaks to you.
Obviously I'm not a psychologist — you can take that as a detriment if you like, but personally I'm proud of it; and anyway if this advice doesn't stand on its own, then you should ignore it. You're smart.
I. Recognize what Self-Esteem is and Why It's Important. Self-Esteem got a bad rap when people turned it into a bullet-point fix-all buzz-word bullshit answer to The Everything, but ignore all that and think about what it means: It means not hating yourself. Not experiencing your whole life through the filter of a constant buzz of negative thinking, the equivalent of having a whole roomful of people dissing and hating on you all day, every day, except that since it's you doing it to yourself, the dissing is amazingly pinpoint accurate and blisteringly hard to ignore by just gutsing your way through it. Bad self-esteem is a handicap, a mental problem that not only prevents you from making the most out of your life, but that steers you inexorably into self-destructive behaviors and situations, and impairs your ability to make the kind of decisions you actually want to make probably worse than anything short of PCP. (If that sounded overly dramatic, think about it again: Would you rather be drunk and trying to make a long-term series of life-decisions in a positive way, or face the same decisions while possessed by demons that could trick you into thinking that you wanted and deserved what was worst for you?)
If you're smart, you are self-aware and therefore have a strong interest in fixing your self-esteem. (Maybe you aren't convinced that you can fix it, but put that on hold for the moment; I'll prove it soon.) If you're not sure whether you have a self-esteem problem, do this simple test: Watch your thinking as closely as you can for a day, and note (with a mark on paper or something) how many times you think something negative about yourself, versus how many times you think something positive. Doing this exercise will probably cause you to think extra positive things about yourself for that day, but that can be instructive too: How hard is it? How weird does it feel? For me, for a long time even trying to honestly think something like, "because I'm awesome is why" was really, really hard, and I could tell I was faking it even while I did it. You may not be (hopefully aren't) that bad off, but if you're not sure it's really worth watching and keeping track for a day. This problem can be stealthy, since obviously it has a vested interest in hiding itself from your logical mind. (And that's not an anthropomorphization or dramatization either: It's a mental construct, and it's just as cagey as the rest of your mind can be. Are you smart enough to lie not to get caught? Then so is it.)
Self-esteem comes from two things: Having accomplished things that you yourself are proud of, and having your basic needs met. Think of this as the emotional side of the coin that "being physically fit" is the physical side of: To be physically fit, you have to a) meet your basic health needs, and b) successfully accomplish some kind of physical exercise. To have self-esteem, you have to a) meet your basic emotional needs, and b) successfully accomplish some kind of emotional growth.
I'm going to start with basic needs, because as with the physical version, this often gets overlooked, and it's flat fucking stupid to overlook it. You cannot be physically fit if you're fundamentally unhealthy: Even if you manage to fake it for a while, it'll fall apart on you, guaranteed. And being fit isn't about looking muscular; it's about strength, resiliency, and successfully being in the world in a positive way. Same thing with self-esteem: Faking it is not making it. The basics are utterly essential.
"OK," I can hear the DA in my head saying, "But it's a lot harder with emotional needs. First you have to know what they are, and that's different for everybody, and and and…" –But I argue in return that it's not all that different, nor that much (if any) harder. There are basic truths that apply in pretty much every case, and the process of finding out the specifics of what works for you is pretty much the same as it is with diet and exercise: Try things that make sense, watch yourself to learn the results, keep what you're doing or change it based on the evidence, rinse repeat.
However, we shouldn't overlook that we're talking about people doing this who already have bad self-esteem: How do you figure out and meet your basic emotional needs when a part, maybe a large part, of your mind insists that you don't deserve to have them? Well, you have some bad habits to get around in that case, but it's not impossible, and it's as worth doing as eating right and exercising is for the very physically unfit.
This is long already, but I'll keep going for a bit, to discuss the first basic step in overcoming poor self-esteem enough to learn what your basic emotional needs are and how to get them met:
II. First, recognize that your basic emotional needs are YOUR responsibility. That's advice that most people like myself will find both easy and hard: It's easy because it sounds unwhiny and self-reliant (or comfortingly self-punishing, depending on where you are on the scale of things); it's hard because it means that you have to admit that your own pain and suffering deserves your attention and effort to fix — and really fix, not just cover up well enough that you can function/behave for others.
Funnily enough though, this easy/hard impression that you get from admitting that your low self-esteem is a problem that's your responsibility to fix is actually somewhat backwards from reality — and that's precisely because of the filters that low self-esteem puts over things like this. In your mind, you're probably trying to "be tough" and "suck it up" and "not be dramatic" … but in reality, the effect of this is that you aren't getting your needs met, and this is causing you to lean on other people inappropriately, to "wait on" someone else to recognize what you need and make it a priority. In essence, by absconding responsibility for identifying and prioritizing your needs, you wind up unfairly putting that burden on others — because the assumption you're making, that it's ok to just let yourself be trampled since you don't deserve better anyway, is a fallacious one; letting your own needs go unmet *isn't an option*. You're a human being and you have needs, and your mind and body will seek to have them met even if you don't. (That's why they're NEEDS.)
It's easy to be ashamed of having needs, or to see them as weaknesses — I understand that urge, and I also don't think it comes from a bad place. We want to be strong and independent. But a strong person knows their limits and works with them: We don't admire people who go hiking in the mountains with no food, water or gear and get themselves killed. Some of your needs will turn out to be things you don't need all the time, or don't need very much of; and some of them will turn out to be like air. That's ok; as long as you know which is which, you can make decisions accordingly. And knowing that you need something and making decisions that respect that is a ton more responsible and "tough" than ignoring what you need and flailing all over the place because you're not able to breathe.
I won't lie: You won't be happy about some of the things you need. Especially if you have a life built, or partly built, already, you're likely to find that thanks to your lack of self-esteem, you didn't do a great job with some of the bits you built, and may have to make some uncomfortable decisions. But remember that simply not having your needs met isn't an option: Things you built that directly interfere with those basic needs will eventually fall apart anyway, so it's not like you're saving yourself any pain by not learning what you did wrong.
Like your physical needs, your emotional needs will change over the course of your life. Feeling bad about this is about as intelligent as apologizing because you no longer like to eat fistfuls of candy like you did when you were a kid.
So, let's recap:
1. Self-esteem is important as hell, no matter how sick of the term we've all gotten. It comes from the right kind of accomplishments, which we'll cover next time, and from having your basic emotional needs met, which we'll also talk about doing in more detail when my fingers uncramp. ;)
2. The first step towards getting your basic emotional needs met is to recognize that it's your responsibility to do so, and that if you don't do it, the problem won't simply go away. (Think about people who think that they can just eat unhealthy food and sit on the couch all the time, and get away with it. Same genius at work, there.) Your emotional needs are needs, and if you don't take responsibility for identifying and meeting them, you will unconsciously ruin your life and probably all your relationships too, trying to get them met in other ways.
Stay tuned for Part Two!