Most psychologists agree that your self-concept gives you a sense of stability and allows you to see yourself as the same person from day to day. Yes, you act differently with different people and situations but, nevertheless, you maintain that continuity of “self.” The way you view yourself is called “self-esteem,” and the level of self-esteem that we carry around is important. For instance, if you have high self-esteem, you probably tend to see yourself as empowered and able to obtain high goals; you are not likely to act like a failure and give up when faced with challenges; you enjoy involvement with others, especially in a helping, empathetic context.
People low in self-esteem show quite a different pattern of behavior. Compared to those with high self-esteem, they are more prone to depression, anxiety, poor interpersonal relationships, underachievement, and health problems. They believe they are destined to these fates, helpless to change them, and deserving of unhappiness; they tend to avoid meaningful interactions with others, thinking they are inferior to others; they see failure, rejection, and loss as their fault; their negative self-perceptions sustain their self-doubts, low confidence, self-criticism, and other self-defeating thoughts.
In short, acting like a failure, giving up, immoral behavior, and poor health are inconsistent with having high self-esteem, but consistent with low self-esteem. High self-esteem protects people when negative events occur. They are resilient by reminding themselves that they are worthy; they ascribe setbacks to bad luck or the fault of others. Low self-esteem, however, does not afford these protections. These people have difficulty seeing aspects of their self-concept that are admirable; they blame themselves for adversity, and become self-critical, which makes them vulnerable to anxiety and depression.
How might one improve their level of self-esteem? Therapist Michael Church uses an exercise with low self-esteem clients to help them deal more realistically with who they are, and discover that many aspects of their lives are commendable, admirable, and worthwhile. He asks clients to draw a circle and divide it into pie-like slices that represent the main areas of their life. This task may take several efforts to include all relevant areas, and Church says many clients find that insightful. That is, they don’t usually think about how diverse and complex their self-concepts are.
Church says, “Clients eventually section off spaces relevant to job or school, friendship, extended family, girlfriend/boyfriend, intelligence, physical attractiveness, morality, and health. There are other areas that may or not be included such as citizenship, spirituality, emotional development, and maturity. I discuss their choices with them to make sure that they are comfortable that all pertinent aspects of self-concept in their life are included. Then, I ask them to shade the areas where they see themselves with at least a modicum of self-esteem. I have never had anyone fail to shade in at least a few areas, even those who claim to have ’no self-esteem.’ This part of the exercise helps them realize that contrary to what they believe, they do not have generically low-self-esteem that pervades all aspects of their life. Then, we work on the shaded areas of choice, consistent with their priorities and values. I encourage them to identify actions they can take, and work within productive and proactive goal-setting guidelines. [See blog entry April 30, 2021.]. This helps them define goals appropriately and realistically while also having the means to know objectively whether they are making progress or have reached their goals.”
Note how Church’s exercise stresses action. As he puts it, “The best way to increase self-esteem is not by positive thinking, but by doing things that bring about positive results. Thoughts and feelings can be discarded, but we cannot easily dismiss our efforts and results that are valid and obvious. Our behavior is factual; it either occurred or it did not. Our effort is under our control, unlike the reactions of others and life situations we did not create.” Church is saying that if you want to increase your self-esteem you must focus on what you can control, and in many cases that is personal effort. You may apply for a job and get an interview. You may prepare for the interview – that’s something you can control. But you can’t control the interviewer, and you may not get the job. If you focus on your effort, however, you can view the interview as a learning experience, accept the result, and move on better equipped for the next interview. There is nothing to be gained by hanging on to disappointments and setbacks. Learn from them, correct mistakes, and adapt your effort to the next situation. Self-esteem does not require constant success. It requires you to be able to say, “I gave it my all and did the best I could. I will look for ways to improve and do even better next time.”