Several years ago, I came across an article that listed sources of self-esteem that are ultimately not dependable. Among these were achievement, other people’s opinions of you, and appearance. The author of the article pointed out that the problem with these sources is that they can always be countered or taken away from you. No matter how well a person does in these areas there will always be someone more beautiful, more successful, and more well-liked. So, while it is not wrong to appreciate approval, achievement, and appearance, people will ultimately find themselves unhappy in the long run if this is the extent of their foundation for self-esteem.
Internal sources of self-esteem are more dependable and stay strong even in the face of opposition. Internal self-esteem requires awareness of both our strengths and weakness, along with a healthy appreciation for both. This type of self-esteem is bolstered when we can offer ourselves self-compassion. It is possible when a person stops basing their worth on external cues and starts relying on themselves to determine their value.
Some people reading this will say “Wait a minute, whenever I try to think about this kind of stuff I just beat up on myself.” Because of this it’s important that we take a moment to understand why this is. One thing that I often say to people I work with is that it’s not our experiences that matter, it’s really our interpretation of the experience that makes the difference. In The Four Agreements, don Miguel Ruiz points out that when other people provide information to us about ourselves, we have the opportunity to either agree or disagree with what is being said or implied.
As an example, consider my son who is trying to learn to skateboard. He recently came to me and asked for some advice on how to perform a trick. I watched what he did and offered encouragement and positive feedback. He responded by continuing to try. The implied message is “You can do this if you practice.” Now imagine that I had instead said “Wow, you are really bad at this and can’t seem to balance to save your life.” With the later statement, if he believes it (or agrees with it in his heart), he would likely stop skateboarding and, ironically, may, in fact, become less coordinated as he avoids activities that require balance. With these two opposing possibilities, the actual behavior is no different, the only thing that is different is what my son would be taught about himself.
This is a simple example but illustrates the point. Over the course of a lifetime how many messages do you imagine we receive about ourselves? Middle school alone provides enough feedback about our looks, value, and worth to affect a lifetime. The problem with this is that other people are often just plain wrong in their estimations of us. Even parents often project their own issues onto their children and create a context for the child to misjudge themselves. If we are to only judge ourselves based on what we have been taught “we are of all men most miserable.”
Now, ideally in the above example, should I have gone the later route, my son would say to himself “Well that’s not true. If I practice I can get better at this.” For a child that is really difficult to do, which is why so many of us grow up with such a strong inner critic that loves nothing more than to keep us from improving ourselves, loving other people, and enjoying life. The good news is that as adults we have the capacity to cast off the things we have agreed with before and see ourselves in a new light.
For me, this is where self-compassion becomes so important. Compassion implies that a person sees the suffering or another and wants to help them. What if we could replace our inner critic with inner self-compassion? This is where we get back to the weaknesses part. The problem is that sometimes we actually are uncoordinated and can’t balance to save our lives. But, remember that we get to decide that, not other people. However, should we decide we have a specific weakness that needs to be worked on, we need to be patient and compassionate with ourselves. Much like a toddler learning to walk, we learn little by little and step by step. When a toddler stumbles we encourage them to get back up and try again. If we can do the same for ourselves we will make progress and increase our feelings of self-worth. This is the challenge of our lifetime: undue all the misconceptions we have about ourselves and self-evaluate to determine our strengths and weaknesses, all the while having self-compassion as we do.
About the Writer: Jacob Christenson, PhD, LMFT
Dr. Jacob Christenson has worked as a therapist for over ten years in a variety of settings. He has worked with a wide spectrum of problems including those related to depression, anxiety, marital issues, anger management, addictions, parenting, and difficult adolescents. For four years he also worked at a wilderness therapy program where clients were between the ages of 13 and 17, with presenting problems that ranged from Asperger’s Disorder to ADHD to Chemical Dependence. In working with adolescents he uses a family systems approach to assess and intervene at all levels of the presenting problem. As noted, prior to founding Covenant Family Solutions, Dr. Christenson had become proficient at working with substance abuse and dependence issues, and more recently he has refined his approach to include working with video games/internet addictions and pornography addictions as well.