Of the many attributes of personal power, self-esteem has traditionally been considered the most important yet is maybe the least understood. Many people get self-esteem confused with an inflated ego and these are two entirely different beasts. Ego inflation is about a distortion of one's view of self while self-esteem is one's valuation of their authentic self. You can see why the former may be easier to achieve than the latter. The fact is that many of us don't hold ourselves in high regard for a variety of reasons. We think we're too much of this and not enough of that. We constantly compare our insides to others outsides and we measure ourselves by some imaginary social standard against which we always fall short. With an inflated ego we see ourselves as smarter, better, slicker, prettier, or whatever, than others based on little or no objective data at all in most cases. The most important distinction between ego and esteem is found in what they do for your personal power and your ability to function effectively. Ego is a fleeting thing that distorts our view of ourselves and the world while esteem provides a foundation of power, rooted in genuineness, which translates into an ability to seek out and realize a broad range of life-satisfactions.
Becoming more self-accepting and holding your self in high esteem may be a partial function of the way you think about and value others. In other words, the extent to which you unconditionally value your fellow man with all their flaws and biases is the extent to which you can extend this same acceptance unto yourself. Some writers believe that altruism is a hallmark of the person who possesses healthy self-esteem; this tendency being the manner in which people of high moral development show love and concern to others. Unconditionally valuing oneself and others means that no matter how poor, unsuccessful, weak, sick, unattractive, immoral, or wrong a person is or no matter what group they belong to, you still care about that person's well-being. Unconditional love means that you care about a person's health and happiness. Unconditional self-worth reduces anxiety from fears of failure, rejection, illness, and many other sources. Unconditional love of self and others also tends to make a person kinder and more loving toward others. That is probably why research has associated unconditional self-worth as a significant factor of mental health and happiness.
According to some writers, the focus on self-esteem has fallen on hard times due to the problems associated with the self-esteem movement in the 60's and 70's, however, self-concept, a more precise and inclusive term, replaces much of what we currently thought possible with self-esteem programs. Self concept is more about a broad-based self appraisal of one's self and the process of learning to value all of one's various skills, abilities and appreciating the deficits that need to be addressed. In some formulations, self-concept is at least partially determined by one's view of their own capabilities and the manner in which these self-beliefs inform the choices each individual makes. When individuals act on these beliefs, they will exercise a measure of control over their thoughts, feelings and actions enhancing self-concept, and self-esteem. In fact, how people behave can often be better predicted by the beliefs they hold about themselves than by their actual abilities. These self-perceptions help determine what individuals do with the knowledge and skills they have. Hence self-esteem as a traditional notion has less importance than self-efficacy and the individual's drive towards fulfillment of their idealized view of themselves.
What this argues for is an expanded notion of self-esteem, one that encompasses the totality of an individual's self-valuation and self-appraisal. I believe the concept of self-concept fits those criteria nicely. Self-concept moves the perspective further out from a narrow view of how well someone likes them self and suggests a more mature and realistic self portrait. Still biased of course, but that is the nature of any construct applied to oneself. At any rate, an improved self-concept would imply that one seeks to see him or herself in relation to the outer world but primarily in relation to and congruence with their own values. This would also incorporate ones beliefs about their own abilities, competencies and propensities as well. In light of this understanding then, what are some of the ways one can go about expanding their self concept and, to use the old language, increase their self-esteem? Here is a partial list of suggestions to get started:
1) Of course, like any major challenge, the hardest part is getting started. Most of us need some improvement in our self-concept, but how badly do we want it? Motivation is a key factor here and is the energy which will impel your forward momentum. You will have some measure of your motivation when you encounter your first tasks - are you willing to go through the process of change no matter how badly you want to give up? You may need to establish a couple of cornerstones of self- worth from the outset to support your efforts. Identify a couple of your sterling qualities that others admire and build upon these. Stretch yourself just a little beyond your comfort zone and you are off and running. That's all change is, one stretch at a time. One minor achievement in getting started will bolster your enthusiasm for this whole endeavor. But don’t take the shortcut and “flee into competency”. That is don’t just focus on the things you already know how to do well. That’s been our refuge in the past and is the way of the ego, not a valuable self-concept.
2) Maintain a positive outlook on the world, toward others and toward yourself. This may sound a bit hackneyed and passé, the old “positive attitude" stuff. But the amazing thing is that it works. When you start being judgmental or angry with someone, some thing or circumstances then how does that make you feel about yourself once you are worked into a lather? That's the problem with getting into a negative mindset about anything - it generalizes and globalizes until everything looks pretty grim, including our selves. So the trick here is to catch your self early in the process and interrupt it. Refocus on things you can do something about, those things that are right in front of you. Stay away from old hurts and resentments and, not only will you be happier, you will free up much-needed energy for constructive living.
3) Begin viewing the world as your teacher instead of your punisher. Let your mistakes inform future decisions rather than seeing them as a commentary on who you are. You are not your mistakes of course, but try telling that to someone with a damaged self-concept. This goes to the heart of much of what defines someone with low esteem - the shame binds we fall into so easily. This old minefield needs to be addressed with great vigor if you are to make much progress at all. Try to be a little humble - that is, you're not the greatest, but neither are you the worst either. We're just people trying to make it, like everyone else. And yes, we are like everyone else. So let's rejoin the human race and get out of the awfulizing about ourselves.
4) Start learning how to assert yourself in every situation. That doesn't mean replacing passiveness with aggressiveness as a solution to your esteem problem. That approach won’t help and it tends to alienate people and sets them on the defensive. You don't need a hostile or non-receptive audience to the changes you are making. Assertiveness is about maintaining your boundaries, values and integrity in the face of challenge and speaking your truth quietly, yet forcefully, when necessary. Anger only puts you back in the negative mindset you are starting to put behind you.
You are encouraged to try this approach as a way to begin addressing impaired self concept and the resulting low self-esteem. If these suggestions don't work for you after trying them a while you can always have your old misery back.
Douglas Frans, Ph.D. Has been a mental health practitioner, educator, lecturer and researcher over a 30 year professional career. His primary clinical work has focused on personal empowerment and related issues, working in both private practice settings, as well as for mental health and addiction recovery centers. He has practiced primarily from a competency-based perspective and utilizes alternative health methodologies. He also consults and writes on water filters and water quality issues.