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Conquering self-esteem issues

Main Line Health January 27, 2015 General Wellness By Paula Durlofsky, PhD

Self-esteem is a psychological term that defines our general evaluation of our overall worth as an individual, based on our own personal judgments of and attitude towards ourselves. Self-esteem also encompasses the emotions we feel towards ourselves, such as pride and triumph or feelings of despair and shame. In a nutshell, self-esteem is the judgments and emotions we have about who we are and our beliefs about how others perceive us. When our overarching evaluations about ourselves are negative, we experience low self-esteem. We feel discouraged, undeserving, and unworthy. Conversely, we have high self-esteem when we have overall positive self-evaluations. We feel worthy, valued and encouraged. Our self-esteem also affects who we are, the way we behave, and the way we relate to others.

Self-esteem is influenced by our early life experiences. During childhood, parents have the most influence on shaping self-esteem. The more positive early experiences we have, the greater the chance we will have positive self-esteem as a child and as an adult. The numerous books that have been published and studies conducted about this topic suggest that parents who give their children unconditional love, a consistent sense of being cared for, and respect raise children who have higher self-esteem.  Negative childhood experiences that result in lower self-esteem include being harshly criticized, humiliated, being sexually, physically or emotionally abused, being ignored, and/or being expected to be "perfect" all the time.

There are numerous self-report inventories that assess self-esteem. However, a formal "test" is not always necessary for you to do to evaluate your own level of self-esteem. Set aside time to really think about and understand how you define yourself, and how you evaluate yourself.  If you find you are excessively focused on your performance, make negative self-comments, have a fear of trying new things and relate to others in either a clingy or overly independent manner, you may have low self-esteem. This leads to the question: How can you raise your self-esteem? Below are some suggestions:

Broaden your self-definition

Try not to be overly critical of yourself or demand to be perfect. Developing the ability to be patient with yourself and others, developing self-compassion, expressing emotions and trying varied interests and new activities is one step towards raising your self-esteem.

Recurrent and chronic negative comments about one's self is a sign of low self-esteem

We all have our strengths and our weaknesses. And just like we cannot all be great at everything, the opposite is also true—we cannot all be bad at everything either. Generalizing our beliefs about ourselves inhibits us from having a realistic perspective of our true selves and our true abilities. Take the time to think of a few things you have some level of skill in doing and some level of competency in. Most likely, your list will be longer than you expected. Make a plan to further develop these skills in order gain a greater sense of pride and competency.

Develop relationships that have a healthy dependency

When we feel a combination of both closeness and independence to others, we have established a healthy dependency. As a result, we are empowered to take risks, to venture out and explore new relationships and new interests and, at the same time, feel connected, close and able to share vulnerable feelings, and most importantly can communicate to others when we need help. Developing healthy, balanced relationships also reduces our concern, anxiety and fear about other people's judgments of us. And we feel freer to explore new experiences.

Seek professional help

Therapy can help to improve your self-esteem in a supportive and emotionally secure environment.

Looking for a therapist who can help you combat self-esteem issues? Visit our website for more information on Main Line Health’s behavioral health services.

Dr. Paula Durlofsky is a psychologist who is affiliated with Bryn Mawr Hospital and Lankenau Medical Center.