WRITER: Cari Bilyeu Clark
I have struggled most of my life trying to understand the concept of self-esteem. Mine was not particularly high for many years, even after I graduated from college—the first girl in my generation on both sides of my family to do so. No, I had not gotten married, a major goal of mine (and for most women in the seventies). If someone else didn’t value me, I felt I had no value.
Well, I did get married, and I still struggled with self-esteem issues. Oh, I could blame my upbringing, which undoubtedly had something to do with it, but I also could be an adult and change my ways of thinking. So I embarked on a course called Eliminating Your Self-Defeating Behaviors. Among other things, I had to come up with a type of mantra (I chose “I am lovable and capable”) and repeat it to myself every time, say, I felt the penny the facilitator put in my shoe, or saw the color blue.
It helped, but I still had my moments. I had to work hard just to feel happy from day to day.
Somehow, I had accepted the idea that only by accomplishing the great or the grandiose could I be a success, and I am not the only one who bought, or buys, into this dangerous idea. It is most certainly not true! Self-esteem does not depend on outside approval, love, or admiration. It’s not being the most beautiful, the thinnest, the richest, the smartest, having the best job or the best outfit or the nicest car. Those things are all exterior attributes based on comparisons, and comparisons inevitably result in dissatisfaction with one’s own situation. We are beset by images of others at their airbrushed, publicly displayed perfection, and of course we compare ourselves at our worst to them at their best. The minute you notice someone who one-ups you in a particular category, your bubble bursts, and self-doubt and a mad scramble to achieve an even higher pinnacle sets in.
When I had kids, “self-esteem” was a major buzzword. To build children’s self-esteem, you were supposed to give them options and let them make choices, and lay on the praise for absolutely everything. For a person whose own self-esteem was still evolving and kind of shaky, this was a challenge. I put a little too much stock in the experts’ opinions, and my eldest child learned self-esteem all right—but he also thought everything was negotiable and he figured he ought to be able to make all decisions, all the time. I had to nip a lot of this in the bud.
Of course, kids need and deserve to feel loved and valued by their parents, and a parent should never shame or belittle a child, but parents also have to teach kids that the universe does not revolve around them, and that they must contribute to the family, be unselfish, and love others. Just thinking you are great and deserving of praise and gifts do not make for healthy self-esteem. There is such a thing as unhealthy self-esteem, the type that says, “I’m great just for being alive and I have no obligations to anyone else at all.”
Self-indulgence does not result in self-esteem. Self-discipline in the service of a goal is the road to true self-esteem, but perfectionism is anathema to self-esteem. Constantly being dissatisfied with a less-than-perfect home, body, job, grades, marriage, children, income, wardrobe, golf game—whatever you choose—is a guarantee of an unhappy life. Acceptance—no, the embrace--of imperfection is essential to healthy self-esteem, for imperfection is a fact of life.
I have learned that balance in one’s life, being comfortable in one’s own station and in one’s own skin, feeling that you make a contribution to society in some way, having a benevolent attitude and a love toward others—a whole spectrum of healthy attitudes are what contribute to true self-esteem. Realistic goals, expectations, and a certain level of humility and the ability to laugh at one’s mistakes are essential to a healthy regard for self.
Each of us, in our sphere, has great influence, and as we perform our tasks in that sphere—whether it be schoolwork, home maintenance, working at the local pet store, or doing child care—we build our self-esteem by performing those tasks to the best of our ability. We can’t all cure cancer, and most of us won’t! A sparkling bathroom, a new hem in a pair of pants, or a garden bed free of weeds, are all worthwhile expenditures of our time, and can and should be a source of satisfaction and pride.
What I am trying to say is that true, lasting, real self-esteem is a process. It doesn’t happen overnight and you don’t have high self-esteem every day. And that’s perfectly okay. We are all works in progress, and the point is that we are all making that progress, loving others and ourselves as we go.