On Self-Esteem …

Believe it or not, this is actually a belfry.  It’s a, uhhh … “belfry on the side”, so to speak.   This church is known as “The Church of San Martin Caballero”, and is located in a little village along the old Camino Real road in the coffee-growing region of Veracruz, Mexico.    Not exactly sure what happened here, but I would imagine that this little bell “tower” was added on sometime after the church had been built.

We’re left to use our imagination, as this church was built in 1776 (for some reason, that year rings a bell for me …), and there are no records, oral or written, that exist that might explain this odd, sideways belfry!   However, several clues really lead me to believe the belfry was added after the church was originally finished.

First, the stone used to support the tower is different from the stone used in the original wall of the church.  Second, if you look at the front facade of the church

 you see a completely different look than what is seen from the little belfry.  Even the roof tiles don’t really match those of the rest of the building.

Why is any of this important?  Well, probably none of it is important, but I think there may be a lesson for us about self-esteem.  Thus, we’ll just think about it for a while and as the days and weeks go by maybe we’ll come up with an answer.

***********************

So, what exactly is “self-esteem”?

When I look up the definition for “esteem”, I see “regard” and “value”, both noun and verb.  When you tag on the “self” prefix, I would thus conclude this is the quality or amount (positive or negative) of value we attribute to ourselves, or if a verb, the positive or negative value we assign to ourselves as we think about ourselves and our place or importance in the world.

We hear so often that our culture has a self-esteem crisis.  I believe it.   If you’ll harken back to our discussion about depression, perhaps the greatest contributor to depression (recall that depression is the 4th leading cause of disability in the WORLD!) from our own internal stuff (non-biological) is poor self-esteem.  If I believe I am not worth very much, am not very competent, am ugly, am dumb, am hated by God, or perhaps already condemned, my attitude and my choices will reflect that view.  I will tend to hold a very pessimistic view of life and my chances for having a good one.  I will not hold much hope for things turning around.  And, if by some chance things begin to go right for me, I’ll be momentarily glad … until I remember that I’m certain to “blow it” sooner or later.   It makes for a very grim, cloudy, grey world.

How does a poor self-esteem happen?  In my view, the kinds of unhealthy competition that our society so readily fosters, with adults being so caught up in their own emotional struggles that they can’t figure out that it’s long overdue to change the messages we give little children, is the primary cause.  All of us remember the subtle but powerful beliefs we absorbed as kids.  Some were very young when they came.  Most of us were relatively healthy until we got to early adolescence (Middle School!!!).  A few lucky ones were in high school or college before they had it beaten into them that they were really not very competent, attractive, popular, or smart all along.  Regardless, our “chew ’em up and spit ’em out!” culture got to almost all of us.  From cutest baby contests to gold stars at day care to Christmas plays to spelling bees to who got picked first (or last!) for kickball to who sat alone at lunch every day to who had their lunch money stolen time and again to who always had their name misspelled, mispronounced, or worse, mocked in caricatures.   All of these and a thousand other little competitions all combined to tell us exactly who we were, who we are, and how high or low a value we hold in society, in life.  Even worse, some of us had our “value” beaten into or out of us by angry parents, stepparents, or other adults.  If we happened to be one of the very large portion of kids who also inherited a physiology that made us very anxious and nervous in many social situations (read, “school”), well, life was and has been a very difficult river to navigate.  No wonder, when all is said and done, that so many, many of us choose to numb that life with alcohol and drugs, and that we’ve had so many Judy Garlands, Norma Jean Mortensons (aka Marilyn Monroe), Janis Joplins, Jimi Hendrixes, Kurt Cobains, Michael Jacksons, Amy Winehouses, Heath Ledgers, Whitney Houstons.  So incredibly sad.

Is there any hope?  I believe there is … but as usual, it is an individual thing to improve it.  So how do you do that?

Improving self-esteem has been the subject of many, many books, magazine and journal articles, radio shows, documentaries, etc.  Many!  I really think many of us have at least one bat that is fluttering around in our belfry screeching all the wrong things about improving our own self-esteem!  Almost all of the stuff I’ve seen about building a healthy self-esteem is just so much crap!  Sorry, but to affirm every little thing that little Susie or little Johnny does will NOT have a positive impact on their self-esteem later on in life.  In fact, I’m not sure we as parents or adults can “hug”, “applaud”, or “affirm” our kids’ self-esteem enough to make a real difference.  We certainly can hurt their self-esteem if we don’t do those things!  But, ultimately the main jobs of parents, teachers, coaches, and adult role models of all flavors is to make sure kids are safe, that they know right from wrong, that they know where boundaries are and that there ARE consequences for crossing them.  Then, as they enter adolescence and gain the capability to understand why things are right and wrong, safe and unsafe, that we’re there to explain things, including the shades of gray, and that we’re there to listen to their thoughts and ideas, their struggles and breakthroughs.

Given good boundaries, safety, and enough of food and shelter, in a world that can be trusted, all of us were able to, and still are able to, give ourselves good, healthy, positive self-esteem.  How?  Well, it won’t come through others patting us on the back 5,000 times and telling us how great and how valued we are.  That’s all well and good, but ultimately where truth veers away from all the pop psychology out there is in the following, and this is very important, so listen up:  

I AM THE ONLY PERSON ON THE EARTH WHO CAN IMPROVE MY SELF-ESTEEM!!!

Did you get that?  Hope so.  Life, through the cooperation of many other people, has given us all the message that we just aren’t worth very much.  The reverse message must come from ourselves.  Reading or reciting written affirmations might help a little, but it won’t get us over the hump.  Real change in our self-esteem follows the “Missouri Rule”.  Our self-esteem says to us, “Show me.”  Plain and simple.  Prove to me that you are competent; that you can truly accomplish something.  And then it simply stands and waits.  It doesn’t give up, it doesn’t get impatient, but it doesn’t give us any “gimme’s”, either.  There is no other way around it … we must step up and do something good, something positive, to get the needle on our self-esteem meter to budge.

And what kinds of things are we talking about?  Really, doing just about anything can move that needle, so long as whatever we’re doing is healthy, important, makes a difference in the world, or makes a positive difference in us.  The way I put it to my patients is this:  making any real progress toward any kind of goal that is truly yours!  This is what makes for a better self-esteem!  So, anything from brushing our teeth more consistently, to eating  a little less, to walking a few times a week, to calling a relative we’ve been meaning to, to going to bed earlier, to studying a bit instead of playing an extra 15 minutes on a video game, to washing the dishes instead of leaving them “for tomorrow” for the 8th day in a row.  Anything can work, so long as afterward we know we’ve done something that is toward the good side of the ledger.  Doing things for ourselves can also help, if we typically do only for others.  Recharging our own batteries could be something we have long neglected because we told ourselves all along we weren’t worth it.

You know, this leads me to another truth:  We humans don’t make good hypocrites.  Oh, now don’t misunderstand me here!   We all can be hypocritical at times!  But one part or the other of us will be lying.  We either won’t really believe in the value we say we believe in, or our actions won’t truly reflect what we believe.  But we can’t say one thing and do another and believe them both!!!  Never happened.  Now what I mean here is, I try to get myself and many folks with whom I work to give themselves a voice.  To speak up for themselves.  Why?  Because if they do often enough, the value in which they hold themselves will HAVE to increase.  If you speak up for yourself, even though you don’t think you’re worth it, or you think you’ll offend someone, or put someone out and they’ll dislike you more, and you keep on doing so, sooner or later you’ll either begin to feel that you ARE worth speaking up for, or you’ll quit speaking up.  The two cannot co-exist.  And my belief and hope is that we all, whenever we are legitimately being unfairly treated, or are right about our views or our needs but they aren’t being attended to, will keep on speaking up for ourselves and not give up, EVEN if we have great doubts about ourselves or our voice.  If we do, I’m confident the amount and the way we esteem ourselves will inevitably grow!  It must.  And it will!

I urge you to try it out.  Treat yourself as important (not any more important than anyone else, but no less so), and your beliefs about yourself will have no choice but to improve.   And even if you have no belfry, and everyone else around you does, you won’t feel the need to build one, especially if all you can do is build a cheap one on the side!

Until next time!

Craig Meek, M.D.

 

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