My mom brought me a bookmark when I was in grade school. It had a poem on it about self-esteem, and how different trees didn’t envy each other’s bark or leaves, because each was beautiful in its own way. It was a nice thought, but I noticed right away that there was an “its” with an apostrophe that didn’t belong there. You see, I had plenty of self-esteem about certain things, such as my ability to spell and use punctuation properly, which was validated externally by my grades and test scores. My real problem at that time was insecurity in the face of bullying. I knew other kids hated me, because they told me so, and because they singled me out for crafty, creative new forms of torture on a regular basis. Talk about self-esteem added yet another insecurity to my list. Maybe there really was something so obviously wrong with me that everyone but me could see it. If only I had some of that self-esteem, all my problems would go away! Zesty, cool ranch, extra-crispy self-esteem.
It turns out that what we think of as self-esteem comes in many flavors. These include confidence, self-esteem, optimism, self-compassion, and self-efficacy. We may be strong or weak in one or more of these areas, and it probably differs from person to person. Also, happiness can be compartmentalized into life satisfaction, positive affect, and subjective well-being, more qualities that are matters of degree and personal opinion. A good place to start is to give ourselves credit for our strengths.
This is part of how I do it.
I recognize that confidence is a problem for most women. This is my biggest area of struggle. I am optimistic that I can learn how to work around it, to do things that are rationally a good idea even when I scare myself into thinking I should wait longer. I am compassionate toward myself and others, for facing an extremely common and debilitating problem. I reach out and encourage others when I can, because I feel empathetic, and because it helps me to feel stronger and more competent. As I feel greater self-efficacy, my confidence wobbles forward, and I can fake it less.
Self-efficacy is the easiest one for me. I’m a goal-oriented person, and I love learning new skills. Curiosity is my driving force. When I hit the obstacle of not knowing how to do something, I can’t rest until I’ve figured it out. It is so satisfying to master a new recipe, learn how to repair an object, or develop a new skill like lighting the camp stove. I feel fully entitled to learn whatever skills I want, because I’m not hurting anybody. On the contrary, the more I know how to do, the more I can contribute. I can pull my weight, and I can teach. It’s fun and interesting. I have total trust that if I am persistent enough, I can eventually learn anything, and that it is usually worth the effort. I also feel a sense of self-efficacy about my general physical fitness to do anything I want to do. I can run for miles, complete an obstacle course, carry a heavy backpack, and even open jars.
Optimism doesn’t come naturally to everyone. There appears to be a threshold of personality that can only budge so far. I don’t know about that. I was trained to be an anxious pessimist, but I’m also a Questioner, and I shook it off. WHAT IF? What if the best thing happened sometimes? What if the majority of things I worried about never came to pass? What if anxiety was just like the common cold, and it went away? What if every problem had a solution, and I could find it through research and experimentation? What if, no matter what happened, there was always someone to love me and someone to ask for help or advice? What if I actually could go wherever I wanted, do whatever I wanted, and be happy, and the Universe didn’t come for me seeking revenge?
Self-compassion comes easier when you’ve been ill. I can effortlessly remember all the times when I was too weak or sick to function normally. I remember the nights I cried myself to sleep worrying about money. I remember being lonely, feeling like I had missed my shot at love and that after my divorce, I’d never find a mate. I remember the first time I went out for a run and couldn’t make it around the block and had to lie on the floor, seeing spots. I know how hard I’ve worked to overcome all my issues. How could I not feel compassion toward myself? I’m sad for me. I’m grateful, too, that these are past issues. They’ve given me fortitude and determination. My problems have also given me empathy. When I say I feel your pain, I do. It fits me better than walking a mile in your shoes would.
Body image is often what people are talking about when they talk about self-esteem. This is an extremely complicated issue. Everyone wants to be simultaneously sexy, cute, fashionable, and yet still somehow “real” and above all that. I used to come home from junior high dances and soak my pillowcase, crying over why no boys would dance with me, knowing the consensus opinion that I was an awkward, ugly train wreck of a thing. I always thought that attractive, fashionable people were mean, and that good looks generally meant someone was not worth the effort of a conversation. I’m more mature and sensitive than that, now; I’d never write people off based on appearance, even if they do happen to be totally hawt! I do question why people get so hung up over their looks, when looks change constantly with age anyway. I judge people based on how interesting and kind and funny they are, whether they are reliable, whether they clean up after themselves, and whether they are drama-prone. Hopefully all of those traits will improve with age. My friends’ physical attributes are irrelevant to my interests. Come to think of it, my own physical attributes are largely irrelevant to my interests.
There is an angle to positive body image that seems completely politically incorrect, and that is that it’s perfectly okay to take actions that make you more satisfied with your body. Hypnotizing oneself into pretending it doesn’t matter just doesn’t work for everyone. It especially doesn’t work if there are health issues compounding the problem. I’m supposed to try to love my migraines or my night terrors? Pfft, forget that. I was always more of an absent-minded professor type, tending to forget I had a body at all. When I started healing and building muscle and becoming strong, my body started catching my attention in positive ways for the first time. Muscle feels good. Working out retrained my posture and eliminated my chronic back pain. If I walk or run enough miles a week, my shoulder spasms and neck pain go away, too. I sleep restfully for the first time in my life. My body isn’t my enemy anymore. Accidentally, my body also started to look good, sexy in a way that has been a bit confusing, especially now that I’m 40. I never think my body is ugly or fat, because objectively, according to mainstream aesthetic standards, it isn’t. I haven’t found a way to be healthy and strong that doesn’t also put color in my cheeks and take away the dark circles that were always under my eyes. You can’t get healthier and keep it a secret. People will notice. You will notice. Self-esteem is an automatic side effect when you learn to trust your body and take pride in your physical accomplishments.
What seems to work best for most people is greater self-compassion, treating ourselves as we would a friend, caring for ourselves and listening deeply, nursing ourselves until we get better, rather than punishing ourselves. I see persistent health issues as more of a punishment than negative self-talk, because I have nearly foundered under chronic health issues, but this may not be true for everyone. What I do know is that beating ourselves up only works at the gym. The body has needs, non-negotiable biological requirements. Our educational system does an extremely poor job of training us to meet those physical requirements, and in the face of the advertising industry, it’s an uphill battle. We’re trying to fight a war with holograms and animation and lights and music. We need to engage with the physical more than the metaphysical. We need to focus more on action and experimentation and performance metrics. At worst, we can distract our ruminating, perseverating minds while our bodies respond to the work.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.