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Exploring Self Esteem

I’ve always found self-esteem a really tricky concept to define. Although the term is used both often and with conviction, it is frequently quite difficult to discern what it is that the parent, or the writer or even the teacher using it truly understands by it. When asked to define it, people struggle a little, often landing on something along the lines of ‘feeling good about yourself’.

I’m not sure that this always does it justice, though. I have found it more helpful to concentrate on the means by which a person -especially a young person- can be helped to feel good about themselves, especially in a world where the pressure to achieve, to succeed and to be admired is getting discernibly stronger, not least as our children manage their lives on the likes of Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.

To put it more clearly, someone once said to me that an individual’s self-esteem is boosted when another person acknowledges, appreciates or complements them upon the things that they most value about themselves. I know for myself that this is true; it resonates in my experience. Thus the secret to boosting self-esteem would seem to be to know what it is that other people value about themselves, and find opportunities to recognise examples of that in their actions and behaviour.

That presupposes, though, that the grounds upon which an individual measures her or his worth -and thus what’s important to them in valuing themselves- are helpful ones. Do we want to be boosting self-esteem that is founded on sand rather than rock? Part of our role as educators, as parents and as a society is to challenge our young people to choose a yardstick by which to measure themselves that is truly ‘value-able’, and that will do most to build worth, security and self-compassion in them when examples of it are acknowledged.

To that end, I came across the following article very recently which I thought I would share in full, as a reminder both of what we’re about at The Grange, and as food for thought for all of us whose influence and example shapes the adults of the future. It’s from the website Psychology Today and by author Amy Morin, who is also a clinical social worker and a psychotherapist.

I wonder how each of us measures up and responds?

If you were going to install new flooring in your home, would you determine how much material to order by measuring the size of the room with a random stick? Probably not! Hopefully, you’d use a tape measure that would accurately help you calculate the dimensions. Yet, when it comes to measuring self-worth, many people use something just as unreliable as that random stick.

We all use some sort of measuring stick to determine our value as a human being. When we feel like we’re measuring up, we feel better about ourselves. When we feel like we’ve fallen short, our self-esteem can plummet.

Despite the fact that our particular measuring stick has so much influence over how we feel about ourselves, most people aren’t even conscious of what they’re using to determine their self-worth. But they are conscious of the fluctuations they experience in how they feel about themselves.

Here are 5 common—yet potentially hazardous—ways people measure their self-worth:

1. Who You’re With
here are a few different ways that people depend on others to give them value. While one person may think her worth depends on how much praise she receives from others, someone else may only feel good about himself when he’s in a relationship.

At other times, individuals feel worthy by surrounding themselves with important people. Rubbing shoulders with celebrities or “movers and shakers” fuels their self-importance. A busy social calendar and a lengthy list of personal contacts helps them feel valuable.

Making your self-worth dependent upon others, however, is chasing a moving target. You can’t control other people and you can’t please everyone all the time. If you base your self-worth entirely upon how others perceive you, you’ll never be able to receive enough praise or positive reinforcement to feel good about yourself.

2. What You Do
A career helps many people feel valued. Some people are quick to say something like, “I’m the co-founder of my own firm,” or “I’m a lawyer in private practice” not because it’s what they do—but because it’s who they are. Their career reinforces to them that they’re “somebody.”

Basing your self-worth on your job title, though, is a big risk. A health problem, economic downturn, or unexpected shift in the market may disrupt your career and lead to a major identity crisis. Even a planned retirement could wreak havoc on your self-worth if your identity is tied to your title. In the absence of a high-profile career, you won’t be able to feel good about yourself if you’ve always measured your self-worth by what you do.

3. How Much You Have
We’ve all met people who measure their self-worth by the size of their bank accounts. Sometimes people feel like they just can’t acquire enough wealth to be “valuable enough.” In a desperate attempt to prove their worth, they create a façade of wealth by going deep into debt in hopes a luxury car or beautiful home will help them feel good about themselves.

While it makes sense to place a monetary value on goods and services, it doesn’t make sense to use money to determine your value as a human being. The amount you earn, or the possessions you own, will never be enough to satisfy your need to feel worthy.

4. What You Achieve
Sometimes people want to be known solely for their accomplishments. That person who always brags about her latest business venture may only feel good about herself when she is talking about her accomplishments. Or that person who just can’t stop beating himself up about that time that he failed might struggle to move on because that single incident crushed his self-worth.

It’s normal for your accomplishments to make you feel good, but basing your entire self-worth on your achievements is building your house on an unsteady foundation. You’ll need to experience repeated success in order to keep feeling good about yourself—and that’s hard to maintain over the long haul. When your entire self-worth depends on your achievements, you’ll start to avoid doing things at which you could fail.

5. How You Look
While some people measure their self-worth by the numbers on a scale, others determine their value based on their ability to attract attention with their appearance. Celebrity media can fuel the notion that “you’re only as good as you look.” Marketing strategies frequently target our insecurities about everything from aging to weight gain.

If you were fortunate enough to be blessed with good looks, your beauty may serve as an advantage in life. But a handsome face or beautiful body won’t last forever. Wrinkles, middle-age spread, gray hair, or a receding hairline can be catastrophic for someone whose self-worth depends on their appearance.

Feeling Good About Who You Are
The way you choose to measure your worth as a person is a major factor in the choices you make, the thoughts you have about life, and the way you feel about yourself. Know what measuring stick you’re using to determine your value and measure your self-worth based on factors you can control—not external events.

When you know who you are—and you’re pleased with the person you’ve become—you’ll maintain a sense of peace throughout life’s inevitable ups and downs. Rather than experience major fluctuations in how you feel about yourself based on your latest success or most recent failure, you’ll believe in yourself regardless.

Measure your self-worth by who you are at your core. Doing so will help you focus on behaving according to your values, instead of chasing things that will only temporarily boost your self-esteem.

Wise and helpful words? Why not share them with our children and see what they think?