A lot of us have accepted quite readily that a high self-esteem should be our life’s goal. We learn quite early that people with a high self-esteem are more successful at work, at home, and in every sphere of their life.
What we have not done as a society is critically analyze what we mean by “self-esteem”. We haven’t begun to ask questions like these:
- Where does it come from?
- What is self-esteem exactly?
- Does high self-esteem look the same in every person?
Asking these questions helps us move from the concrete to the abstract. In other words, it helps make the concept real for us as individuals.
In this post, we’ll look at the first question: Where does our self-esteem come from?
Most psychologists agree that the components of self-esteem are actually formed in early childhood. Coincidentally, this is the age when we can do the least about it.
As a child, we learn about who we are through a couple of ways:
- What we are told
- What we ourselves think
- What we observe (either directly or indirectly)
Using the above ways, we start to form an internal picture of who we are and what we should be. This is the foundation of our self-esteem.
Our self-esteem comes with a price tag, how we feel about ourselves.
If our self-esteem only consisted of objective observations about ourselves, that would be fine. Unfortunately, humans aren’t built that way. As we learn about ourselves, we take in values and judge things as bad or good. We start to internalize those things about ourselves. We can sense (even at a young age) when we have upset our parents or when they disapprove of our behavior. We internalize those things as part of who we are.
Unfortunately, we often make the assumption that someone’s else disapproval of us means that something is wrong with us.
We start to believe that we are just not good enough. We are not smart enough or pretty enough. We don’t feel worthy.
In other words, we equate self esteem with self-worth. We base how who we are on what happens outside of us.
Dr. Kevin Solomons, a psychiatrist and professor (and author of Born to be Worthless: The Value of Low Self-Esteem
), argues that we begin internalize other’s opinions of us at the same time we attribute everything to our own behavior (around 3). He states that even if our parents love us unconditionally, we (as young humans dependent on our parents for survival) still feel inferior. How do we respond to this inferiority? We try to “measure up” by proving our worth through external things (our behavior, our achievements, etc.). As we grow older, we use this same pattern in our relationships with friends, other family members, authority figures, and other members of society.
Dr. Solomons points out that this is a normal and universal aspect of our development. It’s the glue that holds our society together. Unfortunately, that glue can also tear us apart.
If we focus solely on our achievements and responses from others to judge ourselves, we will be chasing these things for the rest of our life. There will always be someone with more money, more muscles, more good looks, and more friends than you. It’s a game you can’t win, no matter how many self-help books or mantras you recite.
We have to break the connection between self-esteem and self-worth. You are worthy because of who you are, not because of what you have done.