Self-esteem is perhaps the most under-valued part of what makes up our mental health. At worst, it can lead you to do things you’d never normally consider doing – poor relationship choice, drinking heavily and substance abuse are classic symptoms of low self-esteem – but at best it can propel you to achievements and courses of action that are immeasurably good for your well-being. Self-esteem is a powerful tool for good, or bad.
Self-esteem refers to how you feel about yourself. It’s your overall view of you as a person, good or bad. A self-critique, if you like. Naturally, if you have a negative view of yourself, your self-esteem will be low and you won’t be maximising the opportunities life throws at you. Apply for that dream job? No point, says the person with low self-esteem, you’ll never get it. And don’t even think about asking that person you like out for a drink!
But, developing and maintaining a strong self-esteem is entirely possible, even if you consider yourself a lifelong sufferer of low self-esteem. Although our self-esteem is a product of the recent experiences in life and the way we’ve processed them – negative experiences and a subsequent negative thought process will inevitably lead to low self-esteem – it is entirely possible to reprogram yourself into processing these experiences differently.
The key here is to recognise that low self-esteem isn’t due to the negative events, but the way we’ve processed them. Not getting a job you interviewed for might be a negative experience on the face of it, but it only becomes so when you’ve thought about it in such a way that it becomes a dent in our self-esteem: “I’m not good enough…” or “I’ll never get the job I want…” Now switch that around: “They’re missing out as I have lots to offer, and another company will recognise this soon…”
The example that has stuck in my mind since I completed the Thrive Programme, a lot of which is based around the issue of self-esteem, is that of a Vietnam War-era US pilot called Jim Stockdale. Stockdale was captured and held as POW for a number of years in terrible conditions with little hope for release, and you might think that these events had an irrevocably negative effect on his life.
However, in his own words: “I never lost faith in the end of the story, I never doubted not only that I would get out, but also that I would prevail in the end and turn the experience into the defining event of my life, which, in retrospect, I would not trade.”
The way Stockdale processed these events is an extreme example, but shows that it’s often not the experience that has the damaging effect, but the thoughts processes that come along for the ride too. Change the process, change the outcome, change your self-esteem.
Stockdale retired a Vice Admiral in the 70s and went on to be a Vice-President candidate in the 90s. Do you think he could’ve done all this if suffering from low self-esteem borne out of his earlier experiences and being constantly reminded of them at home (he became quite famous when he returned)?
So, on a daily basis I pick out three things that really matter to me – family, work and personal life, for example – and take a few minutes to process the positive aspects of each one from the past two weeks (your self-esteem is roughly based on events, experiences and thought processes from this recent history).
Think of your self-esteem as a wall, with positive thought processes (even in the face of seemingly negative events) adding bricks and mortar to the wall, which underpins your general mental health. With each brick it becomes stronger, bigger – less prone to crumbling. You’re literally building self-esteem and all that goes along with it; confidence, self-worth, having a positive outlook. Generally thriving.
For example, I took my gran out for lunch last week and we had great conversation – I process this as spending quality time with a much-loved person in my life. I’m even smiling as I write this, and I’ve just added another brick into my wall of self-esteem. But I also went fishing and failed to catch anything, again, and I could process this as a negative – a brick missing from my wall. Instead, I think of it as enjoying nature and relaxing by a tranquil lake – a positive experience in anyone’s book. Brick added.
Understanding self-esteem was, for me, key in understanding myself. Negative thought processes had left my self-esteem in tatters, but using the above technique and others developed by The Thrive Programme has empowered me to take control of this aspect of my mental health over the past few months. It’s not that difficult now I’m in the habit or processing events in a way that adds to my self-esteem. Very soon that wall will be indestructible!