There is no doubt in my mind that many men and women live their lives with very low self-esteem. They think that they are inadequate in achieving their own dreams, goals, and values; thus, they find themselves in a constant state of self-pity, disappointment, or even self-hate.
The problem with this view is that it is rarely an accurate depiction of reality. Instead, their self-perception has created the fact. Low self-esteem often turns into a feedback loop of negative attitudes→ negative actions → negative results. And once we have recycled this process over and over again (hundreds, if not thousands of times), we begin to accept it as the only possible reality that exists, which is often not the case.
Negative self-esteem is a process that can be broken out of, but we have to do it mindfully. Some people begin to do some self-reflection and they notice the negative affects of their views and beliefs. But, in a fit of desperation, they go to the other extreme and begin to turn selfish and narcissistic. They start to think the whole world should bend to their will and that they deserve everything (because maybe this will finally bring it to them). But just like the self-pitying individual, the narcissist will also find themselves unsatisfied.
Narcissism is sometimes described as “excessive self-love.” It is when we see ourselves as the center of the universe and deserving of everything that it has to offer. This attitude is incredibly unattractive to others, because it often creates vanity and self-obsession. When one becomes solely concerned with oneself and one’s own desires, it is tough to build meaningful and satisfying relationships with others. While the goal of narcissistic individuals is to achieve their own happiness, they rarely find it before changing their ways.
Self-Pity vs. Narcissism
Put a halt to black and white thinking.
Narcissism and self-pity are equally extreme and detrimental to one’s pursuit of happiness. But sometimes black-and-white thinking makes us believe that we need to choose between the two. However, I see them as two different manifestations of the same process.
People who are narcissistic may seem like they actually “love” themselves, but I see it as a facade to a deeper feeling of insecurity. When I see people boast and brag endlessly, it is almost as if they need to “prove themselves” to others. And how can someone who needs to constantly be validated by other people possibly have “healthy self-esteem?”
In the same way, I’ve noticed how my own past attitudes of negative self-perception and low self-esteem have led me to become increasingly narcissistic and arrogant. I thought that since one view didn’t work, the view’s opposite extreme would have to work. But I was dead wrong. I forced myself to believe the opposite, but ignored confronting my insecurities in a realistic way.
Acknowledge both strengths and shortcomings.
Healthy self-esteem requires that we can acknowledge and appreciate our strengths, but also accept our shortcomings and insecurities. This process begins by understanding that everyone excels in some areas of life, but not so much in others. Perfection is a myth of human nature, and once we relinquish that desire for it, we are free to be ourselves without seeking unrealistic ideals
When we acknowledge our strengths, we find value in ourselves, and we become more motivated to build on those strengths. When we acknowledge our shortcomings, we can try to improve those which are in our control, and let go of worrying about the ones that we can’t control.
Some of this requires self-awareness and self-reflection. Merely jamming affirmations down your throat won’t mean anything if you haven’t developed a clearer understanding of what you value, what you believe, what you want to achieve, and what you are capable of. It is important that we always ask ourselves what we truly value and believe before adopting what other people tell us we should value and believe. No one’s perspective can substitute your own self-awareness.
In this way, we are partly responsible for our values, beliefs, actions, and accomplishments. This can lead to a great feeling when we find ourselves taking positive action and achieving these values. Please don’t hesitate to relish in pride every now and then. If you achieve something great, you deserve to feel great for it. That’s a healthy part of the balance.
Accepting our responsibility can also lead us to feel even worse when we don’t get what we want – because we realize that we may be partly to blame. Feeling blame and guilt isn’t always a bad thing, sometimes it’s a sign that you realize you did something wrong and you want to change it. It shows your human, and it shows you’re willing to work on your occasional shortcomings. Don’t feel down just for feeling down, allow yourself to experience these feelings because they are often a sign of emotional intelligence. Listen to your feelings – whether “positive” or “negative” – because often there is a nugget of knowledge there to help guide you into the future.
People with healthy self-esteem don’t need to always feel awesome (which the typical narcissist craves). Instead, they can be comfortable in these “negative” states too – even the occasional burst of self-doubt, which is a natural phase we all go through during certain periods of our life. At the same time, those with healthy self-esteem don’t get addicted to self-doubt like others may. They allow themselves to experience it, then learn from it, let it go, and move on putting their best foot forward.
Those with healthy self-esteem have a deeper sense of self-awareness that goes beyond “surface feelings” of pleasure, pain, good, bad. They see the bigger picture, and recognize themselves as a more dynamic “whole” than what these false dichotomies usually have to offer (pleasure/pain, good/bad, right/wrong). Black-and-white thinking is rarely an accurate depiction of reality, and often a smart, ongoing balance needs to be practiced.
Basic Principles of Healthy Self-Esteem
A summary of some key ideas when cultivating healthier self-esteem.
Healthy self-esteem varies from person to person. What makes me feel good about myself may be remarkable different than what makes you feel good about yourself. Despite these differences, I think there are some basic principles that we should keep in mind:
- I am a multi-dimensional person with both strengths and weakness.
- I am dynamic and constantly growing and evolving in new ways.
- I can take my strengths and build upon them.
- I can take many of my weakness and improve them.
- I can let go of weakness I have no control over.
- I have no desire to seek the myth of “perfection.”
- I don’t have to prove myself to others.
- I know my values and goals in life and how to act on them.
- I am capable of overcoming obstacles and learning from failures.
- I give myself permission to be proud of my accomplishments.
- I give myself permission to be frustrated or doubt myself from time-to-time.
- I don’t get addicted to either narcissism or self-pity.
- I am comfortable taking compliments from others on my achievements.
- I am comfortable taking criticism from others.
- I can take an optimistic view of myself while still be grounded in reality.
- I know how to reframe and engage in positive self-talk.
- Having self-esteem doesn’t have to be selfish. I can motivate, inspire, and help others by being a positive role model (see Magnetic Self-Esteem for a great example of this by Bruce Lee).
- Engage in activities that you are good at, but also challenge yourself.
- Take responsibility for actions in your life that you can change.
- Live so that you can go to sleep being content with how you spent your day.
These are just a few principles and tips that I believe can lead to healthier self-esteem. However, you have to also keep in mind that practice is more important than theory. Reading advice in this post may give you an idea on the types of things you need to change (both in your thoughts and in your actions), but ultimately this advice won’t mean anything unless you take active steps to make a change.
Learn how to live a happy and successful life in The Science of Self Improvement.