Lesson 10 — Feeling Good About Ourselves
Let’s go more deeply into this matter of a negative self-image. The truth is that while some people feel good about themselves, many others do not. Why is this? And are there effective steps that we can take to correct a negative sense of self-esteem and self-worth?
Abraham Maslow considered esteem to be a primary human need. As he saw it, before we can become all we are capable of becoming we must be respected by others and respect ourselves. There is, of course, no way to control how others feel about us. Whether or not they give us compliments and strokes is strictly up to them. On the other hand, isn’t it self-esteem that really matters here? Isn’t the important thing how we feel about ourselves? And at least potentially, how we feel about ourselves is within our control. If self-esteem is the real problem, then we don’t have to wait helplessly for someone else to save us.
Much of the research on self-esteem has involved children. That makes sense because it is when people are young that their first assumptions about self-worth are formed. Our early feelings about ourselves were shaped by largely by parents, teachers, and playmates. Later, influences from advertising, electronic entertainment, and employers further affected our sense of self-esteem and helped shape the way we currently feel about ourselves.
Today, if we are parents, grandparents, teachers — or otherwise have contact with children — we can do much to help them value themselves simply by giving them our attention and our respect. As one author has eloquently pointed out,9 we all want and need attention, and if children (and others) don’t receive it as a freely-given gift, they have their ways of getting it. When we pay attention to someone it confirms their significance and helps foster within them a positive response to life. Attention and encouragement may be the most valuable things we can give to other people.
We are no longer children. We either grew up in a supportive milieu or we didn’t; that’s history. What was, was, and our only option now is to move on from where we are at this moment. Research on developing self-esteem in adulthood is less abundant than the self-esteem research on children, but it does seems clear that it is possible for adults to change the estimate of self worth that they have formed. Psychological counseling or psychotherapy is the approach that is often suggested, and studies indicate that it can help improve self-esteem. This may be the best approach if feelings of low-self-worth are severe and pervade most areas of one’s life. Self-help books are another possibility.10 Where the problem is less severe (involving just one or a few areas of one’s life) the following reflections might prove helpful.
Often, bad feelings about ourselves have a specific focus. We may feel rather good about ourselves generally, but perceive one or two upsetting flaws. Perhaps we don’t consider ourselves smart, or don’t feel particularly knowledgeable or creative. Perhaps the perceived flaw is physical: we don’t feel attractive, or we don’t feel athletically capable. Then again, we might feel morally or ethically flawed — disturbed by the way we are currently treating others or have treated them in the past. Assuming we feel deeply bothered in one of these areas, what steps can we take?
Appropriate action can come out of seeing the situation is it really is — seeing it through the clear lens of rational assessment rather than through the dark glass of emotional evaluation. The person with a poor self-image, by definition, sees problems, sees flaws. These flaws are real to the individual who feels deficient, but do others also see them? And if others do, are they seen to be a problem? Often they are not.
Some people see moral flaws where — rationally — there are none. Perhaps the “flaw” is simply residual guilt from some off-the-wall moral trip laid on the child by parents or church. On the other hand, perhaps we actually have harmed others. In that case, acknowledging this to ourselves is appropriate — but that is very different from seeing ourselves as being morally flawed forever in some fundamental way. In any event, trying to come to grips with the situation as it really is is the first order of business.
Let’s begin with the perceived problem of not being smart enough or knowledgeable or creative enough. These are really three separate issues.
- Smarts, intelligence, and giftedness all refer to our ability to learn.
- How knowledgeable we are refers to how much we have already learned, how much we currently know.
- Creativity refers to our ability to synthesize, to produce what never before existed, to solve problems in new ways.
As pointed out in Lesson 1, the latest theory about intelligence debunks the traditional idea that there is one overall intelligence that determines the level of our potential in all areas of life. We saw that there are several different kinds of intelligence, and each of us is endowed with these different kinds to different degrees. After almost six decades of living I have concluded that I am mildly challenged musically and athletically. I have noted that whenever I undertook some course of musical development, or attempted to develop an athletic skill, I progressed more slowly than most others in my situation, and in the end was less proficient. Am I crushed by this? Has this ruined my life? No, not at all. Music and athletics are simply not my strong points. My talents — my gifts if you will — lie in other areas, and it is toward developing them that I have decided to devote most of my time and energy. Once it sinks in that we are not just dumb or smart, but smart at some things and less smart at others, we can look at ourselves afresh. We can dump the dumb label that we picked up somewhere, and pay attention to developing our strengths.
If lack of knowledge is the cause of our low self-esteem, the solution is straightforward: move the acquisition of knowledge to a higher place on our personal priority list. I faced this situation when, at age 30, I realized that I had willingly imprisoned myself in the narrowness of an engineering career for the previous dozen years, and awoke to a wonderful, exciting world that I had been missing. I had just met several intellectually alive, interesting people who felt at home in this larger world and knew a great deal about it. I felt awed by them, and quite intimidated. They knew so much; I knew so little. What did I do? For the next year I spent most evenings and part of each weekend reading. As a result, my interests broadened. I became more knowledgeable about more things, and that intense feeling of intellectual inferiority gradually faded away. I had to commit a lot of time to the task, but the process itself was straightforward and risk-free: Put in the time, and you become more knowledgeable. That’s all there is to it.
Feeling bad because we feel uncreative is a more complex matter. There are things that we can do, however, to enhance creativity, and I go into the matter in some detail in Lesson 19, Enhancing Creativity.
What if a lack of physical attractiveness is causing self-image and self-worth problems? There are three approaches:
1. Fix it. These days there is almost always something we can do to improve our appearance. We can have our hair cut or shaped or colored. We can have our teeth whitened or capped or straightened. We can lose fat and develop muscle by changing the way we exercise and eat. A warning, though, about physical appearance. Plastic surgeons report that for some of their patients, changing the physical image does not change the mental image that they have of themselves. So we need to ask ourselves, “Is my appearance the real problem?” and be open to an answer that we have not wanted to hear.
2. Accept it. For some the answer is to say, “Well this is just the way it is, and that’s okay.” They are then free to put all that bound-up personal appearance energy into activities that have a greater payoff. They might work on becoming a warm and loving person, for example. Those who are successful at that task discover that they are loved in return by a multitude of people, and that the physical appearance issue fades into insignificance.
3. Switch your attention from what you don’t have to what you do have. In appearance, as in other areas of life, each of us has strengths and weaknesses. A general tendency of people with a bad self-image is to pay attention to their weaknesses and ignore their strengths. The game here is to do just the opposite. Yes, the donut has a hole, but it is still mostly donut. Yes, the glass is half empty; but it is also half full. Taking a positive slant on things makes you feel better, and is empowering.
Finally, how about feelings of moral deficiency — feelings that I am, in some sense, a bad person?
- First we must honestly assess if we are harming others. If we are, then that must stop. And we may need help to do that.
- Second we must honestly assess if we are harming ourselves. If we are, then that too must stop. And here, too, we may need help.
- If we are not harming others or ourselves, then what’s the problem? If there was real harm in the past we can think about the possibility of making amends. If, however, there is nothing we can realistically do now to compensate for what we did in the past, then learning from it and letting it go is probably the most skillful thing we can do. Continuing to wallow in remorse about it gets us nowhere.
- Coming to understand more clearly how the human decision-making process works can also be helpful. Our decisions don’t arise magically from nowhere; they are our brain’s response to a complex present situation and a complex matrix of past influences. Each decision that we make is the brain’s best call about what course of action is optimum. As a result, all of us, all the time, are doing the best we can.
Sartre and the other French Existentialists hit on something very important with their stress on living a meaningful life. Does your life matter? Does mine? Do they matter to other people? Do they matter in the larger scheme of things? Significance may be the ultimate issue, as well as an important yardstick of successful living. Our feelings of self-worth are intimately tied to our sense of significance. What gives the strongest boost to our feelings of self-worth? Isn’t it the knowledge that we are making a meaningful contribution to the world around us? That we are helping others? That we are doing things which somehow matter? When we are engaged in activities that we consider meaningful, strong positive feelings arise. We feel good about ourselves because we know that our lives matter.
9. Connie Podesta, SELF-ESTEEM AND THE SIX-SECOND SECRET, Newbury Park, CA: Corwin Press, 1992. (Corwin Press, Inc., A Sage Publications Company, 2455 Teller Road, Newbury Park, CA 91320, USA.)
10. For example: Matthew McKay, Ph.D. and Patrick Fanning, SELF ESTEEM: The ultimate program for self-help, New York: MJF Books, 1987.
Professor Alan Nordstrom’s questions and suggestions:
“Attention and encouragement may be the most valuable things we can give to other people.” How does that apply to you—giving and receiving?
Macdonald supposes “that it is possible for adults to change the estimate of self worth that they have formed. What’s your experience with this?
“Each decision that we make is the brain’s best call about what course of action is optimum. As a result, all of us, all the time, are doing the best we can.” Do you agree? How can you relate this to your experiences? Does this mean no one’s to blame for their “optimum” actions?
“We feel good about ourselves because we know that our lives matter.” How does your life matter? How good about that do you feel?
Please turn now to your private journal and record your thoughts, feelings, and insights of the moment. What has your reading brought to mind? What are your responses to Professor Nordstrom’s questions and suggestions? Finally, is there anything you would like to share with others? If so, just enter it in the box below and it will soon be turned into a posted comment.
(For other wisdom-related resources, visit THE WISDOM PAGE at www.wisdompage.com.)
Lesson text is based on Copthorne Macdonald’s book Getting a Life, copyright © 1995, 2008 by Copthorne Macdonald. Nordstrom comments and suggestions copyright © 2008 by Alan Nordstrom.