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The Myth of Pre-Existent Self-Esteem

I feel like a lot of self-help and success-oriented talk purports a myth that can be hurtful. The myth is that self-esteem is something you can just sort of start off by having or something you can decide to have instantaneously. I think, for most of us, that isn’t the case; I think for most of us, self-esteem is the end goal.

I think to a certain extent we live in an era that has saturated us with messages about the importance of self-esteem; we are all keenly aware that projecting an image of self-confidence can add to our outward success, and the adverse effects of suffering low self-esteem result in everything from periods of mental illnesses like anxiety and depression to lifelong patterns of failure and unhealthy relationships. Sure, we get it.

But it seems like many self-help gurus and public figures talk about self-esteem like it’s something you’ve just got to choose to have. How often we hear everyone from Oprah to the fashion gurus on What Not to Wear tell women who are hurting, beaten down, and clearly suffering from no kind of positive self-image at all, “You’ve just got to have some self-esteem, girl!”

Forgive me for putting it this way, but no shit.

Telling someone they have to have some self-esteem when they don’t have it is like telling a person suffering from severe debt that they’ve got to get some money. Not helpful in the slightest.

In my opinion – and I’m no expert, but I’ve been paying attention for a while now – self-esteem is a result, not a starting point. And I think Jean Kirkpatrick (an author who started the Women for Sobriety movement, whose work has been instrumental in my own personal growth) hits the nail on the head when she says that your path to self-esteem has to begin with basic self acceptance. Sometimes just being able to roll your eyes at your mistakes, forgive yourself for fuck ups, and shrug your shoulders when you aren’t perfect is the best place you can start. It’s not thinking the world of yourself, but it’s at least learning not to berate and condemn yourself every time something goes wrong.

From learning self-acceptance, and from making the effort to stop all kinds of negative self-talk and the constant internal beating down of yourself, I think you can take baby steps to start saying kind things to yourself. You should take the time to notice when you do something well, when you think something good (compassionate thoughts, intelligent thoughts, and amusing thoughts all deserve recognition, in my opinion), and when you are able to speak your mind. Reward yourself for strengths, no matter how small. Learn to see the positive side of a personality quality that has light and dark aspects. Train yourself to look favorably upon yourself.

Self-esteem is a hard-won habit, not an innate quality. It is through negative habits of self-condemnation and external berating that we learn the poor habit of low esteem; so through its reversal and self-praise, I believe we can train ourselves toward a healthy esteem of ourselves.

By Meghan Young Krogh

Meghan had a number of quality writing mentors over the course of her education, which just goes to show that you can't blame the teacher for the way the student turns out. Team Oxford Comma represent.

7 replies on “The Myth of Pre-Existent Self-Esteem”

Sometimes just being able to roll your eyes at your mistakes, forgive yourself for fuck ups, and shrug your shoulders when you aren’t perfect is the best place you can start. It’s not thinking the world of yourself, but it’s at least learning not to berate and condemn yourself every time something goes wrong.

Co-signed like hell. I think unless you are captain positivity or a raging egomaniac, its really hard to point out the positives about yourself.

I agree that it’s a habit, or maybe (similarly) an outlook. I think prioritizing how you think other people might view you over how you feel (separate from what other people might think). But obviously that’s way easier said than done. You can innately have it (by being clueless about what other people care about, as I luckily was in junior high) but most of the time we have to train ourselves and retrain ourselves. Thanks for the post–good perspective, and good thing to consider and discuss!

When I had just graduated college, moved across the country, couldn’t get a job (no matter how hard I tried), and finally, had to start relying on my fiance to help me pay my bills, I had a mentor of mine tell me I was a failure, not trying hard enough, and had become a “puppy dog on a leash” to the man in my life by allowing him to help me.

It took me years to recover.

I bring it up because I think it really proves what you’re saying here. In some ways, I have to thank that mentor because what I had before that throw-down wasn’t really “self-esteem,” but a false sense of assurance based on all manner of myths fed to me throughout my youth and in college (like, “If you get a BA, jobs will fall in your lap!” or “Hard work is always appreciated!”). As a result of that mentor, I had to restart, to build my confidence from the ground up. While I’m hardly Ms. Knope, I think it would take a lot more than a misspeaking mentor to break me now. I can stand up to the whims of fortune; I have a more realistic view of my abilities, value, and role in the world.

But it took months and months and months–months during which I often felt more worthless than the gum on my shoes. I employed the methods you mention here: consciously monitoring my self-talk and looking for opportunities to praise myself for things done well, even if that was just remembering to take out the trash on time.

Great article!

Great post. I think you’re right – too often self-help gurus (perhaps because they’ve forgotten how it feels to be so low) ask for too much, and we can’t do it, and it makes us feel worse. Being asked to be happy when you feel depressed is torture. Being asked to accept how you feel, and that you don’t like it, and that on some level that’s OK? Much more achievable, and maybe the start of something great. Let’s hear it for baby steps!

Also, major snaps for the Leslie Knope photo.

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