Thursday, July 8, 2010

Self-Esteem, Part II - Psychologist Nathaniel Branden's Expert Opinion

In a previous post I told the tragic story of Jason, a guy who entered into a downward spiral of low self-esteem that eventually cost him his life. But what is self-esteem, exactly?

According to psychotherapist and author Nathaniel Branden, the world’s foremost authority on this subject, self-esteem is “the experience that we are appropriate to life and the requirements of life.” In other words, it’s your belief that you’re capable and worthy of achieving fulfillment and happiness. Branden says self-esteem is “the single most important psychological subject in the world.”

It’s important because if you don’t believe in yourself, terrible consequences can follow. Feeling inadequate can make you vulnerable to conformity and social pressure. It can make you so sensitive to feedback or criticism that relationships and intimacy become difficult. Feelings of guilt and shame can lead to depression, neuroses, mental illness and suicide. In other words, because you don’t feel you deserve success and happiness, you may do things to sabotage it.

Branden has written many books on the subject: The Psychology of Self-Esteem (1969), Breaking Free (1970), The Disowned Self (1972), Honoring the Self (1983), How to Raise Your Self-Esteem (1986), and his final word on the subject, The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem (1994). I highly recommend this last book to anyone who wants to learn more about it.

Branden makes an important point: self-esteem isn’t a gift; it’s not something that other people give to you. You create your own self-esteem. You earn it. Only you can decide how to react and how to think about yourself when life is unkind.

When I see my wife’s two-year old niece, who has such a beaming spirit, I see the perfect preparation for high-self-esteem. But will her positive self-regard survive the next 15 years?

The perils of a life journey begin in youth. So much can go wrong. There are no “professional” parents. They’re all amateurs, or worse. I wanted to be a good father, but I made lots of mistakes. My sons grew up with strong self-esteem anyway, and I credit them for that achievement.

On the other hand, we all know that some parents neglect or abuse their kids—for all kinds of reasons. The danger is that children in such families will conclude that they—not their parents—are to blame for the harsh treatment they receive. And when they become adults they may mistreat their own children.

Also, children already know they’re inferior in many ways. They’re smaller, weaker and lacking in knowledge of important things. They’re vulnerable to social pressures, but often receive criticism or rejection from groups they’d like to join. Children fail more often than they succeed. They make mistakes all the time. When blame and criticism follow, it’s easy for them to think they’re inadequate, unworthy, or incapable of dealing with life. Self-acceptance, self-trust, and self-love become difficult.

All of us had to endure childhood with its joys and difficulties, and now it’s up to us to continue growing stronger. If Branden is right, much depends on whether we make the effort.

Most of us have some work to do on our self-esteem, and there are many rewards for doing so. But sometimes it can seem like pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps. This exercise is a good place to start:

1. In a text file, enter a list of everything you’ve achieved in your life, whether small or grand. Important: devalue nothing, dismiss nothing, leave nothing out. Include the fact that you taught yourself to play chess. This project could take some time. That’s fine. It’ll be worth the effort.

2. When you finally feel you haven’t left anything out, arrange the list in chronological order.

3. Then read achievement No. 1. Affirm to yourself why this was a worthy thing to have done. Feel good about it.

4. Then do the same thing for the next item. And the next, and all the way through the entire list.

5. Then say this to yourself: I’ve done many worthwhile things in my life. I feel good about myself. I’m capable of doing more, and I deserve the happiness that comes into my life.

6. Save the list and remember your thoughts as you relate to others and go about your daily business.

Post by Dennis E. Coates, Ph.D., Copyright 2010. Building Personal Strength .


Rebecca Woodhead said...

Ebb is below 'not worthy' today. Thanks for that post. :)

Steve Harkness said...

I do not think. Jason was mentally ill, but I must say in the same breath, I have no training in the field of mental illness. I have however known many people like Jason who constantly make themselves out to be more than what they really are.

Conor Neill said...

I came across The Anatomy of Power by The Arbinger Institute about 2 years ago and it was a book that really made me stop and re-evaluate a lot of my ideas about life and purpose and fulfillment. I really do believe now that self-esteem or self-belief are the absolute core factors of being able to live a fulfilling life, to live your own life and not one that is expected of you by others. I love your series here. Thanks for sharing.