Diversifying Your Self-Esteem Portfolio
I often see people in my practice who don’t feel very good about themselves. They may constantly evaluate themselves negatively or measure themselves against other people, feeling they always come up short. Sometimes people recognise this and come to my office in search of a way to feel better about themselves; others seek help for issues like anxiety, depression, or eating disorders, and in the course of treatment realise that their low self-worth is a significant piece of the puzzle. Either way, low self-esteem can impact almost every area of a person’s life, from their relationships to parenting to careers and work performance. People who do not value themselves often choose partners who will not value them (this keeps things consistent, right?) and accept mistreatment from their others, making self-esteem worse. Or they do not take risks in their careers for fear of failure and a lack of confidence. Low self-esteem typically first emerges in childhood, although this is not always the case, and events and relationships in adulthood can make things worse (or make them better).
A detailed description of the treatment of low self-esteem is beyond the scope of a blog post and it also can vary widely, depending on the individual person and their story. However, one thing that I often see when working with people with low self-esteem is that they base their value as a human being on one area of their lives. For example, I sometimes see women (and men, but more often women) who almost entirely measure their self-worth by their appearance, including their weight and shape. I see people who base their self-worth on their job performance. In my work with postnatal depression, I have seen many women who judge their worth by how they feel they are fulfilling their mother role.
There is nothing wrong with having your job or role as a parent be a significant part of your identity. And let’s face it: most of us would be lying if we said that our appearances didn’t make up at least a small sliver of the self-esteem pie. However, these criteria for judging our own self-worth can become highly problematic if they are taking up too large a slice of the pie. A brief activity can be quite helpful for determining this for yourself. Take five minutes and jot down everything that you can think of that impacts your self-esteem. What kinds of things make you feel good about yourself? What kinds of things make you feel bad or ashamed of yourself? That is, what areas of your life impact your self-esteem? These things might include your performance at work, school, or the gym; your weight or shape; your role as spouse, sibling, or parent; how tidy your house is; how much money you make or the car you drive; etc. This list may also include personal qualities, such as kindness or trustworthiness.
Once you have made your list, I want you to draw a big circle on a sheet of paper. This is your self-esteem pie. I want you to make room for every single thing on your list. That is, figure out how large a slice of pie each thing on your list represents. Being brutally honest with yourself, start with the thing that you think is the largest slice of your self-esteem pie and work your way down. You may find that you need to adjust the numbers along the way. Once you’re done, take a step back and have a look. Is there anything on your list that comprises more than 40%? If so, that item may be too important. You may need to diversify your self-esteem portfolio.
For those familiar with investing money, the concept of diversifying your portfolio is common sense. If you invest all of your money in a single product, you run the risk of taking a huge loss if that product’s value decreases. Most often, people invest their money across a range of products in order to mitigate their losses: if one product decreases in value, at least you have the others to offset the loss. This is essentially the concept of not putting all your eggs in one basket.
Similarly, it is important to diversify your self-esteem portfolio. When you invest your self-esteem too heavily in any one area, you run the risk of a large loss of self-esteem if that area takes a hit. For example, if you measure most of your self-worth by your job performance, you are likely to feel really terrible about yourself if you receive a negative review or even are sacked. It may take a long time and a lot of effort to recover. If you measure your worth by your appearance, gaining a few kilos may send you into a spiral. If you tie your value closely to your role as a parent and then get called into the school to find out your child is in big trouble, a self-esteem nosedive may ensue.
It is only natural that any of the above events would make you feel bad. You can’t be expected to have these things notaffect you. The only way for that to happen is not to care, and not caring about important aspects of your life is likely to create more problems than it solves. However, when I talk about investing your self-esteem heavily in any one area, I am talking about the difference between feeling bad and being devastated, between being disappointed in what has happened and being distraught with yourself.
So how do we diversify our self-esteem? We start with thinking about values. What qualities do you value in other people? Often, we measure ourselves in ways that are not consistent with our values if we really stop to think about it. For example, a client I worked with told me that he really valued being there for others, being a person other people can count on. And when he really stopped and thought about it, he realised that he usually did really well in that area. However, he never considered his strength in this area when evaluating his self-worth. He focused more on things like his bank account balance. So think about the people you love and admire most. What is it about those people that makes them so worthy in your eyes? Chance are, it has nothing to do with the number on their scales or the kind of car they drive. It more likely has to do with the way they treat others, as well as the way they treat themselves.
Secondly, if you feel you can do so, ask some of the people closest to you to write a list of the things they value in you – positive qualities, attributes, skills, and achievements that they like or admire. They may point out things that had not occurred to you. Take these, add them to your own list, and make a master list.
Of course, there is also another list, although you will not need to write it down because chances are that you are very aware of what is on it. This is the list of the things you don’t like about yourself – your flaws, mistakes you have made, failures you have experienced. Everyone has one of these lists, and it is important to acknowledge that it exists, because positive self-esteem is not about pretending these things are not there; it is about understanding that you are a person of significant value and worth, even though you have flaws, have made mistakes, and have failed. Unfortunately, most people with low self-esteem hold significant double standards: they punish themselves repeatedly for flaws that they accept and forgive in others. If this sounds like you, you may have to give some real thought to the logic (or lack thereof) of holding these double standards. Perhaps your expectations of yourself are too high and need to come down – a topic of another blog post.
In the end, diversifying your self-esteem portfolio takes time and repetition. You need to remind yourself every day of your positive qualities, because you most certainly remind yourself every day of your flaws. Take a few minutes each morning and evening to look at your list. Think about the good things that happened that day – things that you accomplished, skills or qualities you demonstrated, that are consistent with a view of yourself as a person of value. Low self-esteem doesn’t develop in a day, and neither does positive self-esteem, but with commitment and practice, you can change the way you feel about yourself for the better.