Self-esteem has always been considered a crucial element for our emotional health; For Maslow, a large part of people who do not develop a good level of self-esteem will not be able to self-actualize (Santrock, 2002). On the other hand, self-esteem is established from an early age and can govern our healthy growth, in addition to the relationships we develop with our families, our friends, our partners and other people. If something is so important to our life and psychological balance, it would be nice to know what we mean when we mention it. Self-esteem is the consideration that people have about themselves (Rice, 2000; cited in Naranjo, 2007). It is also the ability of people to establish their own identity and attribute value to themselves.
Thus, self-esteem is that way of looking at ourselves, of valuing ourselves and of loving ourselves ; and this is the product of an evaluation and comparison of our qualities with those of other people. In other words, the better we value our personal attributes (being intelligent, kind, a good person or skilled in mathematics), the higher our self-esteem will be, and the worse this assessment, the lower it will be.
The problem of self-esteem
When we do exercises to improve our self-esteem, we almost always find ourselves listing positive and negative attributes , weighing and basing our value and personal esteem on our virtues (being intelligent, handsome, good people, etc.).
The big problem is that the valuation of these virtues is always in comparison with those of others ; for example, I am intelligent because I find myself solving problems that others cannot, or obtaining higher marks than the average for my class. Now, by evaluating myself as “intelligent” I am resting my consideration, value and esteem on that attribute, because it is what defines me; So, I am valuable because I am intelligent.
On the other hand, if my value as a person is based on my intelligence, and my assessment of “being intelligent” rests on my comparison with others, when one or several people “smarter” than me appear, when my grade in an exam it is not high enough or when I fail to achieve a goal, my self-esteem will be seriously affected.
I’m not that smart anymore = I’m not that valuable anymore
And we can see this pattern repeat itself with many aspects of our being (London, 1993).
Then what do I do?
The first thing is to start looking inward and questioning the way we value ourselves ; Let’s stop defining ourselves through absolute adjectives such as that we are good people, intelligent, handsome or competent. On the contrary, let’s begin to detach ourselves from our actions; I can make a mistake or do something bad and that does not make me a bad person, I can make a mistake and that does not make me a fool.
Albert Ellis (creator of Rational Emotive-Behavioral Therapy) worked steadily with a concept that opposes the paradigm of self-esteem based on achievements and comparisons ; it is about unconditional self-acceptance, and it can be summed up by a phrase with incredible power: “I am a valuable being for the simple fact of being alive”.
Let’s look at it like this. If my self-esteem is based, for example, on my intelligence, every time I fail intellectually or someone more capable than me appears, my personal value will be affected; Also, I will constantly be feeling pressure not to fail, since I will be playing my self-esteem every minute with my performance.
On the contrary, if I accept myself unconditionally, I will not have that extra pressure or self-obligation not to fail, I will be less exposed to making mistakes (since my load has been lightened), and if I screw up, I will be disappointed in my performance, but I will not feel less, nor will it diminish my value or love for myself.
In conclusion, the key to improving our “self-esteem” is not to define ourselves by our past actions, that our value as people does not depend on them; It is better to recognize that our value lies in being alive and, by appreciating our existence, a world of possibilities opens up where we can decide what we want and give our best effort without the need to risk our own love.