People often come to therapy wanting help with low self worth or lack of self esteem. They might call it low self confidence and then look a little puzzled and say, ‘but I am confident in some areas’.
Self esteem and self confidence seem to be two separate, and often mutually exclusive, things. But the lack of clarity between them is the cause of a lot of our problems.
Someone with high ‘self esteem’ doesn’t necessarily need to be confident to try something. The drawing (right) was a sketch I did in India. I haven’t sketched for years but thought I would have a go, however it turned out it didn’t matter, it would be fun. I was sat in a convention hall with a 10 year old boy sat next to me. These children had been nominated as volunteers to ‘chaperone’ us adults, and despite being many years younger with ‘important’ foreign visitors, they effortlessly engaged with us. He saw the drawing in my book and immediately started telling me the English names of the animals, writing them in my book. The light in this child’s eyes belied his self esteem, we smiled and laughed together, enjoying the chance to get to know each other. The greatest gift you can give a child is self esteem, self confidence then goes hand in hand.
But self confidence doesn’t always lead to self esteem. Someone may continually push themselves in life, gaining qualifications, promotions, wealth, fame etc and wonder why, in their darkest moments of honesty they feel like a fraud who will soon be exposed: ‘but i don’t do anything’ they bemoan of themselves. Or they may lack motivation to achieve their goals, or have no goals, aimlessly wandering wherever life pushes them. Sometimes someone is over confident, verging on arrogance perhaps, but when an event such as job loss, relationship break up, being passed over for promotion happens, they crumble into self pity or breakdown. High achievers and low achievers both often share low self esteem.
Self esteem, in my experience, is a measure of our self acceptance. The degree to which we truly ‘own’ ourselves as we really are: our body, our mind, our feelings, our thoughts, our fantasies, our failures and fears, our successes. Rather than berating ourself for what we are not, how much do we truly love and accept our ‘warts and all’ self for what we are? Not a self acceptance based on a projection of some ideal self walled in by ego defence.
This is crucial, and, in my experience, the starting point of real personal change. Without this change is cosmetic and won’t last.
Virginia Satir sums this up beautifully:
“I am Me. In all the world, there is no one else exactly like me.
Everything that comes out of me is authentically mine, because I alone chose it — I own everything about me: my body, my feelings, my mouth, my voice, all my actions, whether they be to others or myself. I own my fantasies, my dreams, my hopes, my fears. I own my triumphs and successes, all my failures and mistakes.
Because I own all of me, I can become intimately acquainted with me. By so doing, I can love me and be friendly with all my parts. I know there are aspects about myself that puzzle me, and other aspects that I do not know — but as long as I am friendly and loving to myself, I can courageously and hopefully look for solutions to the puzzles and ways to find out more about me.
However I look and sound, whatever I say and do, and whatever I think and feel at a given moment in time is authentically me. If later some parts of how I looked, sounded, thought, and felt turn out to be unfitting, I can discard that which is unfitting, keep the rest, and invent something new for that which I discarded.
I can see, hear, feel, think, say, and do. I have the tools to survive, to be close to others, to be productive, and to make sense and order out of the world of people and things outside of me. I own me, and therefore, I can engineer me. I am me, and I am Okay.”