TSBU clinical psychologist Linda Mthenjane thinks we could do with a little re-framing of self-esteem. Rather than a brittle exterior shield to fortify ourselves against the knocks of life, it’s the soft centre that holds us until we’re strong enough to get back up again.
When we think of self-esteem, we tend to think of it as something that we either have or we don’t, but it’s often more fluid than that. We can have positive self-esteem days (or moments), and we can have times when our self-esteem takes a dip.
It’s in the quest to create a more genuine sense of self-esteem, however, that we find our roots in self-worth. All of us, are born with an innate sense of self worthiness; it’s a gift we have. Pia Mellody says it so beautifully when she defines self-esteem as the “internal experience of one's own preciousness in the face of one's human frailty”.
Our sense of preciousness and the way we grow up
While we’re born with the gift of self-worth, self-esteem is something that must be nurtured by those around us when we are young. It’s the way we are seen. When our mothers, aunts and grandmothers hold us and our fathers take the family snapshots, the way they respond when we cry, or tell us we’re loved and beautiful and safe. Literally from “hour zero” our caregivers are in the position to esteem us … we cannot, as babies, esteem ourselves.
If you did not feel valued growing up, if you felt yourself shrinking while others around you may have bloomed, or you feel that your sense of being seen is a little shaky, remember that as adults, the capacity for esteeming ourselves now is now an inside job. And we are the ones who have to do the work.
Building genuine self-esteem
Genuine self-esteem is the enduring and unconditional state that flows from the well of our self-worth, that gift we are all born with. And while that self-worth cannot be lost, it can become so shrouded that we don’t see it or feel it anymore. But if we lift the veils, we can find our way back to ourselves and our inner sense of preciousness.
One very powerful way to find our way back to our inherent self-worth is to practice compassionate self-awareness; a gentle, moment to moment introspection that nurtures a non-judgemental knowing and comforting the inner self.
Compassionate self-awareness in play
So what does this moment to moment introspection look like? It’s about consciously checking in with yourself often throughout the day (you might want to set little reminders on your phone at first).
You might wake up feeling great until you pull into your parking lot at work and see one of your colleagues. Suddenly you’re thinking, “They’re driving a much nicer car than me … and look, they’ve lost all the COVID weight and I haven’t even started my healthy eating plan yet.” There. That moment. That’s when you catch yourself and practice compassionate self-awareness by understanding fully what's going on within you. And as you feel your self-esteem take a dip, close your eyes and name where in your body you’re feeling this emotion. Get a sense of what it looks like, feel what your body is doing in that moment.
In giving yourself the space and time to feel the emotions in your body, you can, for example, get a sense of what you might be “pushing against” with your back. When we feel our emotions in our bodies, they become easier to work with, easier to release, and easier to heal.
The internal inventory
Some people may not be ready (or quite comfortable) with the idea of opening themselves up to the physical representations of emotions in their bodies without the guidance of a qualified therapist, and that’s okay. Another way to approach the same situation above would be to take a quick internal inventory.
Start by forgiving yourself for any thoughts that you’re not “good enough”. And then back it up with evidence that you actually are good enough. So while your colleague may be driving a nicer car and has lost the weight you haven’t yet shed, you’ll unearth your own accomplishments. Have you just given yourself the most amazing self-care day? Or signed up for a new course? Maybe you’ve implemented a new process at work, or have steadfastly stood by a friend during a particularly difficult time.
So even though you may not be a size 34, you can still lift your chin and say, “I still think I’m pretty good, I'm still worthwhile, I have value, I have self-worth.”
And that's what it's about. When you take stock, you will probably find more evidence to support your self-esteem rather than diminish it. I often suggest making a practice of it, like kicking back at the end of a week and tracking all the moments (big and small) where you did well.
For those of us who need deeper levels of healing, or are living with a mental illness or unresolved trauma, we always recommend seeking help from a professional. But no matter who we are, or what we’re facing, when our self-esteem is low, we become out of touch with our inner selves. The soft and warm centre that knows you are precious and worth loving. That place that you can always come home to.
The place that can always be your soft landing.
For more on developing self-care, our Cultivating Self Care workshop is an invaluable tool in helping you develop a personal self-care plan in all spheres of life, from our physical and mental health to spiritual and relational health.