Self-esteem, self-worth, self-love…how do you feel about yourself? One of the top reasons people seek out counseling is due to the effects of a negative relationship with oneself. Think about it, our relationship we have with ourselves is the most important one we will ever have! Who is the only “person” you will always be with? You! Who knows all that you have been through, your inner-most thoughts, your hopes, dreams, and struggles? You! So often, people have an internal relationship with themselves that is wrought with criticism, negativity, a lack of compassion, and involves holding oneself to unrealistic standards that only result in disappointment and regret. This is a difficult person to be with all the time, right?
So how does this negative sense of self develop? It depends on the individual, but oftentimes we can look into your past and find relationships with people earlier in life in which you heard negative messages about yourself, in particular in reaction to times when you made mistakes or fell short of your goals. These relationships could be with parents, siblings, teachers, coaches, or peers including friends, bullies or early romantic relationships. These early messages may have been that you were not good enough, that you must be perfect all of the time, or that something was wrong with you. These messages can get encoded in our minds so much so that we start to actually believe them ourselves, even though they are an unhealthy way of responding to mistakes and are extreme and distorted. As we develop and grow up, these thoughts can become our own thoughts about ourselves which leads to negative, damaging internal self-talk that often results mental health issues like depression and anxiety.
Other people might look back at their early relationships and not be able to find overt messages that were negative. For some, they develop these harsh, critical, inner voices because they may think it will motivate themselves to achieve high success or avoid making mistakes. When this approach seems to lead to success, the person is motivated to keep talking to themselves in this negative, critical voice. The problem with this approach is that although you may reach your goal (you may not though), the path to get there results in negative feelings, self-loathing, and ultimately the loss of enjoyment in reaching the goal.
You can start thinking and feeling differently about yourself! You do not have to be subjected to the negative messages you heard growing up as a child. Also, you can achieve success without putting yourself down whenever you fall short of your goal. Loving oneself is a foundational aspect of changing these internal negative self-thoughts. Adopting the belief that you have worth because you are alive and a human being is a powerful idea to explore. One workbook that is helpful in exploring and understanding this concept comes from Dr. Glen Schiralidi entitled The Self-Esteem Workbook. Dr. Schiralidi (2001) writes, “Unconditional human worth means that you are important and valuable as a person because your essential, core self is unique, precious, of infinite, eternal unchanging value, and good. Unconditional human worth implies that you are as precious as any other person.” (p. 29). In the book, it helps you explore how your worth is separate from external aspects of life like grades, work success, money, validation from others, and appearance. When we tie our worth to these externals, our sense of self-worth will fluctuate as these aspects of life will inevitably change and fluctuate. The key is to discover and establish a sense of your self-worth that is intrinsic and unchanging. When you are able to discover self-love that is unchanging and connected to the core of you, you may still feel disappointment or upset when you make mistakes or when life is difficult, but you are unlikely to feel self-hatred and engage in negative, self-critical talk which can lead to more extensive suffering and mental health issues. The result in discovering a sense of self-love is that you will be able to adopt more self-compassion, and identify ways to use the challenges of life as a way to grow and change. Part of this new way of thinking involves accepting that we are always “works in progress” and that each day is an opportunity to grow closer to our potential. We do not tie our sense of worth to external life outcomes and therefore we are able to keep our motivation high and our self-worth and self-esteem stable as we proceed to improve our life and reach our goals.
A psychologist named Carol Dweck, Ph.D. has conducted research and written a book on developing a growth mind set in order to be more successful in life. This type of thinking can be a healthy alternative to the critical voice that stems from poor self-worth and self-esteem. In her book, “Mindset” (2008), she discusses her research on how people cope with failures and identified two types of mindsets that people tend to have; fixed mindsets and growth mindsets. She describes how people with fixed mindsets believe their qualities and abilities are set and cannot be changed. Therefore negative outcomes in life or negative messages heard from others are experienced as unchangeable within themselves. In her research she found that fixed mindset individuals often give up easily, lose motivation because they start to not believe they can grow and change, and even those who do succeed, tend to not enjoy their succeed and feel like nothing they do is ever good enough. Alternatively, she describes how people with growth mindsets, the belief that your qualities are cultivated and developed though your efforts, tend to have a passion for learning, they are motivated to learn more or try a different method if they fall short of their goal. She states that a growth mindset “allows people to thrive during some of the challenging times of their life” (p. 7). Individuals with a growth mindset are actually more successful and enjoy their success.
Adopting a growth mindset, while also working to find a stable sense of your self-worth, can be the antidote to many individuals struggle with anxiety and depression when the core of the issue is a lack of feeling self-love and self-worth. Embarking on exploring and changing these aspects of yourself can be difficult to do alone. Reading self-help books like The Self-Esteem Workbook and Mindset can be great places to start. You may find that seeking out individual or group therapy may be an additional way to understand yourself and start to challenge and reshape the way you think and feel about yourself.
Schiralid, G.R. (2001). The Self-Esteem Workbook. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.
Dweck, C.S. (2008). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York, NY: Ballantine Books.