How to fix your self-esteem problem

This can be done.

I got to thinking about it while reading yet another forum post by a Lost Soul wondering why he didn’t have any friends, why people stood him up and showed him little consideration. It looked pretty straightforward: he had low self-esteem. The other theoretical explanation, that he was an asshole, does not work in practice. Assholes have all kinds of associates, even friends, and people might be less likely to stand them up. Assholes might be assholes about it, after all, and people tend not to want to stir that up. So as I see it, we’re back to low self-esteem: they do not esteem him because he does not esteem himself.

All right, fine. He doesn’t esteem himself. He doesn’t really think he amounts to a lot. He may tell himself he does, but he doesn’t feel it. Maybe he’s afraid it would bring out a latent narcissism (I can think of people I wish would have considered that). Maybe he’s let the world tell him what opinion to have of himself. However one looks at this, it’s all too simple to say and quite another thing to do: “Then treat yourself with some respect, and people will respect you more.” That’s like telling a fat person to exercise more and eat less food. Certainly it is correct, but if it were that easy to break bad habits and establish new ones, we wouldn’t need a whole medical specialization in bariatrics, a drug rehab industry, or eternal therapy for neurotic people.

Okay. Let’s assume that a person who is consistently ignored, disregarded, stood up, not considered by others has probably conveyed a lack of self-esteem. If it’s not so, my advice won’t hurt. If it is so, this might help.

You can’t get self-esteem from others’ approval. It comes from within; whether it’s a conscious choice, a value judgment after examination, or just ingrained from youth, no one can confer it on you. It’s self-administered and self-maintained if it has any validity at all. Likewise, no one can take it away unless you grant him or her that power. If you grant someone the power to determine your self-esteem, I submit that it’s not your own to begin with.

Whatever the case, you can’t wait for it to come from anyone else. What they offer is not self-esteem; it’s their own esteem of you. They can esteem you with a mighty esteeming and you can resist it if you wish. Or you can accept it, consider this handled, and then learn that your supposed self-esteem can be taken away as easily as it was given. Only self-esteem you confer upon yourself gives you the power to veto anyone else’s attempts to damage it.

Let me also present this: in order to esteem yourself, you must not have a terminally bad metric for value. If nothing you could do would make you think better of yourself, then any such effort is gutshot until you decide that you would permit a path to better self-esteem. That too is a choice. No one can make it for anyone. Nothing I can write will make it for anyone. Anyone bound and determined to loathe him or herself will always find a way.

If you buy that, here’s what I propose: do anonymous good deeds.

Do small good deeds. Do them a lot. Do them as a way of life. When you cannot do them anonymously, do them with minimal fanfare and the simplest possible ‘you’re welcome’ for any gratitude. If need be, ask of the recipients only that they never mention it again (very good in the case of monetary aid). When possible, do them for complete strangers you’ll never see again. Do them for humanity at large, or the environment: pick up that litter, wave to those kids (even though you live in a big city and big-city coolness more or less demands you act like a self-absorbed ass), take your shopping cart back to the collection area.

Your massive-ass grocery shopping takes an eternity in front of that young guy just buying a six-pack? Ask the checker to tack his charges onto yours. You knocked a bunch of crap off the grocery shelf? Pick it up and put it back. Leave good tips and give retail service people kind words. If they do really well, tell their supervisors. When you sense that you’re about to bitch about something where bitching won’t help anyone, swallow it this time. Make a regular habit of doing a lot of little things, and some bigger things, that you can respect in yourself. Be the kind of person you respect–but do most of it where no one else will see or know or praise you. You’re doing this to earn your own respect, not theirs. If they respect you anyway, fine, but see that for the potential pitfall it is: their respect, while kind and probably sincere, can distract from the real reason you did it. They could withdraw that respect as easily as they proffered it. It’s nice to have, but at the core, you did it so that you could look back at the day and say, believing it: “I did good. I lived my values today.”

You could esteem that in yourself. Made a habit, it would sink in. You’d like that person. You’d respect that way of life. You’d esteem you.

And if it doesn’t work? If you still don’t like yourself? Then you know have rigged the game against yourself in the way I described earlier. In that case, since it’s your game, you’ll be needing to change the rules. Rules that say “I can respect myself when I brighten others’ lives” are perfectly reasonable.

And what when you are treated with disrespect? Stop wanting that person’s respect. Letting the same person keep disrespecting you, and wanting him or her to change, signals permission for everyone else to do the same. Bear in mind, that doesn’t mean you have to ruin your work environment, go nuts, end up in jail. It just means you don’t want what they won’t offer. Go about your life. Don’t make plans with people who dump your outing as soon as something better comes along. Don’t make efforts to make the office snob happy. Don’t offer a place to stay to people who don’t treat your home with respect. Do your work, live your life; do good things because you respect them in yourself, and do good work because you respect it in yourself. It’s true that we teach people how to treat us. It’s also true that if we do not treat ourselves well, others learn that they also may mistreat us.

There is a very toxic person in my life, one I cannot readily erase from it. This person has always talked as if I were the bee’s knees, but has for many years behaved so as to provoke me whenever possible. This sort of dichotomous conduct is par for that course. This person knows all my buttons and had (yes, past tense) regularly completed his/her own toxic circles by jabbing at them. This person is mentally ill and there is nothing I can do to change that–nor is it my job.

What I could change was my judgment on that person: his/her utterances, actions, attitudes. The key point for me was where I realized a thing about judging: the reason not to judge wasn’t that it was fundamentally bad or wrong or not my right. Screw that. I am perfectly entitled to judge bad behaviors, and there is nothing morally wrong about it. However…by judging the behaviors, I opened the door to the toxic manipulation. I’m entitled to judge, but it wasn’t working in my favor. It was leaving me vulnerable.

Only when I no longer judged the mentally ill behaviors did I learn to let them wash past me. Now this person has no idea how to relate to me. The vending machine is eating the quarters. Maybe s/he will learn better behaviors; more likely s/he will not. Either way, it is not my problem. This person must own his/her own problems; I already own enough and can’t add new ones.

How I reacted, and why I reacted (or more accurately, did not react), were the point. I didn’t do it to change this person. This person cannot change, and I was foolish to hope otherwise. I did it to change myself, to liberate myself. It was what a self-respecting person should do. I didn’t respect in myself the feelings that came up after those interactions, and I had to find the key to their banishment. I think it’s the same way with wanting people’s approval. If we live in ways and make choices that give us reason to approve of ourselves, esteem ourselves, respect ourselves, people’s approval is a nice-to-have but doesn’t control us.

I know another toxic person who is a career ass-kisser. Literally, in the career part of the term: this individual made a living for decades marketing instruments by sucking up to unbearable assholes, treating them as though they were the most important persons in the world, enduring all their disrespect without ever daring complain or walk away. Over time, ass-kissing became this person’s fundamental identity. AK, as I will name this person for short, was also famous for giving things away. No one could outdo AK in giving, which was not the same as generosity. AK was trying to buy people–friends–by kissing ass and giving them stuff. If you knew AK, AK told you how neat you were, how great you were, and tried to load you down with stuff. AK probably never gave anything anonymously in AK’s life, because the point was that AK wanted to buy people’s favor. Doing so anonymously would only be a good deed; what would be the point of that?

After a while, AK and I stopped seeing eye to eye because I didn’t respond to the constant overpraise and layers of bullshit. I understood that it wasn’t sincere; bullshit was simply the way AK rolled, and if AK’s current bullshit level wasn’t getting results, AK kept dialing it up. AK was not used to people who declined excessive gifts; AK felt most comfortable when AK had ‘bought’ someone’s ‘respect’ or ‘friendship.’ A person who could not simply accept all the bounty–who recognized it for the toxicity it was–made AK very uncomfortable. A person who attempted to reciprocate (the act of a self-respecting person) sent AK into orbit. AK’s game was to always be the giver, and that is pure toxicity. Anyone who can’t receive can’t give, and vice versa, because there is giving in all receiving and receiving in all giving. AK doesn’t really give; AK bribes. AK doesn’t really praise; AK sucks up.

AK doesn’t have very much self-esteem. AK lives a fearful life, dwelling on the slightest negative feedback, always trusting the wrong people and often betrayed. AK has been in therapy for decades, and it doesn’t seem to be doing much good. When AK’s spouse of many years just walked away, AK did not understand. Had AK not done all the requisite things? Had AK not kissed sufficient ass? Had AK somehow managed to give insufficient material things? Whatever AK’s spouse had most wanted in life, AK had not provided it, and when the kids were grown, AK’s spouse got out. Maybe said spouse had decided that decades of toxic relationship patterns were enough. Maybe said spouse had self-esteem, a thing unknown to AK.

When AK retired from the first ass-kissing career, s/he began a second one. Life without kissing ass was unthinkable; ass-kissing had become an identity. Some people are manipulators, some people are tough, some people are cold, some are cuddly; some suck up. All AK’s esteem came from the people with whom AK shopped for it. Sometimes it was genuine; other times it was a facade. In the end, nearly none of them will stay bought. In the end, AK does not esteem AKself, and neither will the people AK has tried to buy esteem from.

I am glad to have distanced myself from AK. Had I kept associating with such an individual, it would probably have drawn me into more toxic cycles. The last thing we need is to add more of those to our lives.

It begins with doing good things, but always for the right reasons: because they are meritorious, acts that speak for themselves in the way they validate our self-concepts. The fewer other people that know who did them, and the less accolades they bring, the better they work. If I were independently wealthy, I’d just go around wiping out medical bills with several layers of anonymity between myself and the recipients. From those who have been blessed in life, more is expected. You’d be surprised how little self-esteem some of them have. Or not, considering that celebrity suicide is a thing.

There. If you want self-esteem, stop lamenting over the way people treat you. Go get it in a way over which no one on earth has a veto.

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4 thoughts on “How to fix your self-esteem problem”

  1. Thank you for this article. I am touched by the empathy that you show in it. I had my own A.K. on my life who I’ve distanced myself from. Not quite as extreme. As your AK but close enough. I am curious as t type opinion on the whole generational thing. My children grew up in an era when we parents were encouraged to patent in such a way as to foster self esteem. I do not have to tell you that my contemporaries were definitely not parented that way. I struggle with my own negative self talk.

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    1. Thank you, Teresa. Having not been a parent myself, thus only having seen the show from the receiving end, I’m not too sure I have much input of value. (Sorry for the delay, by the way; I’m in places with spotty access.) What I wonder is this: if modern parents are told that self-esteem is a paramount quality to foster, then why aren’t the current efforts seeming to do much good? I see so many self-affirming comments on Facebook and such from young people, but to me those look like desperate attempts to built their own self-esteem; if the methods were working, would they need to do this in such numbers? However, I also believe there is a gender component, and that is probably greater than the generational factor. Simply put, girls still often grow up being told what they cannot do, being held to standards unfair relative to those for boys, and blamed for their own mistreatment. It’s safe to say that the improvements in that area leave a lot to be desired even now; any woman knows it, and any man who cares to listen is able to hear it. This was a factor in my original thinking, because a self-esteem based in one’s own decisions to live in ways that suit one’s own notions of respect is open to all. It may be that much more important for girls and women, as they have such a cacophony of crap to drown out as best they may. But I also believe that the men in their worlds can help themselves as well as the women they care about simply by being part of the counter-cacophony. This is itself a worthy deed, and one we men may esteem in ourselves. Half-baked thoughts typed from a small-town cottage in rural Galway, but perhaps at least somewhat responsive. Again, thank you for your thoughtful discussion idea, and for your patience with my uncharacteristic slowness. I value your observations and would be glad to read more.

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