A New Look at Self-Esteem

Everybody knows the importance of having a good sense of self-esteem: it protects us from depression and anxiety, it helps us make choices that are good for us, it helps children and teens be less susceptible to peer pressure, and a host of other benefits we want for ourselves and for our children. But how exactly does someone get it?

Ask a roomful of people, experts or not, how to build self-esteem, and you will get a roomful of answers. So, here’s one more. To build a good sense of self-esteem, do things that are hard. Not climb Mt. Everest hard (although I’m sure that would help self-esteem), but things that are hard for you. Make a new recipe, speak up in class, tell a joke in public, run a mile, say hello to that cute boy, learn to play chopsticks on the piano. It really doesn’t matter. If it’s hard for you, it counts.

Next comes the part that is crucial to increasing self-esteem, and this may be the really hard part. Acknowledge that you’ve done something hard, and identify what characteristics were necessary to do that. For example: if you’ve just run your first mile (or if you’re an experienced runner who’s just run your first marathon), identify what running requires – strength, persistence, courage. Or if you’ve just told your first joke, that must have required humor, memory, boldness. And in identifying the characteristics, recognize and say aloud that you must have those characteristics.

Many people are uncomfortable acknowledging their own positive characteristics, and many people are quick to discount their own accomplishments. So, this is where we can help each other. Try making it a regular part of discussions at the dinner table. Parents can talk with children to identify a hard thing they did that day and to name the characteristics required to do it. Frankly, even trying something and not being completely successful can demonstrate bravery and resilience. And parents should include themselves in the discussion – if you can’t identify something for yourself, let your children help you. This can demonstrate characteristics of creativity and generosity in them, as well as whatever they find in you.

This approach to self-esteem building is a little different than simply saying “good job” after a child does anything, or than paying compliments without context. By identifying positive things about our children and ourselves that are connected to accomplishments, those same characteristics can be called upon to face the next challenge.

Marcia Mofson, Ph.D.
Licensed Clinical Psychologist