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Self Esteem

By Christine Webber, psychotherapist and life coach

What is self-esteem?

We all use the expression 'self-esteem', but what do we mean by it?

Some people think that self-esteem means confidence - and of course confidence comes into it - but it's rather more than that.

The fact is that there are a number of apparently confident people who can do marvelous things but who have poor self-esteem. Many people in the public eye fall into this category. Actors and comedians and singers in particular can seem to glow with assurance 'on stage', and yet off-stage many of them feel desperately insecure.

Indeed, individuals can be stunningly attractive and world-famous, and seem poised and perfect - yet still, deep down, find it hard to value themselves. Think of the late Princess of Wales and Marilyn Monroe and you'll accept, I think, that public adulation is no guarantee of self-belief.

So, if self-esteem isn't quite the same thing as confidence, what is it?

Well, the word 'esteem' comes from a Latin word which means 'to estimate'. So, self-esteem is how you estimate yourself.

To do that you need to ask yourself certain questions:

Do I like myself?
Do I think I'm a good human being?
Am I someone deserving of love?
Do I deserve happiness?
Do I really feel - both in my mind and deep in my guts - that I'm an OK person?

People with low self-esteem find it hard to answer 'yes' to these questions. Perhaps you are one of them. If so, what can you do?

How can you improve your self-esteem?

You can begin by accepting that you are certainly not alone. Masses of people have this problem.

Secondly, you can take on board a very important fact, which is that you are a wonderful, individual and special person - and there is no one quite like you. Your fingerprints and your DNA are totally different from everybody else's - unless you happen to have an identical twin. And your mind - and how it thinks and operates - is absolutely your own. This means that out of six billion people in the world, you are a one-off. So if nature has bothered to make you utterly unique, don't you feel that you should accept that you're important, and that you have as much right as anyone else to be on this planet?

You have other rights too. One of them is the right to make mistakes. Don't forget that 'to err is human' and most of us do much of our learning through getting things wrong before we get them right.

Furthermore, we have the right to respect ourselves - and to be respected: this is very important. And finally - and perhaps most vitally of all - we have the right to say 'yes' or 'no' for ourselves.

Many people with poor self-esteem think that they're not very important and that their views carry no weight. Is this you? If so, try to stop these destructive thoughts; because if you go around believing them, you'll encourage other people to believe them too.

Instead, start thinking of yourself - with your individual DNA, fingerprints and mind - as someone who has rights and opinions and ideas that are just as valid as anyone else's. This will help you to improve your 'self-estimation'.

Techniques to improve self-esteem

10-minute technique

People with poor self-esteem often fail to give themselves enough time and space. So find 10 minutes every day to be alone and to just sit and do nothing. Some people find it helpful to close their eyes and imagine a country scene or the sight and sound of waves gently lapping against the seashore. During these 10 minutes, allow yourself to feel peaceful and happy. Enjoy this time. It is yours - and yours alone. And you deserve it.

Finding 10 minutes for you is a caring thing to do and you will feel better for doing it.

Accentuate the positive

Often we make ourselves unhappy because we go over and over mistakes that we have made. But we can feel happier, and improve our self-esteem, if we re-think those things we believe we have done wrong or badly.

For example, one of my clients has to give presentations at work. He used to mentally beat himself up after every one. He would go over and over tiny errors in his mind. Now he writes an account of each presentation shortly after he’s given it. And I have encouraged him to write about all the things that went well - not badly. He doesn't need to write about the bad things - they will stick in his memory and he will try hard not to repeat them. But he will forget the good things - unless he writes them down.

So when you have a bad day, or something goes wrong in your relationship or at work, write an account of what went right with that episode, not what went wrong. The results will surprise you - and improve how you see yourself.

List 50 things you like about yourself

If you're seriously lacking in self-esteem this could take weeks! But persevere.

You can write down your characteristics or things about your looks. You can even write down things that you do that you happen to like about yourself. For example, you may buy a copy of The Big Issue on a day when you're feeling particularly short of money yourself, or you may help an elderly woman in the supermarket sort out how much her groceries are going to cost, even though you're rushing to get your own shopping done in your lunch hour.

When you have reached your 50 good things, keep the list somewhere you can see it all the time.

Next comes an even harder part. Try to record one more, new thing you like about yourself every day for the rest of your life!

Getting and giving criticism

One of the areas that people with low self-esteem have greatest difficulty with is criticism - giving as well as receiving it. Both can be extraordinarily difficult. In fact some individuals are absolutely demolished by criticism, but it's something we cannot avoid.

Now, criticism is often unfair - and when it is we need to counter it by putting our own case succinctly and calmly. But some criticism is justified - and when we're sensible we can learn from it.

Often when we're criticized, we're so hurt that we start excusing ourselves and rebutting what's being said without really listening to it.

A mature, self-possessed person listens to criticism without interrupting. If there are aspects to the criticism that are valid, s/he begins by agreeing with those points. If s/he's unsure what's being said, s/he asks for clarification. If indeed s/he realizes s/he was wrong, s/he says so and apologizes. But if s/he disagrees with the criticism, s/he smiles and says: 'I'm afraid I don't agree with you.'

Now, it takes quite a lot of practice to feel and act this cool. So let's go through it again. When someone criticizes you:

listen - don't interrupt or start excusing yourself
agree - where possible
ask for clarification
when you're wrong, admit it and apologies
if criticism is wrong or unfair say: 'I'm afraid that I don't agree with you.'

Now, let's look at giving criticism, because people with poor-self esteem often find it harder to dish out criticism than receive it. In fact many adults actually avoid promotion because they can't face the prospect of being in authority and having to criticize others.

So, how can you learn to criticize when you have to?

First of all, keep calm. Secondly, try to make your criticism at an appropriate time, rather than waiting till you're so fed up that you're furiously angry - when you'll be bound to make a mess of it.

Take some deep breaths when you know you've got to criticize someone. Then try a technique called the ‘criticism sandwich'. This means that you say something nice to the person you’re criticizing, then you insert the criticism, then you end with something else that nice or positive or flatter. So, you might say to your secretary for example: 'Suzie, your work is usually absolutely great. But it's not quite right today and I'm afraid I'll have to ask you to re-do that report. I know it’s most unlike you to get things wrong, you’re so dependable and I want you to know how much I value you.’

You might notice that people, who are good and fair when they criticize, tend to use the word 'I' rather than the word 'you'. This is because the word 'I' shows you're in control and that you've thought about what you're saying. All too frequently when we're out of control we don't say anything initially, which is when we should address the problem. Instead we bottle it up till we explode. Then we use the words 'you', 'you're' and 'your' all the time. We say: 'You're bloody lazy.' Or 'You've got a down on me.' Or 'You make me sick.' These kinds of phrases sound very angry and accusatory. They also show that we're not in control. And after uttering them we generally feel worse about ourselves and our self-esteem plummets even more.

So just to recap, when criticizing:

use the word 'I', not the word 'you'
keep calm and do some deep breathing
use the ‘criticism sandwich’ technique
also always try to criticize a person's behavior rather than the person.

These tips are just as handy when it comes to standing up for yourself in other situations. And they're very useful when you want to be able to say 'no' without feeling guilty. Just keep calm and use the word 'I'.

Say: 'I won't be coming to that party with you.' Or: 'I'm afraid I won't be making tea at the cricket club on Saturday as I want to go shopping.' Or; 'I can't work late tonight, I'm sorry. But if necessary I'll happily stay tomorrow.'

People with poor self-esteem are always getting talked into doing things that they don't want to do. Does this sound like you? If so, it must stop if you want to value yourself more. So learning how to stay calm and just say 'no' is very important.

Further help

Assertiveness classes

In the UK there are assertiveness classes throughout the country. This is further proof - if any were needed - that many people feel they are lacking in self-esteem. To find out what's available in your area, ask at your local public library. They usually have details of all types of evening classes and further education classes including those in assertiveness. Failing that, your local Citizens' Advice Bureau may be able to help. Or the Further Education department of your local council should be able to give you information.

If you learn to be more assertive, you may still need some work or some help on feeling better about yourself, but at least you’ll have learned how to present yourself better – and that in itself will improve your self-regard.

Useful books

There are many books that can help you with issues of poor self-esteem. Here are just a few of them:

The confidence to be yourself by Dr Brian Roet, published by Piatkus.

Overcoming low self-esteem by Melanie Fennell, published by Robinson.

Get the self-esteem habit by Christine Webber, published by Hodder.

Mind Over Mood by Greenberger and Padesky, published by Guilford Press.

Life coaching – change your life in 7 days by Eileen Mulligan, published by Piatkus.

Confidence works by Gladeana McMahon, published by Sheldon.

Life coaching – a cognitive-behavioral approach by Michael Neenan and Windy Dryden, published by Brunner-Routledge.