Self-Esteem: How to Overcome Negative Behaviors & Learn to love yourself. Self-Esteem starts with self-compassion and loving yourself first.
Some time ago I was behind a car with a bumper sticker that read, “God, help me to be the kind of person that my dog thinks that I am.” I laughed to myself and thought, “Good thing I have a cat because she has low standards.”
As funny as the bumper sticker was, I couldn’t get its meaning out of my head. As I continued on my drive, my thoughts jumped around like a Chihuahua let off its leash at a dog park. I began to wonder, “What is self-esteem, where does it come from and why do I have so little of it?” Now, I haven’t always been the masterpiece of self-assuredness and mental health that you see before you today. In fact, low self-esteem and self-sabotaging behaviors are two things I’ve struggled with the majority of my life.
In the past, it seemed logical that the solution was to increase my self-esteem. After all, if I felt better about myself, I would treat myself better. But the more I tried to improve my self-esteem the lower it became. The result was a vicious cycle of falling short of my high expectations leading into more self-sabotaging behaviors. It was like what Albert Einstein said: “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” I realize now that how I tried to build up my self-esteem was flawed:
- My self-esteem has come from comparisons: A bad habit I have is using, “What do they have that I don’t” as a measuring stick for my success. This compulsion only serves to create feelings of envy and discouragement within myself. Keeping up with the Joneses is futile because someone will always be more successful, more in shape, better looking, with more money, who lives in a nicer house and drives a nicer car than I, and I end up on the short end of the stick.
- My self-esteem is contingent on my bank account: I’ve noticed a trend that my self-esteem fluctuates based on the number of zeros in my accounts. When the balance is high, I feel excited and happy. Perhaps it has to do with feeling secure, but it’s likely linked to the ability to shop. It’s funny how a little purchase on Amazon can boost my self-esteem in the short term. However, It’s also lead me down the path of selfish indulgences that morph into to debt, overdrafts and poor credit scores. My most self-destructive behaviors tend to follow saying, “Screw it! I deserve this.”
- I have viewed life as a zero-sum game: I’m either a winner or a loser. When I win, I feel fantastic. I want more of the elation that goes along with winning. Losing sucks. If I feel I’m losing at life, I go dark. These highs and lows placed me on a rollercoaster ride that climbed and dipped based on my internal scorecard of wins vs. losses.
- My self-esteem is dependent on external validations: It might be easier for me to get a tee shirt that reads, “Am I OK? Please tell me you like me, ” but I don’t know what I would do on laundry day. Needing validation from others leaves me feeling good for a moment but then empty because I feel needy. The problem is that when I give others the power to validate me, I inadvertently provide them with the power to invalidate me.
That silly bumper sticker helped me have a paradigm shift. I thought, “Maybe it’s not that I need to increase my self-esteem. Maybe it’s that I need to improve my self-compassion.” This lead to a reversal in my thinking: as I broke it down I discovered that the focus of building self-esteem seems to say “How I feel about myself affects how I treat myself,” whereas self-compassion promotes, “How I treat myself affects how I feel about myself.”
As I changed courses towards self-compassion, I could clearly see that I often treat other people better than I treat myself. For example, I quickly offer kindness, respect, encouragement, compassion and grace to everyone else but withhold these gifts from myself. Instead, I beat myself up for mistakes, say things to myself that I would never say to another human, disrespect my body by putting junk into it, and discourage myself with negative thinking. By practicing self-compassion I noticed some significant changes in my thinking that began to affect my behaviors and feelings towards myself:
- It’s ok to put my needs first: My fear is that if I put my needs first, I will become a selfish jerk that no one wants to be around. The irony is that the most selfish thing I can do is to put my needs last because like my friend from Texas used to say, “You can’t give what you ain’t got.” When I put my needs last, I don’t have the resources to be kind, loving and generous. Ultimately, I cannot extend compassion unless I first have it in abundance for myself.
- My focus has changed from “what” to “who”: When I focus on the “what I want to be” my status is based on external validations that can disappear in an instant. Companies go out of business, people get fired, relationships break up, and life happens. However, nothing can ever take away “who” I am; I’m compassionate, loving, generous, kind, courageous and virtuous. These are internal motivators that endure when the chips are down. As my favorite psychologist Viktor Frankl said: “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
- I care less about what people think: I genuinely care for people. However, I’m far less concerned with their opinions of me. For one thing, I discovered that the greatest threat to my destiny is the fear of what others may think. Self-compassion doesn’t fluctuate with opinions because it is a commitment to the action of caring for one’s self regardless of outside judgments.
- I’ve noticed I’m taking good care of myself: Being a therapist is an emotionally draining profession. At the same time, like many of us in the helping professions, I tend to be horrible at self-care. Perhaps this comes from feeling undeserving of good things in my life. I’ve certainly self-sabotaged everything from relationships to my health. But this new perspective has changed the way I eat, the way I sleep, and the way I communicate my needs with others.
These small shifts in thinking have paid off in unexpected dividends. I still struggle from time to time and fall back into old thinking patterns. But now I have a tool to help me get out the hole of self-pity. If I am feeling depressed, I give myself permission to be kind to myself. By giving myself the gift of self-compassion, I spend less time in the dark places that lead to self-destructive behaviors.
Ultimately, it comes down to what the Buddha taught when He said, “You can search throughout the entire universe for someone who is more deserving of your love and affection than you are yourself, and that person is not to be found anywhere. You yourself, as much as anybody in the entire universe deserve your love and affection.” When I practice loving myself through acts of compassion something wonderful happens; I end up being the kind of man my dog thinks that I am. Now, if I only my wife would let me get a dog.
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