Self-esteem: taking the plunge

PHOTO Reuters, Brian Snyder

May 28, 2012, Monday/ 18:01:00

Gaining self-esteem requires action. Reading about it will not make it happen, just as reading a recipe will not fill your stomach or bring nutrients to your body.

However, if you choose to do the necessary work -- which requires diligence and discipline -- you might find yourself a little overwhelmed at the immensity of the task. Take a deep breath. Gaining high, healthy self-esteem is a life-long endeavor; you won’t do it overnight.

Some general guidelines

There are a few things you should keep in mind when you are exploring your inner world:

1. You do not lack self-esteem in all areas of your life. Spend a little time working on where you are losing energy and then spend some time in an area that you excel in. If you work solely on targeting your deficits, it could be overwhelming and could spin you into a cycle of depression, which is hard to get out of and generally comes with destructive behavior. Make a list of things you would like to change in your life (some examples might be: I want to be thinner, I want to be able to speak up for myself, I want to be fit) and make a list of areas in your life where your self-esteem is strong (I’m good with people, I’m an excellent teacher, I am a great motivator, for example). Do one thing every day to target your deficits, but don’t dwell on them.

2. It’s not all about you. When you tackle such a large subject, you have to think not only about yourself and becoming stronger, but about how you affect other people as well. Did you know that you can make or break a person’s spirit with just one sentence? If you see somebody having a bad day and you go up to that person and say, “You look nice today,” that could keep them going for the rest of the day. However, if you say something insulting or negative, it could gut them for years. Having self-esteem means being aware of how you use your speech and actions not only in relation to yourself, but to other people as well.

3. Start small, but be consistent. In the words of William James, “Suffer not one exception.” If you tell yourself that you are going to exercise every day, even for a short time, then keep your word to yourself -- no more excuses.

As I have mentioned, you won’t gain inner strength all at once -- choose one aspect of your life that needs a jump-start and plan (and take) actions that will help you succeed. As you are reading this article, think of one thing that you would like to change by the end of the day. What have you been mulling over in your head? Have you thought about starting an exercise program or losing weight or changing an aspect of your personality? Frankly, it doesn’t matter what it is; what matters is that you start working on it immediately. All you need to do is one thing that will bring you a step closer to your goal. After all, a journey of a thousand miles begins with one step. You will be amazed at how taking just one small action toward your goal can change your outlook and boost your sense of self.

4. Self-esteem is not arrogance. Developing yourself is a paradox. We think it means that we can say what we want and do what we want and if somebody comes up against us, we can squash them with our strong selves. However, the more self-esteem you have, the higher the standards you will hold yourself accountable to. If you recognize that violence or negativity begets violence, your choices become more limited and -- again, here’s the paradox -- more principled.

It’s not just about you

One aspect of self-esteem is that we all need to feel that we are better than at least one person. On a philosophical level, it’s great to say, “We are all one” (in fact, I wrote an article about that very subject last February), but the reality is that we will often seek to balance our areas of low self-esteem by treating another badly in order to feel powerful. Becoming conscious of how you use your self-esteem requires you to take notice not only of how you are victimized in life, but also how you victimize others.

As you begin to work on strengthening your self-regard, and as you gain a higher sense of inner worth, you need to recognize that you don’t always have to let other people know how you feel, especially if you realize that letting them know will make your relationship worse. You will be strong enough to play by a higher set of rules.

So that begs the question: What are the rules? The fact is, we know the rules: Treat everybody (including ourselves) with respect, don’t lie to or cheat another, maintain integrity, don’t kill, don’t steal, do no harm (to ourselves or others) -- this is just to name a few of the basic universal tenets. The hard part is living by those rules. Healthy self-esteem gives you the ability to draw a line that allows you to assert that no matter what happens, you will not hurt yourself or another. You have the strength to say to yourself, “I will not sell my soul to the highest bidder, but rather I will stand strong and play fair in this game we call life regardless of what is happening in my world.”

Note your patterns

As you become more aware of your thoughts and actions, and more specifically what is driving them, note the patterns. If you hear phrases like “This always happens to me,” you are on to something. If you always attract romantic partners who end up driving you nuts with their jealousy, that could be a strong lesson for you. Take the other person out of the picture. Ask yourself: “What in me is attracting this quality of person into my life? Never mind that other person; what’s wrong with me?” Review your previous relationships and explore the jealousy as deeply as possible. Find out what sets you off. Explore the feelings that come up and follow them. Do you feel fear? Fear of what? Anger? Anger at whom? Keep digging deeper and deeper until you get to the root of the issue.

When you take the time to explore the world behind your eyes and actually deal with your problems, you will gain a strong sense of self. When you have a strong sense of self, life doesn’t knock you around as much. Life will still happen -- you’ll have good days and bad days. But with the strength you gain, you can take the grayest days and the best days on an equal footing and they won’t throw you off balance.

In Turkey, the cultural mores expect you to react dramatically to the twists and turns of life -- it is considered normal to be manically happy in good times and suicidal in bad ones. When you approach life on an even keel, folks don’t get that. I remember when I was working for an American company writing copy for some websites they were developing. Gradually, over the period of a few months, they stopped paying me. In the end, they stole $4,000 from me and hundreds of hours of my time. While I wasn’t happy with the situation and I tried to get them to do the right thing, it was clear that they had no intention of honoring their word.

My friends were incensed. The main theme of their angry rants was: “Take revenge!” They couldn’t understand why I wasn’t as angry as they were. I pointed out to them that jumping up and down like a monkey and ranting and raving would only harm me. It wouldn’t make that company grow a conscience, but it could give me hypertension and other stress-related diseases, and that company just wasn’t worth losing my health over.

I had to concentrate on finding work and getting my kid’s tuition paid. This made me focus on how I could better my situation and it led to me starting my own business. Owning my own business became the proverbial blessing in disguise.

I realized fairly quickly that I had to stop sharing that story with my Turkish friends because they either became extremely upset -- thereby harming their health -- or they looked at me like I was nuts because I couldn’t see the point in the drama. Although my friends can see that life clearly got better for me when I set out on my own, they still think I’m a little too Pollyannaish for my own good.

When you gain self-esteem in an area that you’ve been working on, you will feel it physically. A rush of power comes in that makes you stand up straighter and face life with strength. It is a great feeling. It allows you to assert your beliefs and ideas firmly, but not aggressively. The feeling is hard to describe -- the best I can come up with is that it feels like a thick, protective shield that bolsters your confidence, making you feel strong and assured.

As you can see, gaining self-esteem is a full-time job. It takes a lot of work and discipline, but if you roll up your sleeves and dive in, it is worth every effort.