How Do You Determine Your Self-Worth: Expressions of Self-Esteem

As a counselor, I hear many loud and soft voices of people as they describe and treat themselves and allow others to treat them.  Hence, I would like to start addressing underlying issues that affects our relationships and performances.

Self-esteem is commonly defined as the person’s overall evaluation of his or her own worth.  This encompasses the belief system which made him/her feel competent or incompetent; the emotional reaction pride or shame; and the behavior which is reflected on how one conducts himself/herself.

Some people try to determine their worth by their work, achievements or successes.   This has major flaw because it makes self-esteem contingent to one’s success.  If importance is given to individuals by the ratio of one success over failures, this implies inherent instability of self-worth because failure can occur at any moment.  Some would show their wealth and expect people to bow down for them and yet deep inside, they feel empty for wealth does not fill in one’s worth.  Same thing applies to gaining more education and power to determine self-worth.

Psychologist Alice Mary Hilton stated that how we view ourselves should not be dependent on external factors but on who we are.  \”A person\’s worth is contingent upon who he is, not upon what he does, or how much he has. The worth of a person, or a thing, or an idea, is in being, not in doing, not in having.\”

Many psychologists agree self-esteem is not an inborn factor rather it develops in earlier years of development process.  How parents raise their kids and the impressions they give to their children is imprinted in their kids’ lives and that will later be translated in how the kids value themselves as inferior or superior.   Alfred Adler, European psychiatrist, wrote that everyone has feelings of inferiority. Sometimes these feelings stimulate us to healthy actions and achievements, but inferiority feelings can also be overwhelming that they cause us to withdraw from others and develop what Adler called an “Inferiority Complex.”

People who feel inadequate and inferior tend to compare themselves unfavorably to others.  Such comparisons can lead to a lot of human misery and feelings of inadequacy.  Some suggest that we can overcome these feelings by developing a positive and healthy self-esteem. Family Therapist, Virginia Satir writes, “The crucial factor in what happens both inside people and between people is the picture of individual worth that each person carries around with him.”

Real feelings of inferiority comes when parents repeatedly: criticize, shame, reject, scold, set unrealistic standards and goals; express the expectations that the child probably will fail; punish repeatedly and harshly; imply that children are a nuisance, stupid or incompetent or when they overprotect or dominate children so they fail later when forced to be on their own. Insults and belittling comments told in the growing up process can affect how we view ourselves, the way we appear to others, or the artificial lifestyles we build, how we hide from others behind the façade and the way we conduct our lives.

In addition to the parent child relationship, causes of inferiority and low self-esteem include: past experiences of failures, wrong doing and guilt, unrealistic expectations, faulty thinking, and unmet self and community standards.

Low self-esteem can have a wide influence.  Everybody feels inferior at times, but when these feelings are intense and long-lasting, virtually all human actions, feelings, attitudes, thoughts and values are affected.  Effects of inferiority and low self-esteem may result in some feeling isolated and unlovable; too week to overcome their deficiencies and lack the drive/motivation to defend themselves; have difficulty getting along with others; be submissive, dependent and so sensitive that their feelings are hurt easily. Some have lower curiosity or creativity others are less inclined to disclose themselves to others.  Lowered self-esteem and inferiority also may contribute to a lack of inner peace and security; low self-confidence; social withdrawal; jealousy and criticisms of others, interpersonal conflict, self-criticism, self-hatred and self-rejection and depression.

The other extreme is to have a strong drive to gain power, superiority or control over others, a tendency to be complaining, argumentative, intolerant, hypersensitive, unforgiving; inability to accept complements or expressions of love and an inclination to be a poor listener. Having arrogant, haughty estimation of oneself in relation to others arise from trying to fill in one’s emptiness.  Superiority complex may also refer to the unrealistic and exaggerated belief that one is better than others. In some people, this develops as a way to compensate for unconscious feelings of low self-esteem or inadequacy. For example, bullies who push other children around act like they are stronger and smarter than others their age. Sometimes, the reality is that they simply have low self-esteem and bully others in order to compensate for their perceived lack of self-worth.  Some bosses may put on a tough facade and try to make others think well of them, but inside they feel inadequate and do not respect themselves.  Therefore, those exhibiting the superiority complex may project their feelings of inferiority onto others whom they perceive as lesser ones, possibly for the same reasons for which they themselves may have been ostracized.  Husbands who use their financial, physical, or educational power to dominate their wives usually suffer from low self-esteem and they use force to compensate for their low self-esteem.  Some ladies over decorate themselves and be seen as all together to fill in the low self-esteem.  Hence, low self-esteem has different manifestations for different people.

Feelings of inferiority build up over many years.  Dealing with this does not bring about change immediately, but over a period of time.  As a counselor, I can easily pick that up in the underlying messages people convey and help in assuring clients as they seek to develop understanding of the roots of those behaviors and encourage that people who have low self-esteem do not need to be prisoners of their past, rather they can change as they understand the root causes and deal with them.

Proper self-love and respect is essential in order to extend that to others.  This does not equate with the attitude of superiority, stubborn self-will or self-centered pride; nor is it an ecstatic self-adoration.  It is the way to see and accept ourselves the way we are.  It is not selfishness.

Many people suffer from inferiority complex just because they would never measure up to the parents’ standards or that of the societies.  We spare ourselves from dealing with many people who live in a self-made façade world, constantly need to prove themselves or try to feel their emptiness by lofty gains if we give value for people just because of who they are – unconditional acceptance of self and others.  Our self-worth does not depend on our achievements or lack of it.  If we start valuing ourselves because we are created worthy, that is the beginning point to respect others worth, rights and differences.

I want to encourage especially women to see their worth in their womanhood, and then stretch to build their self-esteem by living for what they believe in.  Do not be entangled in finding your worth in relationships, educational achievements, material wealth, and power over others.  Your worth is in who you are as a person.  You are worthy to live, to be who you are, to achieve what you want to, to stretch yourself to discover your potential and to contribute to the wel lbeing of others.  However, those things would not determine your worth; for you are more valuable than your achievement or lack of it.

My Conclusion is that the origin of self-esteem is home.  This gives great responsibility to parents and guardians in taking precaution not to end up giving unintended messages to their kids which is persistent through adulthood.  Do we value children so that they value themselves, not because of what they might do but because of who they are?

My challenge for each individual is to examine the underlying reasons for how you regard yourself.  This affects every aspect of your behavior, your ability to learn, your capacity to grow and change; the way you relate with others and the way you present and conduct yourself.

In the next issue, I will write on the different psychological defense mechanisms people use to protect their “ego/self.”