January 31, 2007



Self-esteem is the mental picture we have of ourselves. It is our very own self-assessment. Ideally, for adults, our sense of self-worth is based on what we accept to think and feel about ourselves as opposed to accepting what others think and feel about us. In other words, our happiness is an inside job and dependent soley on us. Each of us decides how to develop our self-esteem, and this is more rational than having others develop it for us. How is our mental picture, which reflects our self-esteem, developed? Is our mental picture positive and realistic? Does our mental picture limit us in any way?

Our personal mental picture begins to develop in childhood between the ages of six and twelve. This is the time when children work hard to master the skills it takes to do well in school and to get along with others. Supportive parents and teachers help foster a child's sense of competence over these skills. Successfully mastering these skills as a child brings about feelings of industry. On the other hand, failure to master these skills as a child can lead to feelings of inferiority. If we did not learn how to be industrious as a child, take heart; we can learn these skills as an adult. The same holds true for learning people-skills (the ability to manage interpersonal relationships). Some of the skills needed to excel in school include: a) Setting goals, b) Learning how to delay gratification (it takes an entire semester to earn a grade for one class), c) Being able to overcome obstacles, d) Time management, e) Acquiring effective study habits, f) The three R's: Reading, Writing and Arithmetic, g) Developing friendships. The list goes on.

To a child, school is his/her job. It is the vehicle a child drives to develop a sense of industry. There are other ways to accomplish a sense of industry. Taking up sports or engaging in a hobby are effective as well; any task that challenges us to feel useful and productive. It is important to choose an activity that we "love" to do. Of course, the need for achievement is a higher level need and more easily attained after having met lower level survival needs like food, shelter and security.

If we want to develop a positive self-esteem, it is essential that we find something to do that helps us feel special about ourselves. Traditionally, men use their jobs as a way to foster their self-esteem. Many men define who they are by the jobs they decide to work. Likewise, historically, women choose to get married as a way to bolster their self-esteem. (Yes, marriage is a lot of work, but there's nothing like it!).

Thus far, I have mentioned how "achievement" engineers a sense of industry, which has the positive effect of raising our self-esteem. This is called using an "external locus of control" to produce a positive personal mental picture. There is also an "internal locus of control" we can use to increase our self-esteem. This, too, is a skill and can be learned as an adult if we did not learn it as a child.

Many of us base our self-esteem entirely on our accomplishments or "external" factors. "I would be a good person if I could earn "x" number of dollars, live in a big house with a white picket fence, have 2.3 kids and a dog." "I will be happy and satisfied with myself if I can find my ideal job!" This type of thinking sets us up to possibly fail because it may be unrealistic. While it is important to "reach for the stars", it's also imperative to "keep one foot on the ground." The amateur athlete who has a passion for golf might expect to one day turn professional. If that doesn't happen, the frustrated athlete needs to reassess his/her goal and resort to plan "B". This may mean being happy with owning a Pro-Golf shop. It is always dangerous to base our self-esteem entirely on what we achieve in life. We also need to base our self-esteem on what we think and believe about ourselves. Which thoughts do we want to accept, and which ones do we want to reject? In a perfect world, the educational process (school) gives us a head start by teaching us how to use our brains to think in a rational manner. Additionally, as children, in a perfect world, we had parents or other adult role models, who taught us how to think rationally by setting an example. If not, it's time to learn this skill rather than blame them. With any parental behavior short of abuse or neglect, I believe parents do the best they can with what they know when it comes to rearing their children. We are now ready to enter the world of our "INTERNAL LOCUS OF CONTROL".

The power of the human mind is awesome! We have yet to figure out how to tap its full potential, even though human civilization has existed for approximately five thousand years. A cynical mind thinks we will never realize our cognitive potential if after five thousand years we have only learned to use ten to fifteen percent of it. An optimist thinks our mental abilities are comprised of strengths and limitations. He/she knows there is always room for improvement. How we use our minds to develop our self-esteem is crucial to our successes, failures and survival.

Our self-esteem is the basis by which we relate to the rest of the world. It is at the core of all of our behaviors. If we believe we are shy, then we will act shy. If our mental picture supports a self-image that reflects an assertive person, we will either act assertively or learn the skills to act that way. Unsuccessful attempts at realizing our goals could tempt us to be unreasonably harsh with ourselves. This could lead to feelings of hopelessness and self-pity. This is damaging to our mental picture. It is a fact that we all experience successes and failures. Our self-esteem is partially measured by how we handle our successes and failures. Someone with a healthy self-esteem has learned how to cope with the good, the bad and the ugly.

America is a land filled with countless stories from people who have developed a positive self-esteem, despite all odds. America's strength is also her weakness. America is a melting pot of many different ethnic groups. Each group adds a new ingredient to the pot. This is America's strength. More often than not, people have moved away from oppressive circumstances in their homeland to look for opportunity, freedom and a livelihood in America. Unfortunately, the oppression takes on a different form once situated in America. This is America's weakness. Fortunately, the oppression can be overcome. How is this accomplished? Self-esteem!

Americans of Italian descent were faced with much oppression soon after the mass migration of Italians took place. Immigrant Italians were referred to as "aliens" and were subjected to police raids of their homes. Americans of Polish descent were faced with job discrimination as recent as the 1930's. Many couldn't find work. Employers wouldn't hire them because of their Polish descent. Americans of Western African descent are sometimes still being treated poorly today. My American History teacher at Oakland University believes all ethnic groups who recently mass migrate to America experience similar oppression. The mass migration of immigrant Western Africans occurred in the 1920's. This oppressive treatment towards new ethnic groups in our country ought not be viewed as a "rite of passage" nor should it be accepted by anybody who wants to be treated with dignity and respect, which includes all of us. However, there are many examples of people who have learned to overcome barriers to live productive lives.

It is up to each of us to work on increasing our self-esteem to help ward-off oppression, criticism, negativity and anything else that is an obstacle to achieving our hopes and dreams. Yes, negativity has a way of agitating our minds if that is our perspective. Looking for ways to build a healthy self-esteem is the anti-dote.

Achievement is one way of raising our self-esteem. Learning mental skills like positive self-talk, affirmations, thought stopping, reframing negative thoughts, relaxation skills and mental imagery is the other part of the solution.

POSITIVE SELF-TALK: Our inner dialogue speaks volumes of how we perceive ourselves. Motivation expert, Zig Ziglar, said, "Positive thinking won't get us everything, but it will get us anything better than negative thinking."

AFFIRMATIONS: Validating ourselves each day in an active and positive way helps to program our sub-conscious mind for success. "YES, I CAN!"

THOUGHT STOPPING: Thoughts of which we become aware and do not want to experience can be stopped. Intrusive negative thoughts are halted by saying to ourselves, "STOP" or "CANCEL".

REFRAMING NEGATIVE THOUGHTS: Rather than thinking, "I can't do this", it is more fruitful to think, "Yes, this is a challenge, and I am learning what to do to be a more positive person!"

RELAXATION SKILLS: Deep breathing, progressive muscular and mental imagery techniques have a profound way of keeping us calm, focused and goal-oriented.

MENTAL IMAGERY: Visualizing successful achievement of our goals is a powerful skill! What is our vision of ourselves?

* Eleanor Roosevelt said, "No one can make us feel inferior without our consent."

* Our mental picture: We are what we think we are, for better or for worse.

Written by,
Mark S. Rogers, LPC.
Licensed Professional Counselor.

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