I struggled with low self-esteem for most of my life. When I was young, most of the feedback I got from my mother was “You could do better”. If I got a ‘B’ on my report card I was told “You could do better”. It didn’t matter what household chore: dusting, washing dishes, cleaning my room. It was always “You could do better” followed by a series of corrections. Sometimes her reaction was “Can’t you do anything right?”
The meaning I gave to these events was that “I’m not good enough”, “I can never be good enough”, “I’m stupid”, “I’m incompetent”.
No wonder I had low self-esteem!
It took me years to realize that the negative meanings I gave things were wrong.
I could have as easily thought “There is no pleasing her, so don’t worry about it!”, “She’s just a sourpuss. I know I did good for my age.” or even “She’s not fair. She expects me to be able to do what my older brother and sister do. Someday I’ll be able to, but right now I’m too little.”
If I had adopted those meanings when I was young, my life could have been much different. I won’t go into it all, but suffice to say that with this new way of looking at things, I behave much differently. I know I am smart, capable and worthy. That mistakes are nothing to be afraid of. And I act accordingly.
Here’s a story that really illustrates this:
Carl and Cole were twins, so they grew up in the same environment. They had the same parents who treated them the same way. Poorly. But their lives took very different directions.
Their father was an alcoholic but was able to keep a succession of jobs long enough to keep them in a home. Their mother was a passive mouse of a woman who waited on their father.
Dad would often come home from work late and drunk. He would complain about life not being fair or never getting a break. He would complain about how his boss had it in for him. Sometimes when he was drunk, he hit their mother for stupid reasons like serving a dinner he didn’t like.
When dad wasn’t drunk, he would come home on time, ask the boys about their day, and plop himself on the couch and watch TV. Neither parent was involved in the boys lives much.
Cole watched his parents and thought, “My parents are lousy parents. I have to take care of myself. Alcohol really makes people crazy and sometimes dangerous.” Cole grew up to be a police officer with a house, a wife and three children that he always took time to play with and listen to. He developed good self-esteem.
When asked why he was this way, Cole said, “Given the way I grew up, I had to be this way.”
Carl watched the same scenes and thought, “Life is not fair. I’m not good enough for anyone to care about me. It’s no use to work hard; no one will give you a break anyway. When you are drunk, you can get away with just about anything.” He grew up to be an alcoholic and drug addict. He had low self-esteem.
When Carl was asked how he came to be this way, Carl said, “What else could I be with the childhood I had?”
In both cases, their self esteem and the direction of their lives was determined by the meaning they gave to events in their childhood. The events were the same, but the brothers created different meanings for those events.
Here are some other possible interpretations of those events:
- “Dad is a lazy, good-for-nothing drunk. If I stay away from alcohol and work hard, I can be somebody.”
- “My parents don’t care about me. I am worthless.”
- “My parents are worthless, but I’m going to make something of myself! You have to stick up for yourself; no one else will.”
- “My parents don’t know how to be good parents. I am better than they think.”
Re-create your life
If the events themselves had meaning, then there could only be one interpretation. Since the events had different interpretations by different people, the events themselves had no built-in meaning. The meaning is CREATED by each individual. The meaning Carl and Cole created for events in their childhood determined how they lived their lives.
They created the meaning. The meanings create beliefs. Beliefs gave direction to their lives. Therefore, they created their lives. We all do.
We each create our lives by the meanings we give to events in our lives. We all know people that habitually say “I can’t do it.” Or, “It can’t be done.” You might even be one of them! I was! That didn’t mean it was true then. I know, and feel, it is NOT true now. I can do so many things that I had once believed I could not do!
You see how an event can be either positive or negative depending on the meaning you give it? How it can affect your self-esteem? Is the glass half empty or half full? Is it a disaster or a learning experience?
You can improve your self-esteem and re-create your life by changing the meaning and beliefs about your past, present, and future life and yourself.
What kinds of meaning have you given to events in your life? How did that impact you? I’d like to know.
Photo by messycupcakes
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26 thoughts on “How to Improve Your Self-Esteem”
This is a great story. My dad often use the words “you don’t do anything right” often. But i’ve learnt not to allow those words get to me. What i learnt from this story is that LIFE IS WHAT WE PERCEIVE IT AS.
absolutely. this is spot on. life is so much about perception
Good for you for seeing the truth. Yes, Life is what we Perceive it as.
Thank you for such an encouraging article.
Sadly, innocent children develop poor self esteem at a very early age. •“My parents don’t care about me. I am worthless.” These ideas set in before they have enough self awareness to be in charge of their thoughts and the cycle repeats.
It takes a lot of work to turn a poor self esteem around. I hope that your article helps those that need it. Every life is precious and should be lived to it’s fullest.
Dan @ ZenPresence.com
Thank you for your kind words. I hope this article helps many others.
I am proof that even if low self esteem sets early in your life, it doesn’t have to remain that way. It can be totally turned around.
So very true that the interpretation we give to the messages we hear as children can impact us greatly. I am struggling to change. I have not as yet found a way to re-interpret those messages and struggle with little to no self-esteem, doubt, fear and depression. Hoping someday to feel worthy of love.
I hope this article helped you find those alternative messages.
I too suffered from depression. At one point, I contemplated suicide. It was a long hard climb up from there, but totally worth it.
Now I hope to help others shorten their climb.
Catch me on Facebook. http://www.facebook.com/ThoughtfulSelfImprovement
This article could be the spark that changes someone’s life. Will you share on facebook, on twitter, email to a friend. You + the internet have the power to change the world.
Dan @ ZenPresence.com
This article really hit close to home as I grew up with a severely alcoholic single mother. I am happy to report than I turned out more like a Cole but I do always wonder why I am not more of a Carl. I appreciate this article and it reminds me that this is your life! Be who you want to be!
I am so happy you are kept to the positive side.
Yes, It is YOUR life. We all should make it the best one possible.
I loved your simple and straight to the point approach, Natalie! I believe that schools and universities could do a lot to improve the sense of self-worth in young children and young adults by cultivating such thinking.
Thanks for writing this.
Thank you Nabila.
I think, if schools and universities would focus more on teaching children to think for themselves, instead of repeating facts, they would have a better chance at countering poor parenting.
Great article. Our ability to generalize can be positive or negative. When a child is told “you can do better” very often the child generalizes that to “I am not good enough”. Or if they fail one test that is often generalized to “I am a failure”. On top of that, what the thinker thinks, the prover proves. Once the child is saying those statements to themselves, they only notice stuff that proves what they are thinking – and they ignore everything else.
Once of the ways to improve self esteem is to keep your own “evidence list”. Every time you do something well, no matter how great or small it is, add it to your evidence list. Over time, as this list grows and grows and grows, it will become difficult to ignore the fact that you are more than good enough!
Thanks for sharing – and for the lovely story too.
Thank You Kerstin.
You are so right that we notice and explain things so that they validate our existing thoughts. It can create a nasty spiral. One that I got caught in.
I love your idea of an “evidence list”. It’s a simple way to create an empowering spiral. I’m sure it will help many others.
When I became an adult, my parents were baffled by my low self esteem. They had given me encouragement from time to time. But I focused on all the negative. Now I focus on the positive, period.
This is a great article. I always was treated with understanding by my parents. However, I had to earn my wishes through reading books, good behavior and so on.
I really hope many people will read your article, because it’s inspiring.
Thanks for your comment. I’m glad your parents treated you with understanding.
So true! I come from an abusive family, but I chose to rise above the abuse and make something of myself. We all make our own choices, and it saddens me to see people using a poor childhood as an excuse to give up.
I am happy for you. Congratulations on your choice. To see people use external excuses for their poor circumstances saddens me also. They don’t understand that it is up to them to choose differently.
Ah parents, who’d have them. You tale reminds me of a wonderful Philip Larkin poem, This Be The Verse that begins, “They fuck you up, your Mum and Dad.”
Well worth a look if you haven’t read it, particularly if you ae now a parent. Wonderful stuff!!!!
Thank you for commenting. That’s a good poem, but I disagree with the last line. Those that can teach their children about choosing their thoughts, need to have more children.
It’s not our parents that mess us up as much as our own interpretations that mess us up.
The secret to self esteem is two things: Surround yourself with positive people and always always always work on self growth. It’s a no fail solution. I read a sad but true article the other day about a woman who was complaining that her husband didn’t love her anymore. She got so worked up that it was because of her image so she started working out and losing weight (she only weighed 143). The husband told her to lose more. She kept losing weight but she mentioned she was still really upset inside. She believed he was cheating on her because he was a truck driver and gone months at a time. I felt bad for her. I told her she needs to lose the weight because SHE wants to lose it and feel better about herself. Forget what her husband wants. He doesn’t deserve her. I mentioned to her that if she just kept working on herself and doing what she wanted to do that she would see the world in a whole new light. Confidence does that to you. Anyway, great post!!!
Thanks for this article.Yes it’s really true that parents have a big role on molding our self esteem yet we can develop it by ourselves as we grow old.
Well Hello Natalie
This certainly is a great reminder to watch what we say to others, a flippant remark from us could as you say be taken in an unexpected manner which sends them into a destructive spiral.
Our perceptions of the world around us is based in part upon our own self worth which as you only too well know is easily damaged but can be repaired over time.
Great post. It’s how we interpret certain situations that build or destroy our self-esteem.
Wow, this is a perfect article!!
How perception can be different for 2 different people in the same situation.
End of the day, thinking positive is what helps in getting through the tougher times.
As said by ‘Dan @ Zen’, please do share this in social media for a wider audience, this article has the potential to change someone’s life.