Self Esteem – 2013

Fran Miller, Ph.D. ©

One of the most fundamental aspects of working on our psychological well being is taking time to work on self esteem.  Heinz Kohut, a self psychology theorist, described the importance of developing a clear and strong sense of self.  It’s important to think about what it means to have a clear sense of self and a strong sense of self.  To have a clear sense of self means to know:  Who am I?  What is important to me?  What do I value?  What are my skills?  My weaknesses?  How do I want to develop myself?  What are my goals?  To have a strong sense of self means to feel good about that clarity of who you are.  To feel that you have made progress.  That you know your strengths.  That you know where you’re going.

I work on self esteem with almost all the clients who come into therapy.  I think of it like a pre-requisite course.  It’s important to work on self esteem, and the reasons that self esteem might be low, before going on to other topics in therapy.  The reasons that self esteem is often low are complex, but I think what I call “specific/explicit validation” helps to explain it.  First of all, let’s think about a continuum of types of parenting.  On the negative side, parents may be abusive, they may be judgmental and critical, or they may be just, sort of, neutral.  On the positive side parents may be generally positive by giving reinforcement that is non-specific, like:  “That was a good job.”  Or “You did well on your grades this time.”  Many parents fall into this category, giving general feedback that is mildly positive.  I’ve learned that the most valuable kind of reinforcement and validation is when parents use specific and explicit descriptors like, “Wow, you are very creative with your drawing.”  “You definitely have a special math ability.”  “You’ve had mechanical skills ever since you were very little.”  “You are very sensitive and caring with animals.”  Daniel Stern, who has written about child development, describes how the strength of a personality comes through the hundreds of interactions between parent and child that take place every day.  You can see that if parents are providing many specific and explicit reinforcements every day, that children will grow up with crucial information about who they are and what their capabilities are.

Many people find that they are aware of their own need for reinforcement and validation, and look for it or try to obtain it from interactions throughout each day.  However, if you had grown up with specific and explicit validation, you would feel secure in your self.  I tell my clients its like being a camel.  Camels can go for long distances without water, and they are fine until they get to the next oasis or watering hole.  We need to be able to go for some time between reinforcements and still feel strong and secure within ourselves.  If we have a strong foundation of self,  then validations will not be something needed and longed for, but something special to contribute to our knowledge about ourselves and our self esteem.

How do we develop self esteem?  There are actually many books on self esteem, but the one I recommend in therapy is “Self Esteem” by McKay and Fanning.  They also have a self esteem workbook that is very helpful.  I like to combine reading and work in therapy which helps the client to think about the various aspects of self esteem along with a place to work on them.  It’s often important to spend time reviewing your history, relationships with your parents and siblings, and experiences in grade school, high school, and college that have shaped your perception of yourself.  Past relationships also have a very large effect on self esteem.  It’s also important to look at unique life events, losses, or traumas.  In addition, our personality characteristics and character traits effect self esteem.  

One exercise that we often work on in therapy is to list “Eight Categories of Negative Characteristics” and “Eight Categories of Positive Characteristics”.  This is something that I encourage clients to work on over a long period of time.  The list of negative characteristics helps us to see the things that we have improved on, or that we want to work on in the future.   Working on the positive characteristics helps us to be aware of how many positive qualities we have, and to see which ones we want to especially focus on or develop further.  The exercise gets us in touch with all of the characteristics that make up our selves, and helps us to see the balance and wholeness of who we are.  

One technique that is emphasized currently in psychological work on self esteem is cognitive restructuring.  A pattern that is pervasive with low self esteem is negative and self critical thinking.  With cognitive restructuring, we can work on challenging your automatic negative thoughts and reframing or translating them into realistic and positive ones.  This is an effort that you can work on over a long period of time, but after such an effort, it can really be the case that you no longer have automatic negative thoughts, but rather that your thinking is accurate and realistic.  As you really get to know yourself, your thoughts will reflect the person that you really are.  

While we are working on building a clear and strong sense of who you are, we can also tackle other issues and topics in therapy.  But once you have accomplished a clear and strong sense of self, then you will have a secure and positive foundation, and you will be able to go forward in your life with security, confidence, and assurance.  These are qualities to appreciate and enjoy, and are worth spending the necessary time to accomplish. 

As I have quoted at the top of my website, Robert Aitken, a Zen Master and my own previous Zen teacher, has written:  

“When you reflect on the infinite number of happenstances that coalesced to produce you, then you realize how unique, how precious, how sacred you really are.  Your task is to cultivate that precious, sacred nature, and help it to flower.”

He didn’t say, “one of your tasks”.  He said, “Your task”.  This is your first, primary, and most important task. I look forward to working with you on developing that precious, sacred nature, and helping it to flower.