by University of Cambridge Counselling Service
Self-esteem is an opinion not a fact
The way we view and feel about ourselves has a profound effect on how we live our lives. These opinions are shaped by experiences in the family, at school, from friendships and in wider society. Self-esteem involves our ability to think, to deal with life and to be happy.
From infancy we look for encouragement and approval. Yet our culture does not readily give this. Parents can be tough taskmasters in seeking the best for their children, as many of you may know. Young people have a tendency to be intolerant of difference and often mock their peers who are clever or hard working. The educational system with its emphasis on league tables implicitly demands more and more and leaves less scope for valuing improvement. There is a constant bombardment of messages telling us we should be young, slim, beautiful, fashionably dressed, have a lover and money to spend. Personal acknowledgement of ability and pride in oneself can be regarded as being arrogant, boastful, or conceited.
Rejection or loss at any age is likely to undermine self-esteem. Events like parents separating, a boy or girlfriend being unfaithful, being ostracised by friends or picked on by peers, dealing with an unsuccessful application, having an accident, a burglary, or coping with a death are likely to provoke feelings of loss and threat. For some this is temporary, while for others the effects are long-lasting.
Conversely, success is a great ego booster, and academic achievement can be an obvious signal of success. However, the wealth of talent and competitive environment of Cambridge can easily lead to self-doubt and insecurity. There is a lot of pressure on students to do well for the sake of family, College, and the University. You may even feel that other people over-estimate your ability and this burden of expectation can lead to a sense of failure and impossibility.
However, what we feel about ourselves is not based solely on what we do. It usually involves our relationships with others and whether we feel worthwhile as people. We have a basic human need to be wanted, noticed, and included. We want to contribute, to be of value, and make a difference – in other words to matter.
Our self-esteem will continually fluctuate and is affected by events and encounters with other people. We are also constantly judging and evaluating ourselves, often in comparison with others. Observing ourselves in relation to other people can be a helpful source of learning and feedback. Yet all too often comparison slips into competition and others become a yardstick by which we evaluate ourselves as good or bad, competent or inadequate.
The reality is we are all different. Each of us has strengths and limitations which we need to learn about and learn to live with. There are aspects of our behaviour and appearance we may seek to change or develop, but a sense of self is also based on self-awareness and self-acceptance.
Suggestions for increasing self-esteem
Change is not easy. It means stepping into the unknown and taking a risk. Inevitably this means that some initiatives will work well while others don’t work out as you hoped. You can help yourself by being realistic in your choices and seeing each success as a step in the right direction.
Remember that small changes add up. Call on other people to help you by being encouraging, taking an interest, giving feedback, and making suggestions.
Do things for pleasure, for fun
- Think about ways you enjoy yourself. Put effort into making life pleasurable and satisfying. Arrange to be in situations which are playful and make you laugh.
- Learn something new. Maybe something you have always wanted to try, even something you never thought you could do. If you are stuck for ideas look on notice boards and in local publications, observe or ask other people, think about what you have enjoyed in the past.
Look after yourself physically
- Eating regularly, thinking about the sort of food you eat, and making sure you try to get the amount of sleep you need.
- Exercise and toning muscles can give confidence and help you to feel good about your body. Pay attention to how you stand and walk. Think tall.
- Pay more attention to your appearance. Pamper yourself. Choose a new hairstyle or colour in clothing. Buy a magazine which gives advice on personal presentation.
Use rewards, but avoid punishments
- Reward yourself in other ways. What about giving yourself one day off from work a week? Buy yourself a little treat. Do something you particularly enjoy but don’t often get round to.
- We do not like other people saying nasty things about us so why say them to yourself? Listen to how you treat yourself – the internal conversation. Low self-esteem makes it difficult to identify strong points but it does not mean you do not have them – only that they are unfamiliar to you.
- Avoid as much as possible situations and people that leave you feeling bad about yourself and spend more time concentrating on experiences which are likely to be successful and rewarding.
Cultivate good relationships – with yourself and others
- Can you bear to be ordinary? Are you continually expecting more of yourself than you do of others? If you accept the troubles, mistakes and variability of other people, how about being happy with “good enough” in relation to yourself?
- Involve others. Ask for support, feed-back, affection. Be prepared to say you don’t know. Talk about yourself. Do not pretend or hide. Take care not to push other people away through being negative about yourself.
- Join in with others. Do not assume you are not important; other people have an effect on you and you affect them. Most people are interested in making new friends, and friendships can begin at any time in life. Say hello; do not wait for other people to come to you. Smile. Be nice to others, volunteer, be helpful, pay compliments.
- It is no good waiting for others or circumstances to leave us feeling better about ourselves. So accept responsibility for your own actions: as we cannot make other people change, we need to make the changes ourselves.
If you get stuck or find it impossible to know where to start with these suggestions, maybe you can talk it through with a friend or family member, or someone else you trust. Some of the other leaflets in this series, or the self-help books listed on the Counselling Service website (www.counselling.cam.ac.uk/booklist.html), or materials in our Resources Room may be useful. You are also welcome to talk this over with one of our counsellors.http://www.counselling.cam.ac.uk/selfhelp/leaflets