We all have a self-concept that is mostly shaped by our perception of how others think of us. This is the “mirroring” that teaches us in early life how to view ourselves and the world. Over-protective parents can make us fearful of life, while strict, shouting parents can make us feel confused and unsure of their consistency and love. Abusive caregivers can cause us to feel worthless, or to pursue similar relationships in hopes of “getting it right this time,” or because they are familiar.
On the other hand, supportive behaviors that give us a realistic view of ourselves and our place in the world can foster healthy self-images and good self-esteem, affecting our feelings about our own stories — the Legends that we write about ourselves in our own heads.
Three Core Beliefs That Define Good Self Esteem
But what is this “good self-esteem” that everyone talks about? Most experts agree that it is based on three core beliefs that we have about ourselves:
- That we are competent, able to complete tasks satisfactorily
- That we belong, feel wanted and needed by others
- A sense of worth: a feeling of being a worthwhile person that is based on how others treat us, and the things they say to and about us
The Importance of Self Compassion
In addition to the above, we need Self Compassion. We need to understand that even Olympic gold medalists are imperfect most of the time, and that sooner or later someone will come along who can do it better. We need to accept that perfection simply doesn’t exist, and that it is ridiculous to expect it of ourselves or for others to expect it of us.
Self compassion is powerful because it isn’t judgemental. Since it doesn’t label us as poor performers — inadequate people in whatever ways — it allows us to look at mistakes and recognize ways that we can improve the next time. We can get a realistic look at our mistakes, at the things we have done right, and how to focus our abilities to do better.
The Effects of Negative Thinking on Self Esteem
When we are thinking only about the negative Legend, the “old tapes” based on the messages of others, we can’t really bear to look at ourselves honestly because it would mean that we are weak, have shortcomings, and that the Legend is right. We can’t admit that there is room for improvement, because it’s too painful to admit, even to ourselves, that we did something “wrong”.
If we can learn to think of our actions as “skillful” and “unskillful”, we leave room for improvement. No one can be totally skillful, knowing how to do everything right the first time; we all need practice, guidance and experience. Self-compassion is about realizing that we are human, that there is no such thing as a perfect human, and that we can turn unskillful things into more skilled accomplishments the next time, whether they be at work, at play, or in our relationships.
We don’t have to live out the false Legend in our head. We can re-write it, and we can start any time by recognizing and saying “No!” to all those false stories we’ve been telling ourselves.