In a culture where having good self-esteem is equated with feeling happy, insecurities abound. A stable self-valuation can’t be based on anyone feeling— a spontaneous occurrence that is always subject to change. But secure, positive self-esteem can be rooted in a commitment to work toward accepting all of our feelings as valid—whether pleasant or painful.
We all aspire to be happy. The pursuit of happiness is an inalienable right, one that’s even written into the Declaration of Independence. And yet, when we dismiss our painful feelings and privilege happiness, we might be swapping our long-term sense of stability for a short-term high.
By privileging positive feelings over the negative, we actually damage our self-esteem. By dismissing more painful feelings, we are subtly telling our- selves that they are not okay. Since our feelings are the most spontaneous demonstration of who we are, telling ourselves that what we are feeling is not okay is the same as telling ourselves that we are not okay—and that hurts.
Take Jane, for example. Jane likes to think of herself as a positive and happy person. On an outing, sensing that her friend is ignoring her, Jane starts to feel bad about herself. Privileging her happy self, she not only suffers the hurt of her friend’s behavior, but she also experiences a blow to her self-esteem for not being able to maintain her happy demeanor.
FOUR WAYS TO IMPROVE SELF-ESTEEM
1. HONOR YOUR FEELINGS
The one thing that we can do to ensure that our self-esteem remains stable is to ground it in a commitment to accept all of our feelings as they arise, no matter what they are. This doesn’t mean that we have to act on them. Feelings can inform our actions, but they need not dictate what we do.
Honoring our feelings simply entails labeling them, feeling how they feel in our bodies, and accepting them as just another aspect of being human. Of course, techniques like journaling or sharing our feelings with close friends or a therapist can be useful ways of assuring that we are giving them the attention they deserve.
2. TAKE CONTROL
When we base our sense of self-esteem only on positive emotions, we are subjecting our self-esteem to the fluctuations of spontaneous feelings that we don’t really have control over.
Deciding to base our self-esteem on the pursuit of accepting our feelings without judgment is something that we can practice and improve at with time. It is within our control to work at this acceptance. Of course, we can’t hope to be successful at it right away. But we can set the intention to do the work. Most importantly, we can value our efforts in this regard.
3. SET ACHIEVABLE GOALS
Aspirations are important. They give direction to our lives and imbue them with meaning. But when we aspire towards something that is not attainable, we end up failing. Though failing is an important part of trying something new, consistently failing to meet our goals is damaging to our self-esteem.
If we are trying to honor our emotions— arguably, a large goal—we need to break it down into manageable bits. We might start out by trying to acknowledge just one negative feeling a day. If we envy a friend for his new job, we can label the feeling, allow the feeling to wash over us, and accept it, knowing that it is okay.
4. REMEMBER: SELF-ESTEEM IS NOT OTHER-ESTEEM
It is important to remember that self-esteem is the esteem in which we hold ourselves. It is not the esteem in which others hold us. Our self-esteem should not be dependent on how others treat us.
When we overvalue how others perceive us, we subject ourselves to the whims of others. Someone gives us a compliment, and we feel good about ourselves.
But if they say something unkind, we feel terrible. We may feel happy to receive a compliment or hurt to receive harsh words, but these feelings should not impact how we value ourselves.
Accepting Our Feelings = Valuing Ourselves If we find we struggle with accepting certain feelings, it might be beneficial to get professional help. When we are raised in families or cultures that don’t value certain feelings, we might have deep-seated blocks against accepting certain feelings—and, consequently, ourselves.
As painful as some emotions can feel, it is always worse to tell ourselves that we should be feeling differently than we do. When we do, we compound the negative feeling with an attack on our self-esteem.
-David Braucher, PhD
David Braucher, Ph.D., has been a practicing clinician for over 25 years. He is a Member of the Faculty of the William Alanson White Institute’s Division I Psychoanalytic Program and Intensive Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy Program. He is on the Editorial Board of the journal, _Con- temporary Psychoanalysis_, and the Executive Editor of the blog, Contemporary Psychoanalysis in Action. He has been a member of the adjunct faculty at NYU and lectured at Westchester Hospital Center. He is in private practice in the West Village/Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan.
You can contact Dr. Braucher at the following:
222 W. 14th Street #4L New York, NY 10011