The Sum of our Parts
Self-esteem. Like opinions and belly buttons, everybody's got theirs, and we are quick to categorize ours - and others'! - as good or bad, high or low. On a scale of one to 10, you may have already rated your own - what is it? A decent 7? An average 5? A perfect 10? A down-on-your-luck, hard-on-yourself 2? Whatever your answer, it's probably fairly easy to come up with a number.
Unlike opinions and belly buttons, however, self-esteem is not usually referred to in its plural form, "self-esteems". It would almost sound as if you were opening up about your split personality disorder.
But in reality, the number you came up with is an instinctive average, comparable to a GPA, where each self-esteem sub-set is multiplied by varying coefficient factors, resulting in a total that is then divided by X to give a nice overall number. And just like with a GPA, you may excel in math but suck at geography, and that average would not reflect the reality of either.
And so it is with self-esteem - our average does not tell the full story, nor does it properly reflect the sometimes wildly fluctuating extremes that inhabit our personas.
After all - is your relationship self-esteem as good as your work self-esteem, or do you regularly kick butt in the workplace, confidently putting out fires, only to come home to an emotionally unavailable partner who makes you feel small? Is your social self-esteem as good as your intellectual one, or are you fully confident about your brain but zero confident when it comes to making small-talk conversation in a setting where you feel judged? Is your initiative and problem-solving self-esteem as good as that of your body image, or do you feel like you're up to any challenge - à la James Bond – all the while suffering from looking more like a James Blob?
If you rated each area individually on that same scale of 1 to 10, wouldn't there be variations from one area to the next? And in some cases, massive variations?
As if that weren’t enough, there are even imbalances and apparent contradictions within the same type of category, such as body image. Some people love their bodies and their looks and have no trouble being seen and noticed. They are in shape and healthy and fall into the category of good looks as defined by society. Yet, when it comes to intimacy, they are suddenly body-shy and need time, sometimes lots of it, before opening up to someone physically. And the opposite happens, too – there are those who, in public, try to cover up all the obvious and damning physical flaws they can identify, but suddenly become free-spirited hippies open to one-night-stands behind closed doors.
And so although it's OK to run with the median version of our self-esteem, it's also important to distinguish between those areas where we feel good about ourselves, and those we need to work on, and there’s nothing wrong with leaning on the former to improve the latter, as long as it doesn’t become a crutch.
Self-esteem is not about being good at something, although having it can help us develop certain skills, and discovering that we’re good at something can help us build it. But at its core it means knowing your worth, regardless of people and circumstances. It’s being fine with exactly how you are, accepting your gifts as well as your limitations. It means trusting yourself that “you’ve got this” - no matter what the “this” turns out to be – without feeling intimidated, all the while being able to set boundaries and walk away once you realize a situation has become unhealthy, or toxic, or draining, or counterproductive, or unsustainable.
This is also not about bravado, so don’t get fooled by the one who talks the loudest, brags the most or has the nicest house. On the contrary – I would dare say that these are the ones often covering up for their perceived insecurities. Those with truly good self-esteem don’t feel they have anything to prove.
Unsurprisingly, there are some interesting distinctions particularly when it comes to gender (and yes, I’m going with the standard binary male-female system for simplicity’s sake). In the area of work, for example, a job wanted ad may list the 10 requirements a candidate should ideally possess. Time and again, studies have shown that women tend to apply only if they check off all 10 points, while men are happy with 6 out of 10 and figure they will wing the rest - a direct result of the impact of self-esteem, as females are still playing catch-up to the can-do spirit of the once predominantly favored male working world.
But there are some particularly interesting dynamics when it comes to relationships. As young people begin exploring and dealing with all of its tangents – attraction, feelings, hormones – and peer pressure arises from who has done what (or at least this was the case in my time, apparently today’s generation is much better at not caring, or so they say), it turns out that the greater the male’s self-esteem, the earlier he tends to become sexually active because he has the confidence to pursue the girl, ask her out and initiate physical contact. Girls with good self-esteem, however, tend to wade into those waters later, because they in turn have enough self-esteem to be able to say - and mean - no, and wouldn’t go along with something against their better judgment.
Later, when we settle down long-term, we tend to choose a partner with a similar level of self-esteem as ours. If you're a 6, then there is potential with a 7or a 5, but you'd be too much of a work-in-progress for a 9, and way out of a 1's league. Like seeks like, and often, a relationship will no longer function if one of the partners undergoes a noticeable shift in self-esteem. And there is a split along the gender lines as well: When relationships do fall apart after many years, more often than not women tend to leave because they’d rather be alone, while men leave because they’ve found somebody else. Generalizing of course, but it’s frequent enough to make it an overall trend. And it’s the result of female self-esteem tending to improve with age, and male self-esteem not faring quite as well.
So how do you explain abusive relationships? The person being mistreated clearly has work to do on their self-esteem, while the abuser appears to be the one with the power - or so it seems. But of course that's not power, it's also low self-esteem. Neither individual has any self-worth - one of them has somehow accepted they don’t deserve to be treated with respect, and the other believes the only way they will keep a partner is through control, humiliation and threats, and that nobody would ever love who they are at the core.
So how do you build it? There are a thousand books on the subject, and therapy is probably a good way to go if you are serious about working on the weaker subsections of your self-esteem, so I’m not going to re-invent the wheel. But it starts with awareness, and being able to name it, and then questioning whether the story you are telling yourself is really what you believe or just a tape, constantly replaying messages received from your environment when you were young. As an adult, you need to find a way to re-write the script. And if you’re a parent, you need to nip it in the bud for the next generation.
A note to all well-meaning parents who think that this is done by telling their kids "You can be ANYthing!" (no pressure, no pressure at all) and do nothing but indiscriminately praise every little achievement - stop doing that. These kids will grow into teenagers who are clueless about what exactly makes them as great as their parents say, without a proper sense of self or how to fill the void that was always auto-fed by their environment. You have to feed them from the inside. Listen to them. Ask them questions and let them figure things out. It's empowering. Ask for their input, or their view of things, and laugh with them, often.
You want kids who value themselves as grown-ups? Then start by valuing them. There's a scene in the movie Breakfast Club where Andrew, the jock, and basket-case Allison open up about their parents, and Andrew asks "What do they do to you?" and she answers "They ignore me."
Harm done. And difficult to repair.
I was blessed with a mother whose love was generous, and authentic, and warm, and full of physical affection, and when she would look at me, she would have this sparkle in her eyes. I owe her a debt of gratitude for allowing me to have grown up feeling unconditionally loved, and as a result having tons of love to give, whether it is to family or friends or to humanity in general or, of course, in relationships.
But I was lucky, too, as life somehow aligned with this and spared me serious damage. When I was 6 I had a huge crush on my 16-year-old swimming teacher, and so one day I approached him and flat-out asked him if he would marry me (this was pretty much the last time the topic ever came up in my lifetime as marriage is a concept I do not grasp and can’t relate to). You would think this gorgeous guy with the long curls would have laughed in my face, or at least casually brushed me off, but no – he smiled and looked me in the eye and said “Sandra, we’re both still very young, what do you say we wait a little?” And that made complete sense to me, as I happily went on my merry way assuming it was just a matter of time, and not a rejection of me as a person - something I somehow carried my entire life. I was only broken up with once – at 13, tough one! – and had the one mandatory unhealthy relationship (I believe it’s a prerequisite in the school of life) in my early 20ies, but aside from that, no, relationships were never my Achilles’ heel.
Don’t ask me, however, about my work or, God forbid, career self-esteem. Even there, the roots go far back. Despite all the maternal love and affection, other messages fell along the lines of “You can’t”, “You’ll never be able to”, “Let me do it”. And so when came time to pick a field of studies, I went with Translation, because languages was the only thing I knew I was good at, and I was unaware of any other criteria. As it turned out, I intensely disliked translation, although I still do it in my volunteer work and it fulfils me in that sense. But not as a job.
No, the career thing is still being untangled as we speak. And by career I don’t mean the status, or the money, the rewards or the benefits – I mean having the confidence to go out there and make a living off something I love to do and that fulfils me, rather than doing it in my spare time while I work a job that pays the bills. But that’s my next project, and it’s never too late to get yourself to a better place, no matter the area of life.
Time is on your side. One of the benefits of ageing truly is caring less what others think, feeling comfortable in your own skin, choosing your battles, knowing when to let go, making choices that are authentic, having less patience for the pointless and investing in what truly matters. You come to realize that you’ve overcome challenges you never would have believed possible had you known about them in advance, and yet here you are.
So it’s time to turn off the tape, rewind it and hit “record” with a new message suited not to the person you’ve been told you were and would always be, but to the person you want to become and really are.
Sandra is a blogger, life coach and activist.
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