Many of us navigate our lives through a relentless barrage of negative self-talk. This is a soundtrack that plays in the background every day of our lives, whether we notice it consciously or not. It’s present in the automatic, immediate reactions we have to setbacks, mistakes, conflicts or disappointments. It is the first emotional response we have when we see our reflection in the mirror, or our bank statement, or when we’re faced with a task to complete.
Some falsely believe that this harsh, unforgiving approach drives them forward. Others are painfully aware of how crippled they are by it. Just as you would never attempt to motivate a child or loved one through abuse, the idea of making anything better through abusing yourself is simply flawed at its foundation.
Healthy self-esteem is not the same as narcissism or conceit. It’s not an either-or situation where you must be either entirely self-infatuated, or self-loathing. Unfortunately, because people are prone to black & white thinking, we are discouraged in a lot of ways from being proud of ourselves, or heaven forbid, loving ourselves.
Having healthy self-esteem is associated with academic achievement, happiness in marriage and relationships, and high career functioning.
Low self-esteem, on the other hand, is associated with anxiety, depression, anger, perfectionism, procrastination, learned helplessness and low self-efficacy. It can manifest itself in a number of ways, all of which have negative effects on your quality of life.
We all have bad days. Most people’s feelings about themselves change somewhat based on their mood, the weather, and the ins and outs of daily life. Self-esteem, however, is much deeper. This is, at your core, your overarching assessment of yourself, your value, your worth, and your potential.
Your low self esteem may be specific to one area (believing you’re bad at your work, parenting, sport) or it may encompass your entire character (believing you’re just bad in general, or even worthless).
People with low self esteem tend to be extremely critical of themselves, sometimes to the extent of full blown perfectionism. This isn’t just meticulousness... perfectionists torture themselves with self-abuse, anxiety, procrastination, work binges where relationships, sleep and/or nutrition are neglected, all to the soundtrack of constant berating over failing to reach what even they may admit is an unreachable standard. In the eyes of a perfectionist, everything they attempt is an abject failure.
Other manifestations might include codependency, social anxiety, avoidance, shame, inadequacy, powerlessness, hypersensitivity, jealousy/envy, defensiveness, social withdrawal, hostility, clinginess, an inability to tolerate criticism or vulnerability, a sense that things are easier for others, or excessive self-preoccupation.
People with low self-esteem also often have a very hard time making decisions, due to their lack of esteem and confidence in their own judgment, or due to an extreme investment in and anxiety over pleasing others. The need to get approval from outside oneself in order to feel good is another key characteristic of low self-esteem. When you don’t value yourself, you don’t value your opinions, so what you think or feel doesn’t matter (though at the same time, it does). Thus, the need for validation from other people can become overwhelming.
We are, in a lot of ways, what we’ve been taught. A child who was raised in a loving, supportive and stable environment by emotionally mature parents with good friends and a solid support structure will tend to have healthy self-esteem. At the other extreme, those raised in abusive or neglectful circumstances will tend to have low self-esteem.
In between those extremes, we have the rest of us. People whose parents loved them, but had faulty beliefs about pride, or who didn’t know how to show affection. People who had a good home but were bullied in school. People who were disabled or sick as children, and grew up believing they’re defective. People who were only shown love in specific situations, like when they earned an A+ or MVP. And people with a parent who may have loved them dearly, but who openly hated themselves.
In our developing years, we internalize what we see, hear, and experience in a way that is much more lasting than anything in our adult years. Early teachings become automatic core truths, and in the same way we don’t notice the minutiae of a familiar world every second, so too do those core “truths” act away in the background without our noticing. These are the things we “just know.” Even if they’re wrong, and even if we feel awful because of them, they still feel correct because they’re what we’ve always known.
Low self-esteem can develop in adulthood as well, and although it is less commonly as lasting, it can nonetheless be just as devastating. This can happen after losing or changing jobs, after the end of a significant intimate relationship, with legal or financial challenges, addiction or substance abuse, having children with emotional issues, physical health concerns, or other events that might cause us to question our worth or value.
Self-actualization occurs when a person is able to take full advantage of and live according to their talents and potential, while still being mindful of their limitations. It is exploring and confidently knowing who you are and what you value, as your realistic ideal self, and actually being that person.
When people live lives that are different from their true nature and capabilities, they are less likely to be happy than those whose goals, nature, and lives line up.
In general, self-actualized people:
For some, this is a long road. But you will be shown better paths to walk, and given the tools to navigate them. In all cases, re-arranging your core beliefs about yourself is no small task.
We need to first identify your core negative beliefs about yourself, which can be much trickier than it seems. Many of us have core beliefs that we’re not even aware of, but which influence how we live all the same. Tied in with this is identifying the possible origins of those beliefs. When we understand a thing, we are in a much better position to deal with it.
The process also includes identifying factors in the present that trigger negative self-talk, learning how to manage emotions related to self-abuse (fear, anger, envy, anxiety, depression), building up your internal strengths, and securing (and using) support resources to correct counterproductive habits and unhelpful self-perceptions. We’ll work on helping you become more assertive and confident, with important development of self-awareness, self-compassion, and productive coping mechanisms. Fostering a sense of accomplishment (and assigning tasks between sessions to bring this about) is often a part of this type of therapy, as is the quality of the therapeutic relationship itself.
Developing a stronger sense of self, challenging automatic negative thoughts, and learning to self-assess from a position in the present - not driven by past failures or upbringing - is central to the pursuit of self actualization.
Given that self-actualization is considered the optimal level of well-being, we’ll also work with you to make sure all of the foundational levels are in good shape. This includes your basic needs for reliable food, sleep, secure shelter, warmth and safety. Then there’s love and belonging, self-esteem and self-respect. Then, we can really work on what creative self-growth looks like for you, in fulfilling your self-defined potential and meaning in life.
Self-actualization is about self-discovery, self-reflection, self-exploration, and ultimately, self-realization. It is actively being who you are AND who you want to be, fully, confidently, under your own autonomy and in a way that is authentic to you.