How others treat us is greatly influenced by the way we see ourselves. We all know people who genuinely like themselves and feel content with their lives. Because they see the positive in themselves, they are able to understand and appreciate the good in other people. They treat others with a sense of respect – a skill they know well because this is how they treat themselves. When our feelings about ourselves are positive, we show others that we like and value ourselves – and then others tend to treat us well. But when we have negative feelings about ourselves, so that we are too critical, complaining and pessimistic, others tend to take this attitude toward us as well. How we treat ourselves helps determine how others will treat us.
The thoughts we have about ourselves, or how we define ourselves, contribute to our self-image. The feelings we have about these thoughts, whether these feelings are good or bad, are the building blocks of our self-esteem. Our self-image, and gradually our self-esteem, can be molded by our parents, family, friends, physical or intellectual abilities, education, and jobs. Just as we have definitions for most things in the world, we also have definitions of ourselves. We come to define ourselves the way others define us. Thus, if others treat us with love and kindness, as if we are special and unique people, then we will eventually define ourselves in this way as well. On the other hand, if other people treat us as if we are a bother to have around and not worth much, then we will also come to see ourselves in this way.
Some people confuse healthy positive self-esteem with audacity or arrogance, a false sense of superiority over other people. True self-esteem, however, means that we do not have to assert ourselves at the expense of other people. Indeed, it is those with negative self-esteem who must resort to the tactic of exaggerating their own worth, usually by putting other people down. Those with positive self-esteem can acknowledge their own worth and also validate the positive qualities of others.
Techniques for Creating Positive Self-Esteem
• Work on Your Private Thoughts
How we feel about ourselves privately, whether these feelings are positive or negative, influences how we interpret our own actions, the decisions we make, the goals we set for ourselves, and how we relate to other people. Negative internal feelings usually lead to lower expectations and achievements, while positive definitions usually result in higher aspirations. Consider some of the following ways in which these private, internal thoughts can be modified.
• Examine your unrealistic expectations. Negative self-esteem is driven by thoughts couched in “shoulds,” “oughts,” and “musts.” These words imply that we should be something other than what we are. A more positive approach is to replace these words with “wants.” Instead of saying self-punitively, “I should be a better friend,” it may be helpful to change the thought to: “I want to be a better friend.”
• Accept the fact that history cannot be changed. We often punish ourselves endlessly for certain regrettable actions we have taken in the past – and this feeds our negative self-esteem. But we all make mistakes, and we can learn from them. In fact, the positive spin on this is that we, as fallible humans, must make mistakes in life – and perhaps we should be thankful that we have made them, for how else would we acquire wisdom and learn the route to a happier life? History cannot be undone, but we can focus on the present and future, drawing on our power to create the life we choose for ourselves.
• Reflect on the good experiences in your life. Instead of dwelling our on flaws, it is more helpful to think about what is good in our lives. Think about your successes rather than your failures. We all have life experiences that make us feel good. Define yourself in terms of these positive experiences. Nearly every negative thought can be turned into a positive. For example, if you are in a financial crisis, it’s not the end of the world – because now you can get in touch with simpler pleasures and more meaningful experiences. If a friend has rejected you, you are now free to spend your time with other friends who will treat you well..
• Set positive goals for the future. Examine your personal needs, desires, assets and abilities – and think of how you can use them to achieve the life you want for yourself. Commit yourself to having the best life you can have – without feeling that you have to achieve perfection. Make your goals realistic and achievable, and work toward them, step by step, enjoying the successes and overcoming the occasional stumbles. Draw on the positive within yourself – with an awareness of how the old negative tendencies may show themselves. Setting positive goals draws on, and reinforces, your positive self-esteem and reminds you of the power you have to set your own course.