Raising Your Self-Esteem

Dr. Kate Marshall


There is a relatively new book out on the life of Charles Scultz, the developer of the the Peanuts cartoon.  Because of a difficult childhood, he grew up in a family where love was withheld and food insecurity was the norm.  “Security is knowing that there’s more pie left.”  He constructed a myth about himself as a loser who was dumb, dull  and meek, even when he was pulling in 40 million plus a year with the Peanuts franchise.   Despite that achievement, he apparently never lost this sense of himself.  Some of us might say, well, if this is low self-esteem, I’ll take it, particularly in this economy. 

Self-esteem.   We want our kids to have a good measure of it.  We might feel that “it” is a necessary quality in order to have a good,  fulfilling life.  But how does this mysterious “it” develop?  What separates someone who has high self-regard from someone who doesn’t?  Is it possible to have too much self-esteem?  Is lots of self-esteem necessary for personal happiness? 

Most of us diagnose “low-self-esteem” by the results:  we create a negative story about ourselves, engage in constant self-put downs, feel that we might be  holding ourselves back and don’t stand up for or express ourselves in important situations.  We might also react defensively and find it difficult to avoid having our buttons pushed.

(McKay et. al, 2005,) distinguishes two  types of self-regard:  situational, where an individual is not confident in a single area such as academics, and characterological, where the individuals sees him or herself as basically flawed. 

There are many factors leading to a poor self-image.  Our sense of self is often learned in our families, where some of us have been made to feel “less than” or inadequate as a result of shaming, or unskillful and excessive criticism and sustained degredation.  We learned to unfairly criticize and degrade ourselves as a result.  Although it is good to appreciate some of the origins of self-image,  of greater importance is the cultivation of effective antidotes to the negative beliefs and underpinnings that maintain poor self-regard.  So, how can we claim or reclaim our deeper sense of basic value? 

“Wouldn’t it be nice if our lives were like video recorders and we could ‘fast forward’ through crummy times?”  (Charles Schulz).  

Not so fast.  Some would point to missed experiences and lost opportunity.  But whatever your sentiment, there are  a number of methods and techniques that  can be practiced to  improve self-image, and bolster our inherent resiliency.  Many go deeper than the cosmetic.  I will mention three. 

Your internal critic as helpful coach

We all need to engage in self-monitoring to keep us on track, look out for our safety and help us to evaluate our choices.  Some of were taught that we had to be perfect in order to be “OK,” and that mistakes marked us as “stupid.” 

The job description of a good critic/observer is to support us when we’re operating with competence and integrity and come up with helpful prescriptions when we are stuck or off-track.  An unhelpful critic stance may be a way trying to get things back on game.  However, self-criticism for it’s own sake isn’t usually helpful. 

A good critic is like a wise and helpful coach who can offer useful advice.  I remember my high school driver’s ed. teacher, Mr. Thrombitis, who instead of yelling at me when I almost ran a stop sign, drove above speed limit on the freeway and backed into the ditch, he just pressed his brake and said,”  I know you’ll look next time.”  

What kind of a self-monitor are you?  What do you say to yourself when things don’t go well?   How do you handle mistakes?  Misfortunes?  Things that are our of your control?  If you degrade yourself, ask if these judgments or appraisals fit the circumstances.  Are they useful?  How would a friend or good coach see or judge the same events?  What might be more helpful?

Recording your thoughts and experiences

Writing things down can allow an “on-the-job” analysis of your situation.  Record your automatic thoughts in different contexts and discover which assist you, and which undermine your sense of value.  Learn to trace these thoughts back to your feelings about yourself.  What are you thinking or telling yourself about  the situation?  Is it really true?  What would your good friend say?  With awareness, and commitment, you can change and alter those perspectives that aren’t moving you forward by generating more realistic beliefs about yourself and others.

Done In By Competition and Comparison

In my family, my two sisters and I were in a constant  war of comparison.  We competed for my father’s blessing,  clamoring for tidbits of priase with respect to who was the smartest, strongest, prettiest or best at a skill that dad valued.  There seemed to be insufficient praise and acknowledgment to go around and each of us felt we weren’t  perfect enough to earn it anyway.  It took some years to develop a healthy appreciation for my sisters’ unique achievements and skills and to learn that their talents didn’t diminish me. 

Are you caught in a cycle of unhelpful comparison?  It’s never to late to recognize and appreciate your own unique narrative.  Despite what your early conditioning may have been, you can change your basic “story line” and improve your self-image with practice and reflection.

As Snoopy says,  “To live is to dance, to dance is to live.”  So, why not take the risk of putting aside old mental habits and unhelpful ways of structuring your life and learn some new dance steps? 

Reading Resources:

The Self-Esteem Companion:  Simple Exercises to Help you Challenge Your Inner Critic and Celebrate Your Personal Strengths, McKay, Matthew, et. al, New Harbinger Publications, Inc. 2005. 

Schultz and Peanuts:  A Biography, Michaelis, David, Harper Collins, 2007.

Comments are closed.