You hear the term "self-esteem" all the time, right? We all know we should have it, wish we had more of it, or don't know how to get it, but do we really understand what it means?
There are several misconceptions about what self-esteem actually is. Some people think it means loving yourself unconditionally. Others believe that if you have it, you are either selfish or conceited. Neither of these is correct.
I define "self-esteem" as justifiable positive self-regard. What I mean by "justifiable" is that it is based on congruence. Congruence means, in this context, that one's behavior stems and flows from one's principles. For instance, if I think stealing is wrong and I shoplift or it is wrong to cheat on my spouse and I do it anyway, that should rightly detract from my positive feelings about myself. Conversely, if I make a mistake and own up to it rather than lie, that accrues positively to my sense of self. When one behaves congruently, he or she is neither selfish nor conceited, usually the opposite.
Another important point about self-esteem is that it does not require perfection. Perfection in human life is like a unicorn; it doesn't exist. Failure and missteps are invaluable tools for growth, and positive self-regard need not suffer from setbacks. However. perfectionism will always cause feelings of inadequacy.
Sometimes in life, despite our intentions, we do something we regret. Principled living does not adhere to the law of perfection either; we are human, we make mistakes. So self-forgiveness is another aspect of healthy self-esteem. But here's the catch; To forgive yourself your trespasses you must make every effort not to repeat them. When I was growing up, some of my friends would go to the mall and shoplift. They would then confess their sins at church on Sunday and then go out and shoplift again, which baffled me. I don't think a confession or an apology has any meaning whatsoever if it is not backed up by a positive change in behavior.
It seems a basic truth that people want to be liked and admired by others. Nothing wrong with that. But what seems most important to me is that I like and admire myself. Usually there is a lot of overlap. However, many people routinely betray themselves in order to be accepted by others. For instance, they may laugh at racist or homophobic jokes when they themselves are neither racist nor homophobic. They may bend to peer pressure in all sorts of ways for fear of being disliked or rejected. But the price they are likely to pay is that they like and respect themselves just a little bit less.
If you will accept as I do that the most important relationship you have is with yourself, you will be much more reluctant to chip away at your own positive regard in order to be liked. Why is the relationship with self the most important one you have? The reason is that it is the relationship from which all others stem. If I don't think much of myself, how can I believe others think highly of me? If I am unable to treat myself compassionately, why would I expect compassion from others? If I don't protect myself from mistreatment, why am I surprised when I am mistreated? If I can't take responsibility for my own behavior, then what makes me think I have the right to expect that from others?
Unfortunately, I have known so many people who are eminently worthy of self-esteem who consistently feel inadequate or "not good enough". Why is that? The reasons are numerous and beyond the scope of this article, but a simple way of understanding it is that they are lousy friends to themselves. I listen regularly to people judging themselves far more harshly than they would any other person and ask them to notice how much more compassion they would show to a friend under similar circumstances.
There is also a problem I've heard called , humorously but aptly,"the piece of shit at the center of the universe syndrome". In other words, you think poorly of yourself AND that everyone is paying attention to your every move. It is both humbling and liberating to understand THAT NO ONE IS SCRUTINIZING YOU. I had a friend who after a party would call me up to chew over all the social mistakes she thought she made and all the ways everyone in the room must feel about her. It was all in her mind, of course, but I found it remarkable that she was convinced that people were paying her such close attention. They weren't.
To conclude, you are with you from birth to death, 24 hours a day. You had better be your best friend or you are in for a world of pain.