Notes to Self

Thoughts on psychology, spirituality and soft skill development for personal improvement



"The most difficult phase of life is not when no one understands you. It is when you don't understand yourself." - Author Unknown

If you are not happy or satisfied with your life for reasons you can't pinpoint specifically, it's probably because your self-esteem might be in the low phase. Low self esteem can make you blame yourself for things that aren't your fault; underestimate your abilities, and make you a pessimist. Self-esteem plays a role in almost everything you do.

What is Self-Esteem?

Very simply put - how much you like yourself and feel lovable and capable..

Self-esteem is often confused with self-confidence. Self-confidence is the knowledge that one can succeed at something – relationship, career, goal etc. Self-esteem, on the other hand, is the capacity to like and love one self; and feel worthwhile, irrespective of all the ups and downs of life.

Someone with a healthy self-esteem simply likes himself or herself. A healthy self-esteem is not contingent on success because there are always failures to contend with. Neither is it a result of comparing ourselves with others because there is always someone better. With a healthy self-esteem, we like ourselves because of who we are and not because of what we can or cannot do or what others think of us.


Self-esteem is the foundation of our personality, a fundamental essence that defines everything about us. Self-acceptance and our personal identity together constitutes our self-esteem -

  • Self-Acceptance:

    Self-acceptance is not a denial of a need for change or improvement - it is simply a recognition of who we are. As Dr. David D Burns says, "We need to learn to accept and love ourselves as a flawed and imperfect human. We need to accept our strengths as well as our weakness without a sense of shame or embarrassment."

    It is foolish to deny our shortcomings since it helps us to empathise and connect with others. After all, for example, if you've never felt embarrassed or foolish how can you genuinely care for and understand someone who has? If you feel ashamed of certain feelings and avoid or try to repress them, how do you think you will react to those feelings from someone else? Our personal identity develops from self-acceptance. This is why self-acceptance is at the core, and the first and most important step we need to take to enhance our self-esteem.

  • Personal Identity:

    What we think about ourselves, our self-image or personal identity, is also very important to our core of existence. It is our cultural and personal values, beliefs and philosophy by which we define our personal worth; it influences how we evaluate ourselves and others.

As mentioned before, self-confidence is knowledge and mastery of skills. In today's westernized culture, self-confidence does affect our personal identity (and thus self-esteem). But self-esteem plays a more dominant role in influencing the other.

Self-esteem isn't constant; it fluctuates - it is not an either / or proposition. There is high self-esteem and there is low self-esteem, and many gradations in between.

Self-Esteem and Behavior

Low self-esteem fosters many unhealthy behaviors. Even though we might become aware of these behavioral problems, it's often a Herculean task to change them unless the root of the problem (the warped self-esteem) is not dealt with first.

An example: Perfectionists try to hold themselves to a higher standard than others because they fear criticism and seek approval due to which they often procrastinate, fear away from taking risks or are late in completing tasks.

Since their concept of self-esteem is based on getting 'outside' approvals (i.e. they feel good about themselves only when people whom they like and respect 'approve' them), unless they work on correcting this warped idea, they'll have great difficulty in changing their behavioral problems.

A study on self-esteem and sexual behavior in adolescents by Indiana University School of Medicine reports - "... 40 percent of the girls with low self-esteem in seventh grade had sex by ninth grade ... High self-esteem had the opposite influence on girls, who reportedly were three times more likely to remain virgins than girls with low self-esteem. Fifty percent of the boys with high self-esteem in seventh grade had sex by ninth grade, compared to only 29 percent of the boys with low self-esteem."

Self-esteem and Relationships

People who feel that they are likable and lovable (in other words people with good self-esteem) have better relationships. They are more likely to ask for help and support from friends and family when they need it.

How we look at our self also decides how we believe people judge us. This is why many with low self-esteem get stuck in unhealthy relationships - if we don't like or love ourselves, it's easier to believe that others will not too.

For example, an unhealthy self-esteem might make some people believe that their partner is much better than them and they're lucky to be with him / her. This might occasionally result in feelings of insecurity, jealousy and and actions like making unrealistic demands from the other person. Low self-esteem can manifest as you looking for signs that your partner has lost interest in you or prefers someone else or is only seeing you because they pity you. Or it can make us defensive and feel like we are being criticized when we are not.

Self-esteem and Emotions

All emotions are actually healthy – even those so called negative ones like anger, sadness, frustration etc. It's natural (and healthy) to feel upset when you fail, or outraged at an injustice. "If you are facing, or think you are facing, a negative event, it is not healthy for you to feel good about the occurrence of this event, nor is it healthy for you to feel indifferent about it. Rather, it is healthy for you to feel bad about it. Feeling bad about a negative event helps you to think clearly about the event, to change it if it can be changed and to make a constructive adjustment to it if it can't be changed", says Dr. Windy Dryden professor of psychotherapeutics at Goldsmiths College, University of London.

But a warped sense of self-image can cause these emotions to become destructive – sadness can become depression, healthy anger can become unhealthy, destructive anger. The more unhealthy our negative emotions become, the more it interferes with our ability to think clearly about it, we are less likely to change it in constructive ways if it can be changed, and if it can't be changed our adjustment is likely to be a poor one.

Building Self-Esteem

The development of self-esteem is a lifelong task. From the moment we are born, we are all developing, refining and changing our sense of personal identity and self-acceptance. Here are some steps that can help us improve our self-esteem:

  • Focus on your strengths, not shortcomings - Using self hatred to 'motivate' yourself to change can be very damaging. Forgive yourself for your mistakes and focus more on your strengths than your weakness. Don't put yourself down and don't beat yourself for any lack of skill or any weakness.
  • Maintain a gratitude diary - Make a list of the things that you already have that were once goals - all the things in your day you can do, the activities and people of your life you are most grateful for, the resources you already have available to you. Add to this list ever day - write down at least one thing you are glad about every day.
  • Learn to identify cognitive distortions - The more our thoughts about ourselves are distorted / incorrect, the harder it is to like, love and accept ourselves and / or others. Cognitive therapy teaches us how to identify the distortions in our thoughts and beliefs, and correct them.
  • Compete with yourself, not others - People with healthy self-esteem compete only with themselves. The less self-assured person feels compelled to equal or surpass his colleagues' success because they equate their self-esteem with success, and hence feel threatened with someone more successful. They endlessly seek approval and applause, feel happy when they get it or devastated when they fail or are criticized.
  • Play self-esteem games: Play the self-esteem games every morning for 5 minutes. Research indicates that these computer games help us enhance our self-acceptance.

It helps to remember: Since ups and downs are a natural part of our life, we can have a healthy self-esteem and still have self doubts occasionally.

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(This article is a work in progress.)