Self-esteem is essential for psychological survival. It is an emotional sine qua non—without some measure of self-worth, life can be enormously painful, with many basic needs going unmet.
One of the main factors differentiating humans from other animals is the awareness of self: the ability to form an identity and then attach a value to it. In other words, you have the capacity to define who you are and then decide if you like that identity or not. The problem of self-esteem is this human capacity for judgment. It’s one thing to dislike certain colors, noises, shapes, or sensations. But when you reject parts of yourself, you greatly damage the psychological structures that literally keep you alive.
Judging and rejecting yourself causes enormous pain. And in the same way that you would favor and protect a physical wound, you find yourself avoiding anything that might aggravate the pain of self-rejection in any way. You take fewer social, academic, or career risks. You make it more difficult for yourself to meet people, interview for a job, or push hard for something where you might not succeed. You limit your ability to open yourself with others, express your sexuality, be the center of attention, hear criticism, ask for help, or solve problems.
To avoid more judgments and self-rejection, you erect barriers of defense. Perhaps you blame and get angry, or bury yourself in perfectionistic work. Or you brag. Or you make excuses. Sometimes you turn to alcohol or drugs.
This book is about stopping the judgments. It’s about healing the old wounds of hurt and self-rejection. How you perceive and feel about yourself can change. And when those perceptions and feelings change, the ripple effect will touch every part of your life with a gradually expanding sense of freedom.
CAUSES AND EFFECTS
Hundreds of researchers have quizzed thousands of people of various ages and situations, trying to see what causes self-esteem, who has the most of it, how important it is, how it can be increased, and so on.
Studies of young children show clearly that parents’ style of child-rearing during the first three or four years determines the amount of self-esteem that a child starts with. After that, most studies of older children, adolescents, and adults share a common confusion: what is cause and what is effect?
Does academic success foster self-esteem, or does self-esteem foster academic success? Does high social status cause high self-esteem, or does high self-esteem help you gain high social status? Do alcoholics drink because they hate themselves, or do they hate themselves because they drink? Do people like themselves because they do well in job interviews, or do they do better in interviews because they like themselves?
These are classic chicken-and-egg questions. Just as eggs come from chickens and chickens come from eggs, it seems that self-esteem grows out of your circumstances in life, and your circumstances in life are influenced strongly by your self-esteem. Which came first? The question has serious implications for your success at raising your self-esteem.
If external circumstances determine self-esteem, then all you have to do to improve your self-esteem is to improve your circumstances. Let’s say you have low self-esteem because you never graduated from high school, you’re short, your mom hated herself, you live in the slums, and you’re 100 pounds overweight. All you have to do is go to night school and get your degree, grow about six inches, have been raised by a different mother, move to Beverly Hills, and lose 100 pounds. It’s a cinch, right?
But you know you’ll never make it. There’s nothing you can do about your parents or your height. Your only hope is that things are the other way around: that self-esteem determines circumstances. This means that if you improve your self-esteem, your circumstances will improve. So just stop hating yourself, and you’ll get taller, your mom will become somebody different, and those 100 pounds will evaporate like the morning dew.
If you feel that this second scenario is also a little unlikely, you can be congratulated on a keen appreciation of the real world.
The fact is that self-esteem and your circumstances are only indirectly related. There is another intervening factor that determines self-esteem 100 percent of the time: your thoughts.
For example, you look in the mirror and think, “Boy, am I fat. What a slob.” This thought clobbers your self-esteem. If you looked in the mirror and thought, “Well, all right, it looks good to wear my hair like this,” the effect on your self-esteem would be the opposite. The image in the mirror remains the same. Only the thoughts change.
Or let’s say that you’re discussing the news, and when you make a remark about the right-wing rebels your nitpicking friend corrects you: “No, you mean the left-wing rebels.” If you tell yourself, “I really sound stupid,” your self-esteem will take a nose dive. If you say to yourself, “Oh yeah, I’ve got to keep that straight next time,” your self-esteem will not suffer so much. In either case, you don’t change the circumstances, only how you interpret them.
Does this mean that circumstances have nothing to do with self-esteem? No. Obviously, in the area of social status, bank vice-presidents have more opportunity to feel better about their careers than cab drivers have. This is why a study of 100 vice-presidents and 100 cab drivers will “prove” that the higher status job leads to higher self-esteem. What is overlooked among the statistics is that there are some vice-presidents who slaughter their self-esteem by telling themselves, “I should have been president of my own bank by now. I’m a failure,” just as there are some cab drivers who feel good about themselves because they think, “So I’m just a cab driver—I’m putting bread on the table, the kids are doing good in school, things are going just fine.”
This book uses proven methods of cognitive behavioral therapy to raise your self-esteem by changing the way you interpret your life. It will show you how to uncover and analyze the negative self-statements you habitually make. You will learn how to create new, objective, positive self-statements that will foster your self-esteem instead of undermining it.
HOW TO USE THIS BOOK
This book is organized logically, with the most important and universally applicable material at the beginning.
Chapter two introduces the pathological critic, the voice inside you that criticizes and keeps your self-esteem low. The next chapter deals with disarming the critic so that you can be free to begin raising your self-esteem without interference.
Chapter four shows you how to make an accurate self-assessment of your strengths and weaknesses, an important first step in changing your self-esteem.
Chapter five explains cognitive distortions, irrational ways of thinking that contribute to low self-esteem.
Chapter six introduces the concept of compassion. Self-esteem is closely tied to compassion for others and compassion for yourself.
Chapter seven is about your shoulds, all the rules you have made for yourself about how you should act, feel, and be. Revising your shoulds is one of the most powerful ways to undo old negative programming.
Chapter eight shows how to handle mistakes by changing how you relate to error and by letting go of mistakes in the past.
Chapter nine teaches you how to react to criticism without losing your self-esteem or having to attack others.
Chapter ten covers asking for what you want, one of the most difficult tasks for people with low self-esteem.
Chapter eleven teaches powerful techniques of visualization, a way of setting and achieving self-esteem goals.
Chapter twelve guides you in learning a simple self-hypnosis technique to reinforce affirmations you have created in earlier chapters.
Chapter thirteen is called “I’m Still Not OK” and is designed to help you stop running away from pain while you develop an attitude of nonjudgment.
Chapter fourteen, Core Beliefs, will help you explore, challenge, and change deeply held convictions about your worth.
Chapter fifteen is for you if you have children. It explains what you can do to give your kids the priceless legacy of high self-esteem.
Using this book is simple. Keep reading until you reach the end of chapter three, “Disarming the Critic.” At that point, there is a chart for you to consult. It will direct you to the appropriate chapter to deal with specific problems you may have. If you want to learn about and improve your self-esteem in general, just read the book in sequence from start to finish.
Benefiting from this book is not as simple as just reading it. You have to do some work. Many chapters have exercises to do and skills to learn. When the text tells you to “close your eyes and imagine a scene from your past,” you should actually close your eyes and do it. When the book says, “On a separate piece of paper, list three situations in which you have felt inadequate,” you really need to go find some paper and a pen that writes and sit down and list your three situations.
There is no substitute for doing the exercises. Imagining yourself doing the exercises is not enough. Skimming through the exercises with the vague intention of coming back to them sometime and trying them is not enough. Doing only the exercises that seem easy or interesting is not enough. If there was a way to improve your self-esteem that was easier than doing exercises, it would be in this book. The exercises that are in this book are here because they are the best, easiest, and only way the authors know to raise self-esteem.
You should take your time reading this book. It is densely packed with ideas and things to do. Read it at a pace that will let you absorb the contents fully. Self-esteem takes a long time to develop in the first place. You’ve spent your whole life developing the level of self-esteem you have now. It takes time to tear self-esteem down, and it takes time to build it up. Make a commitment right now to take the time you need.
FOR THE THERAPIST
In his book, The Shrinking of America, Bernie Zilbergeld concludes that psychotherapy has only limited effectiveness for many of the problems that it purports to help. But a review of outcome studies led him to find that psychotherapy does positively affect self-esteem and that improved self-esteem “may be counseling’s most important outcome.” (p. 147)
Clients come to therapy wanting help with anxiety, depression, eating disorders, sexual problems, relationship difficulties, and a host of other symptoms. Sometimes the symptoms improve; sometimes they persist despite years of intensive work. But most clients do get a sense of greater personal worth from therapy. While specific symptoms may or may not change, clients at least begin to see themselves as more OK, more deserving, more capable.
The problem with therapy is time. Over the course of months, and often years, a client’s self-perception changes in response to consistent positive regard from the therapist. The sense of approval from an authority figure, particularly one who substitutes for the critical parent, has a potential to be enormously healing. Yet this vital process of raising self-esteem, one that can change many aspects of a client’s experience, is inefficiently and haphazardly implemented. Often the process takes far longer than it should. Often it is done without a plan and without the specific interventions that could hasten its success.
This book is about hastening the process. You can increase a client’s self-esteem more rapidly and more effectively using the cognitive restructuring techniques presented here. Through an exploration of chronic negative self-talk, a systematic confrontation of cognitive distortions, and the development of a more accurate and compassionate self-evaluation, you can intervene directly to raise a client’s sense of worth.
An Issue of Diagnosis
There are basically two kinds of self-esteem problems: situational and characterological. Low self-esteem that is situational tends to show up only in specific areas. For example, a person might have confidence in himself as a parent, a conversationalist, and a sexual partner, but expect to fail in work situations. Someone else might feel socially inept, but see herself as a strong and capable professional. Low self-esteem that is characterological usually had roots in early experiences of abuse or abandonment. The sense of “wrongness” in this case is more global and tends to affect many areas of life.
Situational low self-esteem is a problem ideally suited for cognitive restructuring techniques. The focus is on confronting cognitive distortions, emphasizing strengths over weaknesses, and developing specific skills for handling mistakes and criticism. Since the client is not rejecting himself or herself globally, you will find that changing maladaptive thinking patterns will significantly increase a sense of confidence and worth.
Since characterological low self-esteem derives from a basic identity statement, a feeling of being bad, changing a client’s thoughts is not enough. Identifying and beginning to control the internal critical voice will help, but will not entirely undo the feeling of wrongness. Your main therapeutic emphasis must therefore be on the negative identity that gives rise to negative thoughts. The focus should be on developing self-compassion and a commitment to nonjudgment (see chapter thirteen). These positions can be reinforced through visualization and hypnotic techniques.
Cognitive Restructuring for Self-Esteem
The best place to begin is with the client’s thoughts. Ask what he or she was thinking during a recent episode of self-reproach. Get as much detail as you can about the critical self-talk and then introduce the concept of the pathological critic (see chapters two and three, “The Pathological Critic” and “Disarming the Critic”). Encourage the client to develop his or her unique name for the critic as a way to begin to take ownership of the concept. Typical names are “the bully,” “the shark,” “my kicker,” “Mr. Perfect,” “Marsha (the client’s mother),” and so on.
Personifying the critic helps the client begin to externalize the self-accusing voice. You want him or her to experience the voice as something coming from outside, rather than as a part of the normal flow of thought. It’s easier to fight something that is perceived as external. It’s also easier to make the critical voice ego dystonic, something the client eventually rejects as “not me.”
At the same time that you are identifying and naming the pathological critic, you can also introduce the client to his or her “healthy voice.” The healthy voice is the client’s ability to think realistically. By emphasizing and strengthening this ability you are positioning the client to begin talking back to the critic. Names that are typically used for the healthy voice include “my rational part,” “my accepting part,” “my compassionate part,” “my healthy coach,” and so on. Choose a name that fits the client’s self-concept (i.e., rational, compassionate, caring, objective, and so on).
By creating this dichotomy between the critical voice and the healthy voice, you can encourage the client to confront his or her critic. The following dialogues exemplify this process.
Therapist: So what did the
critic say when you waited and didn’t hear from your new friend?
Client: That I’m not interesting, that I bored him and he was tired of me.
Therapist: What does the healthy coach say back to that?
Client: That our conversation was lively and fun. That there was nice energy between us. I could feel it.
Therapist: What else? Does the coach think you should stew about it, or is there some action you can take?
Client: I could call him and try to get a sense of how he feels.
Here’s another example:
Client: I didn’t get an assignment at work in on time.
Therapist: What did the bully say about that?
Client: That I’m lazy. Over and over: “You’re lazy, you screw up, you’ll never get anywhere.”
Therapist: Can you mobilize the healthy voice to say anything back?
Client: All I hear is the bully.
Therapist: Right now see if you can find your healthy voice so you can talk back to the bully. Are you really lazy and a screw-up?
Client: Well, my healthy voice says, “You did drag your feet, but still you finished it, you turned it in. No one really cared that it was late but you.”
Therapist: So the bully exaggerated about screwing up?
Client: Yes. He always exaggerates.
The next step in cognitive restructuring is to identify the main function of a client’s critic (see “How the Critic Gets Reinforced” in chapter two). In every case the critical voice is being reinforced because it serves some positive function—to promote desired behavior, paradoxically to protect self-worth, or to control painful feelings.
A client must understand the reason why he uses the critical voice and how it helps to protect him. Here’s an example of how this issue can be discussed.