One Way to Cultivate Self-Esteem
Updated: Apr 16, 2020
For the majority of my life, without even being aware, I struggled with low self-esteem and sense of self worth. My perpetual need for smallness and to take up as little space as possible felt innate, and I never questioned whether it was maladaptive.
A large part of my recovery as of late has revolved around cultivating a sense of self-esteem. Where do I even begin? How do I even begin to tackle all the insecurities and fears I've held for my entire life? What even is self-esteem?
According to Psychology Today, self-esteem is "confidence in one's value as a human being is a precious psychological resource.....correlated with achievement, good relationships, and satisfaction."
Self-esteem is not an immutable characteristic, and I believe that self-esteem can be cultivated and affirmed through developing one's self-beliefs. Wow a lot of self- words. But let me break this down.
A little lesson in social psychology. (If you don't want to read about the theories, skip below to my personal application and understanding)
Self-beliefs are how you think about yourself. It's what elements you believe make up your identity. This can either be a long list of characteristics, including "agreeable, serious, concerned, creative, emotional, and assertive," to name a few.
Your identity can either have high self-complexity, where you believe a large amount of traits and characteristics make up your identity and these are all separate, or low self-complexity, where most traits overlap. Each role these people play in life, each goal they have, each activity they engage in, has its own separate existence in their self-image (such as, you are polite and introverted around your family, and outgoing and playful around your friends).
According to self-complexity theory, the degree of one's self-complexity is related to how people respond to positive and negative events related to the self. When learning this, I couldn't help but draw parallels to cultivating self-worth and diversifying one's identity.
Individuals with low self-complexity, or few characteristics and traits to which they identify with, are more extreme in terms of swings in affect and self-evaluation (red line). What does this mean in terms of self-esteem? If your concept of your identity is largely made up of your role as an athlete, then all positive or negative events related to your athletics - your performance, progress, failures, successes - provoke extreme changes in your affect and self-evaluation. If your identity is athlete, then if something negative happens or that is taken away from you, you have no other identities to fall back on. The stakes are too high - you are an athlete. That is who you are. See how volatile placing your identity in a few number of things can be?
On the other hand, individuals with high self-complexity can buffer against the effects of stress. When positive or negative events come up, they don't hold as much weight and don't affect your mood and self-evaluation as much. Why? Because you have other identities to turn to and understand yourself by - the stakes are not as high. Say, if you see yourself as a wife, chef, hiking-enthusiast, expecting-mom, and writer, your sense of self is spread out across different aspects of your life (blue or green). If you were suddenly injured, and could no longer hike anymore, the blow to your affect and sense of self would be buffered by all the other outlets you use to see yourself. In your own eyes, you are still a wife, chef, expecting-mom, and writer.
What does all of this mean? Why is it even relevant?
For me, it allowed me to see and understand the benefits of finding multiple outlets to create your own sense of self. It not only allows you to explore your different passions and talents, but can also fuel you with a sense of purpose.
I have definitely struggled with founding my identity on one or two aspects of myself, and have seen the detrimental effects it had on my mood, negative self-talk, and outlook on life. For a few months, I saw myself as athletic. I wouldn't go so far as to say I saw myself as an athlete, but I felt fit and strong. I associated my sense of self-worth, value as a friend, ability to express my love for others, through my ability to perform athletically. It meant putting my physical health aside at times, pushing myself until every inch of my body hurt, setting alarms at ungodly hours, driving 30+ kms (literally), in order to feel like a good friend, worthy human, and confident woman.
With the pandemic, and falling sick for two weeks, I was ripped away from this coping mechanism. The transition to being sedentary for two weeks was abrupt, and I felt like I had lost my sense of self, my self-worth was rock bottom, and my insecurities were bombarding my self-talk. It might sound superficial and silly, but the pain and shame I experienced was real. I felt less worthy because I was unable to move my body, couldn't work on my strength, push my VO2 max, and connect with others through movement. To me, being sedentary triggered every insecurity within me, and because movement was how I defined my sense of self and self-worth, I felt lost in the world. I was riddled with feelings of shame and fear because my world, as I saw it, had been ripped away from me.
I am grateful for that experience, in hindsight, and my ability to work through those emotions through journaling. I'm thankful I have cultivated enough self-awareness over the past few years to recognize a shame bomb, journal and reflect on what was causing it, and figure out healthy ways to address those fears. I saw that my self-concept was founded on my ability to move as an athlete.
I saw that it was not serving me and only left me vulnerable to the same world-shattering experience I had just drowned in. Especially with movement and one's physical body, there is so much volatility and vulnerability to one's affect and self-evaluation because of how quickly it can be taken away. For me, it required a global pandemic and everything literally being shut down, being sick and unable to breathe fully, to see how I was setting myself up for failure. One day, I could be in a car accident and become paralyzed, unable to move my body again. I could move to a remote island, with no access to athletic equipment or facilities. What would I do in either of these cases?
So from that place of shame, I began journaling on the characteristics that I already contain within, that are inherent and are not going anywhere. For myself, I focused on my sense of purpose for helping others. I feel an intense passion for learning about clinical psychology and applying everything I've learned to practicing empathetically, and no physical disaster could take that away from me. I am a highly empathetic person, and seeing others in pain literally triggers pain responses in my body (also something that cannot be taken away from me or change). I am creative, I love to draw. I have an eye for beauty and aesthetics, and I have always been drawn to creating all forms of art.
Those were a few of the traits and characteristics I reminded myself of, and I began shifting how I saw myself -- diverse.
I am still a work in progress, and this will likely take years to fully cultivate. But I feel more secure and less driven by anxiety. My self-worth is no longer on the line (or, at least, not as much as before). I feel more grounded and connected to more of myself. There are parts of me that can never be taken away from me. That is where I'm finding strength. That is where I'm finding myself.