To be nobody - in a world which is doing its best . . . to make you everybody else - means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight, and never stop fighting.
- E E Cummings
Self-esteem is how we feel about ourselves. Things that influence our self-esteem are many, including personality, physical and emotional health, abilities, appearance, habits, and morality. We might feel positive about some and negative about others.
Feelings we have about ourselves can fluctuate from day to day. One day we might be confident and determined. Another day we might feel insecure and unhappy. Discovering our overall true feelings about ourselves isn't as simplistic as the definition of self-esteem leads us. We must allow for a measurement of our feelings. Self-esteem is a physical, emotional, and spiritual value we assign to ourselves.
We are not born with self-esteem. It is a learned way of looking at ourselves. Most of how we feel about ourselves is learned in childhood, given to us from our parents and the signals they send us about who we are and what we are worth. Out of a healthy family setting, we emerge feeling good about ourselves because we were valued and loved as individuals.
Out of unhealthy or dysfunctional families, chances are we emerge feeling bad about ourselves because others did not show us we were valued or loved. Our individuality, in many cases, was not encouraged to flourish; we were criticized and devalued.
For many years I suffered inside and had little or no self-esteem. I saw myself as less than the lowest of the low. By my mid-twenties I no longer needed my parents to devalue me, I was quite capable of harshly criticizing and devaluing myself. I aspired to be nothing. I had no goals or dreams for myself because I just knew I would fail. I had no real friends because I had no interpersonal or social skills beyond the dysfunction of my own home. Thus, others outside of the home also criticized me and were quite cruel with their taunts. I never seemed to fit in.
At the age of twenty-two, I had a complete breakdown. That was probably the best thing that could have ever happened to me. While hospitalized, I was introduced to therapy and self-healing. I became a glutton for knowledge and desperately wanted to overcome whatever had put me there in that cold, stark hospital room.
I learned I was an adult child. People who grow up dealing with the trauma of an unnourishing, dysfunctional family are called adult children. The dysfunction is exhibited in many ways. For me the dysfunction was alcoholism - my father was an alcoholic. But the dysfunction comes in many packages, such as drug addiction, sexual abuse, physical abuse, mental illness, or even divorce and workaholism. Anything that disrupts the natural function of a healthy family and results in non-nurturing and abusive behavior usually produces an adult child of that dysfunction.
Adult children, like me, grow up to have self-defeating attitudes about who they are. Our experience in the home is without encouragement, either directly or indirectly, by the way our parents treat us. We might have some, or all of the following feelings about ourselves
- We are selfish and demanding
- We are in the way
- We will never amount to anything
- We are not wanted or needed
- We are unattractive
- We are not loved or even lovable
- We are not important enough to care about
- We are a problem for others
- We can't do anything right.
These are very debilitating feelings to carry around with you every day of your life. Which is why, at age twenty-two, I was finally broken down to my core. I was hopeless and thought I had no reason to go on. I was an emotional wreck. My life was devoid of anything of value. I felt worthless and alone.
Over the next three years, I had to reprogram my ways of thinking about myself. I had to learn self-acceptance, self-worth, self-guidance, self-determination, self-love, and self-healing - quite a task, let me tell you, especially since I, for so many years, was convinced that I was completely worthless and unlovable.
Through much hard work and guidance from my therapist, I slowly began to see my worth to the world. I began to trust in myself to make decisions and even to succeed. I started reading a lot - anything I could get my hands on that could help explain how to get better. I began to set goals for myself - and meet them. I, for the first time, saw myself as truly lovable, worthy of being loved. I started making real friendships, and opening myself up to them. I took some risks, and I failed now and then, but it wasn't the end of the world. I allowed myself the freedom to be human. I learned to listen to myself and make wiser choices.
Today I am forty years old, and still learning something new about myself every day. I never think I am done healing. I still struggle with my self-esteem now and again, but I now know how to work through it. One thing that I do is to write positive affirmations to myself. Whenever I am feeling or thinking negative about a situation, or myself I write it down.
EXAMPLE: This job is too hard; I can't do it. (Negative thought)
I will do this job to the best of my ability. (Positive affirmation)
I do this on a regular basis. At least once a week I run into my old ways of thinking negatively about my abilities and myself. I also made a list I like to carry around with me to remind me of my worth, and I need it occasionally when I may be feeling down or having a bad day. Some people think it's silly, but it works for me.
I feel blessed to have been able to overcome my family's dysfunction; it was a long hard road, but one I am glad that I took. Building self-esteem is a challenge for any individual, especially if you come from a dysfunctional background. You never, and I pray not, have to have a breakdown like the one I had to finally realize your worth to the world.
There are things you can do, whether you are from a dysfunctional family or not, that will help you build your self-esteem. Everyone has times of doubt and uncertainty in their life. Reminding yourself, when you are doubtful, of how worthy you are of living, loving, and being loved will help keep you from quitting and giving up on yourself. Write down a list of things you are good at doing, accomplishments you have achieved, ways you have helped others, etc.
Keep your list handy and look at it whenever you feel uncertain or down about yourself in a situation, or just in general. It is an amazing help in lifting your spirits. It is possible to learn to love yourself, if you are willing to put in the work. Your life can be happy, healthy, and productive, without all of the doubt and uncertainty you have been carrying around with you.
One book I recommend, if you had a truly dysfunctional upbringing is 'Healing the Shame That Binds You' by, John Bradshaw. It helped explain so many things to me about how I was feeling about myself and why. It is a great read for a first step in building your self-esteem. You will learn that it was not your fault. You will learn how to heal.