I often get asked by clients and friends alike, “what is self-esteem exactly?” which is invariably followed by “..and how can I make mine better?”.
The word ‘Esteem’ is derived from the Latin word ‘aestimare’, meaning, “to value, rate, appraise, weigh or estimate”. So, combined with the pre-fix ‘self’ translates into how one values or rates oneself. Self-esteem is the internal view you have of yourself.
I should point out that it isnt the same as confidence which comes from the Latin ‘fidere’ meaning “to trust”. Self-confidence is the trust and the belief you have in which tends to dictate your ability to engage with the outside world successfully.
Self-confidence can often be ‘faked’ if you will at least in the short term. You can adopt pretend self-confidence for a situational need. This is invariably known as courage. Self-esteem however is a much trickier beast.
There are multiple signs of good or healthy self-esteem but in my experience, it tends to centre around the following:
- You live in the present.
You don’t dwell on the past and in particular you don’t dwell on or obsess over what you did right or wrong. Remember that self-esteem is about how you appraise yourself. If you have healthy self-esteem you are more accepting of yourself and your past words, behaviours or actions. You don’t obsess over what you can no longer change. You aim to do the best you can and be the best you can in the present moment.
- You can stand your ground with a reasonable amount of comfort and poise.
In my experience, very few people assert themselves without some degree of discomfort. Asserting yourself can be anything from expressing what you like or don’t like, disagreeing with someone to standing your ground in a conflict. Its pretty wide ranging.
The lower the level of self-esteem the higher the degree of discomfort. If you have healthy levels of self-esteem then you can assert yourself calmly with poise and grace. You can also do it without finding it excessive levels of stress or guilt.
Signs of stress aren’t always emotional. They are also physiological. During moments of assertiveness, you may experience increased heart rate, clenched jaw or fists and sweating. You may also suffer stress related headaches or migraines in particularly difficult situations. Training yourself to be more aware of your physiology in moments of assertion is useful. They tell you just as much about you in the moment as your emotional state. As you build your esteem and confidence, the physiological signs diminish over time.
Let me also be clear here. Being assertive is not the same thing as being aggressive. I have observed many leaders who confuse the two. In fact, acts of aggression are invariably linked to low self-esteem because they show a lack of self-control and an inability to control your emotions.
- You understand your emotions and have an ability to master them.
Point 2 leads me nicely on to the links between self-esteem and emotional control. We are all emotional creatures. We are human. This is not about suppressing your emotions. It is about recognising them, understanding them and learning to choose how you respond. It is about learning to respond and not react.
Let’s bring this to life. Think about when you have received criticism. Perhaps it was part of your development feedback in your performance assessment or it could have been ‘off the cuff’ feedback from a line manager or a colleague.
When receiving criticism, we take it personally. It’s hard not to. I know when I have received criticism in the past my default mode is to get defensive. Or to acknowledge it in the conversation and then stubbornly ignore it and do absolutely nothing about it.
We have to listen without getting angry and defensive. We have to fight the urge not to apportion blame elsewhere. We have to own the feedback and not immediately dismiss it out of hand. We also have to let the one piece of criticism we receive not overshadow all of the positive feedback we have received which, as human beings, we are inclined to do.
Healthy levels of self-esteem mean the ability to understand what’s going on for you and why, and then have some self-control over your response. It is the ability to take responsibility for yourself, your feelings and your actions and the ability to learn throughout this process.
- You have boundaries.
The ‘B’ word is back! Healthy self-esteem and boundaries go hand in hand. You cannot have one without the other. Boundaries are about knowing what you tolerate and what you don’t and then creating and communicating rules and limits with others.
Boundaries are about setting the tone for others to treat you with dignity and respect.
Boundaries sometimes get a bad reputation. As if you are creating walls between you and others or you are being self-centred or selfish. Boundaries are about putting yourself first and by putting yourself first you take control of your life, your wellbeing and your happiness. Boundaries are a form of self-care and when you care for yourself others don’t have to do it for you.
- You value yourself.
If you have been reading my other posts you will know that somewhere or another I always always talk about how you must value yourself. Valuing yourself comes with treating yourself with compassion and kindness. It comes from having self-respect and boundaries. It comes with the ability to know when you are in a situation that isn’t serving you and having the courage to walk away. It’s about knowing when you are being taken advantage of and putting a stop to it. It’s about the ability to say no.
The more value you place on yourself the healthier your self-esteem will be.