How to build self esteem – Part I

The biggest problem with having a low self esteem is that it affects every single area of our life. Its one of those unique ailments that interferes with everything we do. Our relationships, our work, our hobbies, our passions, our decisions are adversely affected by it. Every single step of the way we feel that we are not adequate enough. We begin anything with a psychological disadvantage and sabotage our own progress at every turn.

Self-esteem is a complex phenomenon to understand because outwardly it can be hard to tell if a person has low self esteem or high self esteem. It is entirely possible that a CEO of a company, a successful businessman, a popular artist all suffer from low self esteem.

How’s that possible?

The effects of low self esteem can be far ranging from making a person avoid all human contact to becoming an ultra-extrovert, who cannot live without constant human contact. It can make one totally ignore one’s needs on one hand, to endlessly groom oneself on the other. For example, spending a lot of money on clothes and appearance, working excessively in the gym to gain over sized muscles, passive-aggressively dominating other people, constantly trying to make people laugh, or trying to impress people in various different ways can all be signs of low self esteem.

Of course not all people who do these things have low self esteem, but it’s entirely possible that some of them do.

I myself have suffered from low self esteem most of my life. I grew up in the 80s when there was a lot of emphasis in the Indian society on becoming an engineer. I had to be good at math and science. I forced myself to study math in school, but as I got into college, I realized that the competition was too much for me. I couldn’t keep up, and developed self image issues. I became the nerdy kid, with big glasses, who was not good at math. In other words, a kid who looked intelligent, but in reality was dumb.

As I went through college studying software programming, that same fear of being bad with math translated to being bad with logic. It used to take me a long time to write any kind of code, and I started to avoid doing it entirely. It didn’t help that all my friends were really good at it. This added to my image issues. I carried this feeling with me into my mid-20s and eventually left the field of computer programming. I feared that I would be bad at any job that involved working with numbers or logic.

Yet, for the last 4 years, that’s exactly what my job has involved, making decisions based on cost, in other words working with lots of numbers. How did I do it? As always, in order to bring about a fundamental change, we have to understand ourselves first. The whole purpose of this blog is to enable the reader to understand oneself through self awareness.

Simply put, I didn’t do anything. It happened all by itself as I began to understand who I was as an individual. A total understanding of anything eliminates all fears, confusions, and conflicts about that thing. Having said that, let’s understand what this whole thing is about, once and for all.

What exactly is self esteem?

In order to understand self-esteem, we have to look beyond the word itself. The word stirs up certain pre-existing conclusions we have about the problem which prevents us from understanding it completely. Sometimes a name for a thing gets in the way of understanding the thing itself. If you didn’t know the word self esteem, how would you describe it?

It is nothing but a set of conclusions we have about ourselves based on comparison.

It could be comparison made by our parents with our siblings, or comparison made by our teachers with other kids in our class by giving us grades, or could be comparison we made with our own self-created ideals. It does not matter. What matters is understanding that the root of low self esteem is comparing oneself with something or someone else. Comparing what is, with what ought to be. Comparing who you are, with who you should be.

Try to see if deep down, there has been a comparison of yourself with some arbitrary standard. Whether that standard is a widely accepted performance measure in the society, (being attractive, intelligent, rich, strong, heterosexual etc.) or just a person who you look up to, it is important for you to identify it very clearly.

If you think you meet the standard, you have high self esteem, if you think you don’t, you have low self esteem.

People with high self esteem are not different. They have just convinced themselves that they come out better after comparison. Which is why their self esteem can go from high to low in a matter of minutes. Inevitably, you run into someone who is better, and then the comparison yields a negative result. Also it follows that, it is entirely possible to have high self esteem about one thing, and simultaneously have a low self esteem about another.

The earliest we are exposed to comparison is in our schools. We are given grades, and then the grade becomes a direct judgement about how you are as a student. An ‘A’ grade automatically makes one child feel superior to the other child with a ‘C’ grade. It becomes such a part of our identity throughout the years that we can identify people as ‘back benchers’ or teacher’s pets’, even after they have grown up into adults. What is this, if not a direct result of completely wrong practice of grading children when they are just learning about the world.

Very few teachers take the pains to identify a child’s interest, pique her curiosity and encourage the process of learning. Instead, the emphasis is on being able to regurgitate what you have learned.

If I was a teacher, the first thing I would make clear to the class is that grades don’t matter, what matters is how much you have learned, and whether you are asking the right questions. A test is not something to be afraid of, but something to be enjoyed, like a puzzle. A child’s education then would be focused on  practicing whatever each child loved doing the most, like playing sports, painting or singing. In either case, there would be no direct comparison.

I know what you are thinking. “But, what is wrong with comparison”, right? Isn’t it a good thing? How do we know where we stand without comparison? Isn’t comparing with a standard not only good, but also necessary? One one hand, we feel that comparison is good, because it helps us differentiate good from the bad, and on the other, comparison can hurt us emotionally. So is it really good or is it bad?

Let’s get this contradiction about comparison out of the way before we go any further. One thing is clear, if you believe that comparison is necessary, you will always fall into that trap.

Step 0 – Ending all comparison

Firstly, there are two types of comparisons.

  1. Scientific comparison : This is the kind of comparison or measurement we require to understand the characteristics of elements found in nature. Length, color, density, reactivity, temperature, etc. Here, comparisons with a scale are required from a purely mechanistic standpoint, to ensure that humanity can utilize the laws of physics and biology to its advantage by designing machines or curing diseases. This comparison is very objective in nature, employing widely accepted  systems like metric, imperial etc.
  2. Psychological comparison: This is the kind of comparison we do in order to feel psychologically secured. There is great comfort in knowing that you are better off than someone else, because at a primal level, it means that you have higher chance of survival. Yet, it is this search for security that makes us feel insecure. A millionaire suddenly feels poor, when she compares herself to a billionaire. It’s not the lack of money, but the comparison which is the reason for her perceived poverty. We believe that we will get scientific results from an unscientific and a subjective process. In other words, it is very easy to fool oneself.

So why do we do it?

A simple answer is, out of habit. Right from childhood, we were taught to compare ourselves with other kids. We were taught to survive in a cruel world, where a six year old is basically told that he or she is not good enough, because she cannot score an A grade. The end goal of comparison was to make us strong enough, so that we would not succumb to the pressures of competition.

We were taught how to compare and compete, so that we don’t break under the pressures of the world. Yet, comparison is exactly the thing that eventually breaks us.

After years and years of habitually comparing ourselves with others, we get to a very strange place. We cannot tell right from wrong. All our opinions and original thoughts become secondary to the opinions of others. To “fit in” we give up what our own heart says, and follow the norms of the world.

We don’t know if we are doing the right thing, until someone says so.

We don’t know if we make enough money, unless we ask how much our friends make. We don’t know if we are happy, unless we know if others are happier than us. We don’t know if we are attractive unless someone tells us we are. We don’t know if we are popular unless people like our pictures on facebook. The list goes on and on.

What happens if you don’t compare?

If you don’t psychologically compare yourself with anyone, then you don’t know whether you are better or worse, right? What are you then? When you can ask yourself, “What am I?”, and not answer it in reference to other people or your own beliefs about how you should be, you open the door to transformation. This is something we rarely, if ever do.

If you don’t compare yourself psychologically, then you are exactly what you are. Neither good, nor bad, just yourself, as you are. That’s all.

In other words, you are, for the first time in your life, yourself. Without a care for what the world thinks or does. You become free to express yourself as you are. You are no longer bogged down by what is right or what is wrong, according to other people’s opinions, but decide it for yourself.

It doesn’t mean you become a sociopath, but quite the contrary. You become a sane person, who sees the truth of what you are, without the judgement or the standards of a cruel and competitive society. You become empathetic to others, and never judge them either.

If you can be in that state of non-comparison, and at the same time, not worry about becoming timid or arrogant in the eyes of the world, then, and only then, you begin to understand what real trust in oneself is.  You begin to understand what true self esteem means.

Confidence and self-esteem is something you have precisely because you refuse to compare yourself to others, not because you compare and think you came out on top.

Now that we have settled this issue about ‘comparison’, we can look at the next level of this problem. The negative self-image. Years and years of comparing consciously or unconsciously eventually creates a solid negative self image in our minds.

The way out, as always, lies in going through, and not around that negative self image. That means we cannot escape from confronting it, understanding it, and then eventually dissolving it. The only way to do that is to recognize or identify it completely. To become so aware of it, that you catch it the instant it activates in your mind.

Step 1- Identifying your self esteem triggers

This is a very powerful exercise and can feel overwhelming..It works well when you write down the answers instead of mentally answering them. When you write something down, your mind registers it better and not just gloss over it, which is our goal. So grab an old notebook, or a piece of paper and a pen, and get on with it.

Ask yourself:

  1. Which incident or incidents have had the most negative impact on my self esteem?
    1. Write each incident on a piece of paper, with only one incident per line. Don’t go into too much detail yet.
  2. Which people contributed to the above negative incidents? What exactly did they say?
    1. Write their initials across each incident,if no people were involved, leave blanks.
    2. What did these people say that hurt you the most?
    3. Write the exact words. You can write as much as required here. Write below the answers for 1 and 2.
  3. Has my self-esteem always been where it is now, or did it decrease during a particular period in my life? How was it before? Write in one line.
  4. Who is better than me? How are they better than me?
    1. Yes, as uncomfortable as it feels, ask yourself this question and write down the answer to it in exquisite detail. Write a paragraph for each person.
    2. If there are more than one person you can think of, write about all of them.
  5. What emotions do I have with respect to each one of these people?
    1. Do you admire, despise or feel envious of them?
    2. Do you feel that life has been unfair to you?
    3. Do you feel angry because of the way things are? Write down all the emotions which are arising as you are reading this sentence

These memories about past negative incidents, which happened for no fault of yours can take you back in time. They can make you feel powerful, by making you angry. Conversely, these memories also have the power to make you feel like a victim. Become aware of this entire process. Become aware of your complete self-image, get intimate with its ways, find out how it activates when you interact with people.

The answers to all the above questions point to your triggers. Whenever the trigger is encountered, your negative self-image is activated.

Remember these incidents are in the past. You cannot change the past, but you can let it go. You cannot let go of it, by holding on to it. The only way to let go of these past memories is to understand how they enter your present. When someone says similar things, to the ones you wrote above, or when difficulties arise, become aware of the negative self image taking over your mind.

It is absolutely possible to let go of the negative self image, but first you must ‘encapsulate’ it. Just like you know the full content of your favorite movie in an instant, the moment you hear its name.

A single snapshot in your consciousness, should be able to encapsulate the whole of your negative self-image. Which means that whenever it activates you become aware of it’s entire movement, not just a part of it. If you can do this, you will immediately begin to feel a sense of freedom from it’s influence.

You see, there is no such thing as self esteem. What we call low self esteem or high self esteem is nothing but how we see ourselves. What we believe about ourselves. Beliefs, are nothing but abstractions of reality. They are not reality. They are snapshots of reality, as much as a photograph of a tree, is the actual tree itself. The actual tree grows and changes every instant, a picture of it does not.

The beliefs you have are nothing but memories frozen in time, like a photograph of a past which no longer exists. Reality has moved on a long time ago, but you believe it’s in the picture. The image, the belief, the negative self-image, the low-self esteem, is just a picture which you hold in your hand, and have convinced yourself that it is real. It’s not real. You can let it go. You have to let it go.

Part II and Part III will follow. In the meanwhile, I recommend reading my free eBook for an in-depth understanding of why and how we create beliefs about ourselves. Just sign up below and it will be delivered to your inbox. 

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