Self-esteem refers to one’s self-confidence or the manner in which a person judges and evaluates himself/herself and will generally vary between a very positive and very negative vision of the self. People with low self-esteem, for example, present a low degree of confidence in their skills and abilities. Such individuals often feel insecure, are incapable of counting on their own resources and manifest a variety of fears especially linked to their perception of self-inadequacy and incapacity. Again, to offer an example, if a person characterised by a low level of self-esteem were in a situation in which he/she had to make an important decision, he/she would experience a strong sense of uncertainty and the sensation that whatever choice is made will inevitably be the wrong one. On the contrary, a person with a solid sense of self-esteem will choose whatever course of action he/she feels is best without excessive concern or indecision.

It is important to note that self-esteem is a dynamic factor, which evolves over time and can undergo even quite considerable variations throughout a lifetime. One is not born with just the right dose of self-esteem; it is rather something which, ideally, should be cultivated, maintained and nurtured during the course of one’s existence. While a low level of self-esteem would present an obstacle and a hindrance in the life of an individual, excessive self-esteem may also have rather adverse effects. On the one hand, at one extreme there are those who present a low level of self-esteem and, at the other, those who enjoy - or, perhaps, more appropriately, we should say, ‘suffer’ from - excessive self-esteem and often end up always feeling extremely self-confident and always believing they have done or are doing the right thing even when, objectively, this is clearly not the case. The latter individuals run the risk of not realizing what their mistakes are, as their sense of security is so high that they are incapable of seeing any alternative behaviour different from that taken into consideration. In such cases, one might speak in terms of over-developed or hypertrophic self-esteem. Persons presenting this characteristic, as already mentioned, are particularly self-confident, often quite proud but also presumptuous and stubborn, and incapable of looking back to the past to analyze their behaviour and possible mistakes so as to reflect on and become aware of their errors and faulty judgement in order to learn life’s lessons.

As is often the case, the truth - or the appropriate course of action - lies in the middle, and with regard to the question of self-esteem this is certainly the case. A healthy level of self-esteem implies the capacity to perceive and relate to oneself in a realistic and positive manner, identifying one’s own strong and weak points, developing what is positive and attempting to improve the weaker sides of one’s character and behaviour. It also means being able to admit that there is something not quite right when circumstances call for such an attitude. People characterised by a healthy degree of self-esteem will not be perfect, but, unlike those who fail to respect themselves in a sufficient manner, they know how to valorise their skills and abilities and how to keep their faults and the less favourable aspects of their nature under control.

A healthy level of self-esteem occurs independently of the evaluation of other people, is characterised by a good knowledge of oneself, helps to preserve strong points and improve weaker aspects of the personality, promotes the acceptance and pursuit of stimulating though not excessive objectives, and drives an individual to reflect objectively on his/her actions and compete with or measure his/her capacities against those of other people. Our attention however should really focus on those subjects who suffer from a low level of self-esteem as they more easily fall prey to anxiety. Low self-esteem generally derives from a discrepancy between the ‘ideal self’ and the  ‘perceived self’. The ideal self is everything one would like to become, the qualities one would like to possess and the character and skills one wishes to acquire. The perceived self is the array of perceptions and knowledge we possess concerning ourselves. This is basically how we see ourselves and what we believe we are like. At some time or other, every person has thought, “I would really like to have this or that skill” or “That’s the way I would like to be but I simply can’t manage it.” Within certain limits, this kind if thinking is entirely normal. However, we pass the threshold when we start resigning ourselves to the (presumed) fact that ‘nothing will ever be as it should be’. In this way, our fears are crystallised and become the accepted ‘reality’.

When we lose determination and end the constant struggle to improve ourselves, we start off on a downward slide or simply stay as we are for the rest of our lives. At this point the reader will begin to see that there is indeed a subtle link between low self-esteem and the anxiety disorders. For example, suffice it to reflect for a moment on the phobias; people who suffer from these disturbances are incapable of facing their fears, which end up by limiting the normal course of their lives. Persons with a phobic or depressed personality do not have enough confidence in themselves to act when confronted with problems. They feel they are impotent, helpless victims who are incapable of reacting, as if their enemy were invincible and irresistible. Their self-deprecating and self-effacing tendencies are far too accentuated to permit any kind of useful reaction. However, that is not really the way things are and the cause lies in their distorted unrealistic perception of their own selves and, consequently, of the problems which afflict them. The same thing occurs in a Panic Disorder: an individual will experience the sensation of being totally at the mercy of events with no control over them whatsoever. We may thus view anxiety and low self-esteem as two aspects of the same problem and thus, by working on improving our self-confidence, we can undoubtedly obtain an improvement in the other sense.

Improving one’s self-esteem is possible but it requires constant commitment. It is not difficult; one just has to really want to achieve such a goal and make every effort to think that one is doing it for oneself and that one day, after an adequate period of exercise, those unpleasant feelings of inadequacy will vanish and it will be finally possible to make decisions autonomously, to not ruminate over whether they were right or wrong and to no longer feel that one has made a terrible mistake.

The first thing to do in order to start improving one’s self-esteem is to work on one’s perceptions. This involves getting to know one’s character better, analyzing our inner world in all its complexity, focusing our attention not only on the negative aspects but also - and especially - on the positive characteristics of our psychic makeup. In doing this, we should be objective and it may be useful to ask someone we trust to lend a hand: someone who can see certain aspects of our character we not be aware of. For example, we might be absolutely convinced that we would never be able to achieve a certain goal, but in that case, why not drop the whole issue and forget it for a while and concentrate on some other smaller objective we feel we really can attain? Every individual is good at doing something and the great thing about life is that we are all different. We can’t all do the same things: some of us excel in certain activities and other people do very well in others. Once we admit that, that’s the start. This first step then is related to the perceived self, which in time has to become as realistic and as objective as possible (the ‘real’ self).

The second step is related to the ideal self. We now have to review our ideals, ambitions and aspirations. It would not be right to demand that we attain goals that are too distant or difficult. Our objectives should be established in accordance with our real personal capacities and characteristics, and especially avoiding any form of imposition as if they were compulsory achievements that have to be fulfilled at all costs. The best way to obtain this skill consists in realizing our limits and temporarily forgetting them.

For the time being, we don’t need them as our personal growth must above all be based on the positive aspects of our character so that we can develop and consolidate them, and later on also on those perceived as negative. It is pointless and useless to want something at all costs which we simply cannot have right now. It is much better to take one of our positive qualities, however insignificant it may be, and try to exploit it to the full, thinking about all of the things we might obtain if we work hard at developing that quality. Another tendency in people who have a low level of self-esteem consists in their deliberate attempts at setting themselves unattainable goals, following which they lose themselves in the awareness that there is nothing they can do to achieve them. This kind of attitude has to be avoided as it is very definitely pointless and ultimately harmful.

Every one of us has the capacity to achieve the goals we have set for ourselves, provided they are realistic and derive from an awareness of our true potential and not from the desires of others around us or from ‘ideal’ choices. Initially we should set ourselves rather humble aims and later on we can also contend with goals of a more complex nature which at first may seem unreachable. Our self-esteem will grow as the number of objectives we have attained increases and gradually it will seem easier to carry on along the path of self-improvement and construction of a healthy degree of self-esteem.

Just staying put and thinking we’re never going to make the grade does not help us to obtain an adequate awareness of our own self so that we can begin to acquire the self-esteem we need. In the same way, believing that our goals are too far off is pointless. It’s not exactly easy to begin but in the end the results will definitely repay all of the efforts we put into this kind of work.


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