There seems to be an epidemic of low self-esteem, and it’s not just limited to those who haven’t been very successful. In my work with patients, I have come across too many bright, attractive, and accomplished individuals whose self-image is in the toilet.
How does that happen? The short answer is that so much of our self-image is acquired by what we hear about ourselves from other significant people in our environment – parents, spouses and significant others, siblings, peers, supervisors and co-workers.
Self-esteem is enhanced in an environment where good performance is complimented, effort is praised, and mistakes are treated as learning experience.
Repeated criticisms and put-downs, on the other hand, lead to low self-esteem. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Too often I have seen competent people allow themselves to be undermined by the judgments of others whose own issues should disqualify them to render judgment.
When a patient tells me that they have been frequently put down by a parent or sibling or someone else with whom they have a relationship, I will often ask a few questions such as: How much respect do you have for that person? How successful is s/he in managing his or her own life? How nice a person is s/he? How normal is this person?
Not surprisingly, I often hear that the person doing the judging is pretty screwed up. People who are generally successful, happy, and put together emotionally are able to offer constructive criticism without a need to put other people down in order to feel temporarily superior.
If your efforts at self-improvement are being undermined by the judgments of those whom you don’t respect, don’t let them off the hook by accepting their judgments. In therapy, one of the questions that I often ask to help people get unstuck is, “What does that have to do with me?” When your self-esteem is being attacked in an irrational manner by someone who’s not all that emotionally healthy, that’s a good time to ask yourself what does somebody else’s craziness have to do with you?
If it says more about them than about you, I suggest that you spend your time and energy in building self-esteem and achieving goals rather than joining in the craziness.