Self-esteem is an assessment of worth or value based on what we believe to be true about ourselves, and what we tell ourselves based on those beliefs (internalized narratives). What we hold to be true about ourselves affects our attitude towards self. Our narrative reinforces our truth, abilities, and self-perception. A belief system of uplifting, encouraging, and compassionate messages leads to healthy self-esteem. A belief system of doubt, criticism, perfectionism and other factors linked to feelings of inadequacy leads to impaired self-esteem.
Impaired self-esteem develops when another source becomes the mirror that dictates the criteria for our self-worth and value. Consider the Wicked Queen in Snow White. The Wicked Queen often asked her magic mirror, "Who is the fairest of them all?" The mirror responded based on its perception of beauty. She did not have an internalized narrative that supported a grounded sense of self and looked for validation from an external source (the magic mirror). Seeking validation from external sources is stress-inducing and leads to comparison, jealousy, frustration, and self-destructive behavior.
Several factors influence internalized narratives. These factors include:
Familial and interpersonal relationships affect self-esteem. For example, if a family member is "assigned" the role of the scapegoat or black sheep, that person might internalize messages that compromise self-esteem. Individuals believe they need to prove or convince others of their worth. They are also more likely to experience people-pleasing behavior, difficulty setting boundaries, and self-blame.
Adverse Childhood Experiences and Trauma
Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) refer to traumatic events experienced before age 18. These experiences include: witnessing a traumatic event (vicarious trauma), living in a dysfunctional household, or experiencing physical, emotional, and sexual abuse. Early childhood trauma affects brain development, nervous system regulation, and the ability to attend to emotions. Researchers also report a connection between ACEs and post-traumatic stress.
Social media creates the perfect environment for comparison. The highlight reels of other users become the standard by which we evaluate our accomplishments, experiences, position in life, and self-worth. Comparison contributes to feelings of inadequacy, and thoughts of not measuring up to someone else's standards or expectations.
Structures that perpetuate inequalities and inequities affect self-esteem by dehumanizing and reinforcing negative messaging. Oppressed groups often have to navigate white supremacy, systemic racism, stereotypes, microaggressions, and racial profiling. Such systems place unrealistic pressure on oppressed groups and create societal hierarchies based on race, gender, sexuality, religion, and abilities.
Healthy self-esteem can be developed by:
Internalizing a different message
Be sure the image in the mirror is that of self and not an external force. We can become grounded in self by internalizing a different message that better serves us. Internalizing a new message allows us to develop new perspectives about our ability to achieve goals and execute the life we imagine.
Being curious about the foundation of our belief system and challenging faulty messaging helps to build confidence. Confronting self allows us to develop our own story about who we are, what we like and don't like, being comfortable with our limitations and accomplishments, and not being defined by someone else's story.
Speaking with a therapist
Speaking with a therapist allows us to unpack trauma, address protective behavior and coping mechanisms that no longer serve us, learn how to set boundaries, and learn how to navigate challenging family dynamics.
Although factors affecting self-esteem seem challenging to change, it is possible to internalize a new message and develop a new attitude towards self. Know that no one is born with impaired self-esteem, and thoughts and behaviors that accompany and contribute to impaired self-esteem can be modified.