We’ve all been there: frustrated, discouraged, maybe even despairing.
We get that voice in the back of our head that says we can’t do it, we don’t deserve it, there’s something wrong with us. We try to fight it, but that voice keeps dragging us down. So, what can we do to build up how we see ourselves?
First of all, there are three main types of negative stories that wear away at our self-esteem, and each will benefit from a slightly different approach.
Problem #1: Trying to live up to other people’s expectations when they don’t match who you are.
Human beings need each other to survive. We’re not supposed to be completely self-sufficient and are hard-wired to associate with others. We pick up cues about who we are and what’s expected of us from how others act towards us. This conditioning comes not just from individuals who interact with us, but from media and social norms as well.
It’s easy to internalize these expectations when we’re surrounded by them. The problem is that we’re not robots. We’re human beings with dreams and desires and countless little quirks and gifts that make us individuals. If we allow conditioning to override our innate identity, we will constantly feel like we’re falling short because, at our core, we are out of alignment with who we think we “should” be.
The way to deal with this problem is to look at why we think we should do a certain thing or be a certain way. Is it being driven by our heart’s yearning? Or are we just going through the motions because that’s what everyone else is doing or what our parents want or because we think that what we want doesn’t matter?
The truth is that what we want does matter. Each of us is here to make a unique contribution to the world.
One of the ways we can identify that contribution is that yearning of our heart. What calls to you? Honor that pull, especially if it seems in conflict with what you think you “should” be doing. Maybe the reason you’ve been struggling so hard with being a good duckling is that you’re supposed to be a swan or an aardvark or a lion or something else that is NOT a duck. The more you align your thoughts, goals, and actions with who you truly are meant to be, the better you will feel about yourself.
Problem #2: You don’t realize that you’re better than you think you are.
A lot of times, we measure ourselves against an ideal and feel like a failure if we don’t match up to it 100%. We don’t give ourselves credit for what we do accomplish, which demotivates us and whittles away at our self-image. Stop saying “I may have done something, but it wasn’t perfect,” and start saying, “I may not have done everything I’d hoped, but I did what I could.”
In addition, a lot of us discount things that come easily to us simply because they are easy. However, that doesn’t mean they don’t have value. In fact, there’s a good chance that these “easy” things are part of your unique contribution to the world.
In these cases, you can build your self-image by owning your contribution.
Yes, I can do this. Yes, I have done this. Yes, this is part of who I am.
Problem #3: You’re not who or where you want to be, and you’re afraid you never will be.
Very few people consistently live up to their ideals, but that may be a good thing. Part of the reason we’re here on the planet is to learn and grow. The problem is when we fall into the trap of thinking that the reason that we’re not currently who we want to be is that there’s something wrong with us.
In addition to acknowledging your accomplishments, this is a situation where you can boost your self-image by training yourself to focus on your progress toward a larger goal. Cultivate a sense of curiosity: what can I learn? How can I maximize my growth? What unexpected benefits might come from this? These types of questions give you a larger perspective where “success” and “failure” are merely different opportunities to learn.
One thing that can either undermine or strengthen your self-image when you’re working towards becoming who you want to be is how well you keep commitments to yourself. If you keep telling yourself that you’re going to do something but fail to follow through, it erodes your trust in yourself. The flipside is that the more often you do fulfill these self-commitments and act in accordance with your intentions, the more faith you build in yourself.
But what if you’re strongly attracted to someone and they don’t feel the same way about you? How do you deal with that type of hit to your self-image? I file that under Problem #3 as well, and, believe it or not, you can deal with it in exactly the same way. See, a lot of the time, that intense attraction we feel towards someone else is an indication of a quality inside ourselves that is yearning to come out. Try to figure out what it is that really called to you. Was it their honesty? Their playfulness? Their artistic ability?
Whatever you love about them, start finding ways to express that quality in your own life.
Be more honest with yourself and others. Relax and find ways to be more playful.
Start sketching or writing or dancing or making music. It doesn’t matter if you’re not very good at it to start, because the more you practice learning and growing, the better you get at not just the skill you’re trying to develop, but the skill of learning and growing.
And when you live your life as a dynamic experience of learning and growth, your self-image will flourish.