By Richard J. Loebl, LCSW, BCD
Self-esteem seems to have a bad rap these days. Recent reports indicate that a majority of millenials – those who reached adulthood around the year 2000 – are narcissistic. Narcissism, contrary to popular opinion, is not simply the result of too much self-esteem. Rather, narcissism is a type of excessive self focus, and says “It’s all about me and my needs.”
Workshops and self-help books may have over-sold an inflated version of self-esteem in the past. So much so that this popular movement was satirized by Al Franken on Saturday Night Live, when he portrayed the fictional character Stuart Smalley. Smalley told himself in the mirror that “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me!” There’s even reason to believe the over-emphasis on improving our self-esteem helped to create a generation of narcissists (or at least a major portion of that generation).
Healthy self-esteem is very different from narcissism. Healthy self-esteem is caring about one’s self in a manner that actually includes caring for others. It is not based on a sense of entitlement. Emotionally balanced self-esteem is based on acceptance, forgiveness, responsibility, and self-care. In other words, healthy self-esteem is balanced with empathy and concern for others.
Narcissists put themselves first – their feelings and needs are more important than anyone else’s. It’s similar to being selfish or boastful, but more extreme and damaging. Narcissism can be a personality trait or a personality disorder. When it’s a personality trait, narcissists often put themselves first and focus mostly on their selfish needs. They may have a sense of entitlement, they can be grandiose, and at times they may lack empathy and concern for others.
In contrast, someone with Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) is that way almost all of the time, and they can’t or won’t see past their own selfish needs no matter what – causing serious life problems (in relationships, at work, etc.). Specific symptoms of NPD include
* Grandiosity (you could say they have a “superiority complex”)
* Preoccupation with ideas and fantasies of their own success, brilliance, ideal love, etc.
* The need for excessive levels of admiration or approval
* Unreasonable entitlement-based expectations
* Manipulates and uses others for their selfish needs
* A lack of empathy or concern for others and their needs
* Arrogance, overbearing, and prideful behavior.
10 Steps to Healthy Self-Esteem
My approach to self-esteem is based on many years of personal and professional experiences and lessons. Practice these steps every day, and you’re well on your way to healthy self-esteem.
1. Mindfulness & Acceptance – Awareness of all aspects of self and others without judgment. Can be practiced daily with brief meditations, and using the breath to detach and accept what is. (The breath is used by inhaling deeply through the nose and breathing out through the mouth.)
2. 7 Positive Traits – Write a list of the 7 most positive traits you’ve seen in the people you have admired and respected. This list of 7 traits actually belongs to you – “You spot it, you got it.” If you can see it in others, it resides somewhere in you. Keep this list with you, and read it every day as you look at yourself in the mirror, saying “I am ____________” (and fill in each of the 7 traits one at a time).
3. Self-Care – Taking care of yourself on a daily basis, physically, emotionally, spiritually and mentally (see Positive Thoughts, below). Includes a healthy diet, regular exercise, emotional balance, work-life balance, and grounding one’s life in healthy beliefs and values (spirituality).
4. Positive Thoughts – Mindfully notice negative thoughts, judgments and beliefs and counter these with positives – and a realistic, proactive approach to life’s problems.
5. Responsibility – A mentally healthy adult is loving and responsible (see my article Who’s In Charge?). When we act responsibly, in relationships, at work, and with self-care, we literally build a positive sense of self, or self-esteem.
6. Acts of Love – One valid and important definition of love is that love is a verb – an action toward self and others. Self-love, loving acts toward others, and charitable acts of giving create self-esteem (in AA, people say that if you want self-esteem, do estimable acts).
7. Don’t Personalize – There is negativity and judgment in the world. I recently saw a funny T-shirt that proclaimed “People ARE judging you – get over it!” Mindfully, with the breath, release or let go of judgments, opinions, and negativity – they don’t belong to you.
8. Don’t React – This follows directly from #7, above. Practice using the breath mindfully to detach from negativity and judgment. Recognize the difference between responding and reacting – responsiveness is a healthy, caring act of responsibility. Reactivity is actually a type of narcissism! (Because when we react we make it all about us!)
9. Forgiveness – Toward yourself and others, on a daily basis. Forgiveness is simply a kind of letting go. Forgiveness doesn’t say that transgressions are okay – it says we don’t stay attached to the negative, and we’re willing to let it go. And certainly, we should set reasonable boundaries when someone steps on our toes.
10. Practice Gratitude – For anyone, anything and everything positive in your life, on a daily basis. Self-esteem is actually an act of gratitude (“I’m grateful for all that I have and for all that I am.”)
Remember that none of us are perfect – it’s about progress, not perfection. Self-esteem is maintained the way an athlete maintains his or her body – through regular exercise and practice. It’s like planting flower seeds – practice these steps every day, and appreciate the growth of beauty and love in your life.
Counseling and therapy is very effective in helping people to overcome the depression and anxiety that often results from low self-esteem. Contact us today to talk to one of our self-esteem experts.