Whether it’s fabricating unflattering images within our own reflection, believing we’re destined to fail an exam or be rejected by a lover, chances are most of us have experienced a less than encouraging sense of self-worth at some point in our lives. The question is: how has this affected our life experiences and relationships, and in what avenues should we best direct our efforts in seeking true self-acceptance?
Former professor of sociology at the University of Maryland, Dr Morris Rosenberg, defined self-esteem as the “totality of the individual’s thoughts and feelings with reference to himself as an object”. Our level of self-esteem is the very fabric of who we are, how we present ourselves; ultimately determining how much we thrive throughout life with pleasure and prosperity. The power is yours, as self-esteem isn’t a fixed disposition. Significant improvements can be achieved with willingness to challenge and change self-defeating behaviour and thinking habits.
Ebbs and flows
According to the National Association for Self-Esteem, characteristics associated with low self-esteem include: over-analysing oneself; stress and fear of adversity; tiredness; unable to set and achieve goals; antisocial behaviour like difficulty maintaining eye contact and friendships; and holding negative views of self, family and society.
While low self-esteem can stem from various anxiety conditions, chronically low self-esteem can in fact increase vulnerability to stress and hence instigate conditions such as depression and eating disorders. In contrast, high self-esteem doesn’t necessarily suggest arrogance or narcissism but an empowering quality of unconditional positive self-regard—feeling proud of our strengths and learning from our flaws.
In 1965, Dr Rosenberg created the Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale (RSES), one of the most widely used measures of self-esteem in social science. This psychological questionnaire encourages participants to reflect on their feelings by responding to 10 statements that suggest positive or negative self-regard, including: “I don’t feel I have much to be proud of”; “I feel I have a number of good qualities”; and “I wish I could have more respect for myself”.
According to a report from the American Psychological Society, self-esteem generally peaks during childhood before a significant drop in adolescence, particularly for females. Another gradual rise commonly occurs throughout adulthood, before another sharp decline in senior years. Many theorists propose that these fluctuations are triggered by maturation changes such as puberty or physical decline associated with old age, and responses to variations in our social environment.
Many theorists have researched the impact that childhood relationships can have on self-esteem. It appears children who feel their parents lack interest in them often record significantly lower self-esteem, and consequently are more likely to fall victim to juvenile delinquency.
“Self-worth develops in response to the emotional environment provided by a person’s caregivers. Parents who are emotionally responsive but not intrusive have greater chance of providing children with secure environments and consequently secure self-esteem,” says psychotherapist Adam Szmerling, from Melbourne’s Bayside Psychotherapy.
Relationship dynamics can influence self-perception, but it runs both ways. Low self-regard may result in the development of unhealthy relationships and perpetuate the cycle of ongoing problems should we—consciously or unconsciously—seek the company of those who confirm how we view ourselves. Lack of self-worth can also damage the dynamics of potentially healthy relationships, particularly if it prompts pathological tendencies like dependency or clinging. A 2003 study by University of California indicated that people with low self-esteem often externalise blame for their failures, and subsequently display hostility and aggression that causes conflict between otherwise compatible people.
“How interpersonal conflicts are perceived and adequate faith in their reparative probability is also connected to self-esteem. High self-esteem may help us feel less criticised and attacked, and more able to have empathy for another person’s experience,” explains Szmerling.
A common trap in the pursuit for self-esteem is constantly seeking praise and validation from others, which creates unstable foundations for relationships and can disempower the ability to remain true to ourselves. “The desire to gain someone else’s respect can make someone with low self-esteem compromise their integrity by doing something that’s not in their soul’s best interest,” says Greg Clarke, co-founder of Newcastle’s Living Peace Yoga & Meditation. “Have you ever told someone what they want to hear to receive acceptance, or done things that didn’t feel right to placate someone else? These patterns are a way of seeking external esteem. The difficulty of outsourcing your self-esteem is that it can be easily retrenched,” he says.
According to associate professor and director of psychological services at the Black Dog Institute, Vijaya Manicavasagar, people often look for external means to enhance self-esteem—spending money to look good, buying fancy cars, building big homes. Despite costly efforts, many remain low on the self-esteem spectrum beneath the surface.
“To develop self-esteem, you must take charge of your life. You only build confidence from mastery of situations or experiences. You can’t just talk, you have to do,” says Manicavasagar. “You have to learn to look at yourself differently and understand your self-talk may not always be healthy. You’ve got to question certain behaviours and attitudes, which may require help from a qualified therapist.”
Dr Russ Harris, medical practitioner, psychotherapist and author of The Confidence Gap (Penguin, 2010), identifies common attitudes within modern society that trigger the problematic winners/losers mindset. “Society often encourages us to think in terms of winners and losers, champions and underachievers. There may be short-term benefits of getting hooked by the story that we’re ‘winners’ or ‘champions’, but how long does that feeling last?” queries Dr Harris, who believes our minds suddenly switch to the detrimental “loser” label once we inevitably begin comparing ourselves with others “more successful”. “The fear of becoming a ‘loser’ creates a desperate need to achieve, which problematically leads to chronic stress, performance anxiety or burn-out,” he adds.
Defusing mental banter effectively relies on the ability to create and believe positive thoughts. Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra 2:33 informs us: “To be free from thoughts that distract one from peace, thoughts of an opposite kind must be cultivated.” This is where positive affirmations may be beneficial, such as “I accept and respect my unique personality” or “I am worthy of love and happiness”.
Yoga and you
Ancient yogic text, The Bhagavad Gita tells of four main ways to subdue the relentless nature of the mind: regular (yoga) practice, relentless inquiry, nonattachment and firm faith. The spirituality, stillness, space and silence acquired through regular yoga practice allow us to iron out creases in our minds and bodies simultaneously; to stand tall and sit comfortably within our own skin without an overzealous ego that may have previously depleted self-esteem.
“Asanas give us healthy and supple bodies which allows for the execution for the soul’s guidance. Also, self-esteem requires you to stand tall, therefore having good posture is a great step toward this empowering place,” explains Clarke, who offers a self-esteem course online. “Pranayama [breath work] is the fuel, the vitality for the actions that we’re required to perform. Meditation provides clarity to determine if what we’re hearing and doing is pure and correct.”
According to Professor Manicavasagar, pranayama may also have calming benefits for people experiencing anxiety or depression. “There’s a social connectedness side to yoga too,” she adds. “Many of my patients have said just by joining yoga classes, meeting like-minded people and being disciplined about going creates a sense of self-respect, worthiness and purpose.”
Clarke also encourages the use of visualisations as a motivational tool toward self-acceptance. “Imagine how you would look, speak and act if you not only believed but knew that you were no less than and no more than any other being,” he urges. “What would you look like if you were free from the masks that cover your splendour?”
Diana Timmins is a freelance writer and vinyasa yoga teacher based on the South Coast of NSW.
A practice for self-esteem
According to yogic philosophy, we have seven chakras, or energy centres, that cannot be seen but profoundly impact physical and psychological wellbeing. Yoga teacher Greg Clarke explains that the vitality of the third chakra, called Manipura, located just above the navel at the solar plexus, is particularly important for self-esteem.
He recommends a Kundalini Yoga practice called Nabhi Kriya to strengthen the core and Manipura chakra’s vibrancy. Practice this sequence daily, beginning with one minute per pose and building with proficiency. “Complete Nabhi Kriya with a few minutes of relaxation lying in Savasana, followed by chanting Sat Nam three times. Sat means ‘truth’, and Nam means ‘self’, therefore ‘truth is my identity’,” says Clarke.
Alternate leg lifts: Lying on your back, inhale and lift right leg to 90 degrees. Exhale and lower. Continue alternating legs.
Leg lifts: Lying on your back, stretch arms straight up, palms facing, inhale and lift both legs to 90 degrees. Exhale and lower.
Knees to chest: Lying on your back, your head relaxed on the floor, clasp bent knees to your chest.
Knees to chest, variation: Lying on your back, inhale and open arms at shoulder height on floor, extend legs to 60 degrees. Exhale, return to start.
Leg lifts, variation: Lying on your back, draw left knee to chest. Inhale and raise right leg to 90 degrees. Exhale, lower leg. Continue sequence for one minute, then repeat on alternate side.
Forward bends: Standing, raise arms overhead, palms to sky. Exhale and bend forward to touch the ground. Inhale and rise slowly.