Dear Dr. Norquist:
I have struggled with poor self-esteem my whole life. My father was an embarrassing alcoholic and the whole town knew it. I was the kid that other kids’ parents didn’t want them to play with, because I didn’t come from a “good” family. This made my childhood miserable. I try to prove to others that I’m not like my father, but inside I’m afraid I am. I’ve done some things I’m not proud of; I also definitely have a desire to drink too much. I tend to not let others too close because I don’t think they would like the real me. On the outside I look well put together, but inside I never feel good enough, and I’m afraid of being found out. My question is: what creates good self-esteem? Can someone have good self-esteem even if they are not proud of their background? If someone was abused or treated poorly as a child can they ever overcome that and feel good about themselves? And if so, how? How can I start to feel good about myself?
Dr. Norquist responds:
You have been hiding your Self, forgetting that each one of us carries the same spark of God. Circumstances have led you to believe that you are less than others. This is a case of mistaken identity! The good news is this is resolvable. You don’t need to change other’s opinions, just your own. This is such a universal, crucial and multi-faceted question that I will be answering it in two columns.
Some are born into circumstances that reinforce feeling good about themselves; a secure, consistent home life, parents who are emotionally healthy, available and loving, and innate health, talents and good looks. Developing good self-esteem in this case is not likely to be one of their major life lessons. This is not the case for you. This does not make you any less than them. It just points to your needed areas of growth. The gifts of this lesson are well worth the effort; personal freedom and inner contentment.
When we don’t feel good about ourselves we tend to obsess upon ourselves. We worry about how we look to others. The inner question we are constantly asking ourselves is: “Am I appealing in others eyes?” This quest plays out in various arenas including appearance, personal power, social acceptableness and wealth. In this state of mind, we are constantly scanning for what is wrong. In effect we are trying to protect ourselves from whatever we could be shamed for, criticized for, or embarrassed about. This state of mind breeds a fear-filled, tense, unhappy existence that is self-sustaining and tremendously limiting.
The antidote for this is to turn your gaze outward. Focus on others’ happiness, rather than your own. Instead of monitoring and criticizing yourself, look outward towards what you can do, see, feel or create in this moment that will be helpful to others. The experience of inner happiness and self worth is born of a genuine sense of connection with others. Focusing on our fears and our faults cuts us off from the world whereas turning our attention towards what we can do for others builds connections. Isolation is disease- producing, while connections are healing.
The truth is that genuine giving gives back in greater measure. I’m not speaking of giving from a sense of obligation, compulsion, self-effacement, guilt, or from ignoring ones own needs. Rather, I am speaking of the kind of giving that comes from a genuine connection with your Self, as one child of God to another. This kind of giving doesn’t make us better than another. It doesn’t prove our worth. It comes from a sense of our innate equality. We are all in the same boat. From this place there is a compassionate understanding that “there but for the grace of God, go I.”
Next week I will continue with this topic of building self-esteem, focusing on actions you can take to improve your self-esteem.
(Dr. Sallie Norquist is a licensed psychologist (NJ #2371) in private practice and is director of Chaitanya Counseling Services, a center for upliftment and enlivenment, in Hoboken.)Dr. Norquist and the staff of Chaitanya invite you to write them at Chaitanya Counseling Services, 51 Newark St., Suite 202, Hoboken, NJ 07030 or www.chaitanya.com or by e-mail at email@example.com, or by fax at (201) 656-4700. Questions can address various topics, including relationships, life’s stresses, difficulties, mysteries and dilemmas, as well as questions related to managing stress or alternative ways of understanding health-related concerns. 2012 Chaitanya Counseling Services