The True ‘Secret to Happiness’?
By Shanti Argue
When I first received this assignment, I expected that I would talk to some mental health professionals and get some “tips and tricks” for feeling better about yourself. Instead, I realized that I was confusing self-esteem with confidence, and it took a couple of hours of deep conversation with two therapists before I truly understood the difference.
CONFIDENCE VS. SELF-ESTEEM
Confidence can fluctuate in different domains. For example, someone might think she’s a terrible singer but an excellent cook. It can change day to day or be impacted by major life events.
Self-esteem, however, is an internal state, not tied to your circumstances. Licensed counselor Allison Loftus, of Flourish Counseling Center, says, “It’s a reflection of the voice inside your head and whether that voice is fundamentally friendly or a bully.”
AM I GOOD ENOUGH?
“Our perception of ourselves begins to be formed in infancy, beginning with trust,” says licensed social worker Jaime Leimer-Decker. “Are my needs being met?” In her daily work counseling children and families, Leimer-Decker sees many children who are already experts at negative self-talk. By adulthood, these destructive thoughts can dominate the subconscious.
Many people allow external factors to affect the way they evaluate self-worth. Some believe that happiness is achieved by finding someone to love, reaching that goal weight or scoring a dream job. But if you have a core negative belief about yourself, it won’t go away just by changing your circumstances.
With poor self-esteem, you can be externally successful, but there’s a voice inside that says, “It’s not good enough.” In many cases, we are our own worst bullies.
Conversely, if you doubt your ability to do something well, your confidence might be low. But with healthy self-esteem, you won’t berate yourself for not being good at something. Loftus says, “It is possible to find satisfaction—joy even—right where you are, simply by learning to curb your inner critic.”
IT FEELS GOOD TO BE RIGHT
Humans have a confirmation bias, meaning that we pay closer attention to information that supports our deeply held core beliefs and even disregard information that contradicts those beliefs. A few examples:
• If you hold the belief that you are “too fat,” then every time you look in the mirror or at a photo of yourself, your eyes will gravitate toward the “evidence” that supports that.
• If, in your core, you think you’re unlovable, you might unconsciously interpret other people’s behavior in a way that supports that belief or gravitate toward people who treat you poorly.
• If you believe you are incompetent or always make mistakes, you might do 100 things well in a day but berate yourself for missing an exit or forgetting to return a call.
That’s why people with low self-esteem struggle to accept compliments—it doesn’t hold with their self-evaluation. Studies have shown that people with anxiety and depression engage in more frequent negative automatic thoughts.
To break the cycle of negative automatic thoughts, Loftus suggests asking yourself, “What am I thinking, and how does it affect my emotions?” Then ask, “What is my relationship with myself, and how did it get there?” Mindfulness can help you identify which core beliefs are helpful and which aren’t.
In order to develop healthy self-esteem, Leimer-Decker says a person “needs to be open to changing their core beliefs about themselves.” She points out that most people are not explicitly taught how to navigate the emotional terrain of life, which is one reason she suggests working with a mental health professional. She disputes the idea that a therapist is only for people with “really bad” problems. Anyone can benefit from time spent focusing on their emotional state.
Realistic self-worth can give you strength, even when things aren’t going according to plan. Fortunately, this is a habit that can be cultivated.
Being mindful, working to accept compliments and paying attention to your positive attributes and strengths can establish a healthier concept of self. Journaling or working with a mental health specialist can help you reframe your self-perception in a more compassionate light.
Loftus points out, “We all have choices in how we think about ourselves.” She encourages her patients to ask, “What do I think a person who loves themselves would look like?” The answer might change over time, but it’s a good place to start. It is urgently important to treat yourself kindly and to learn to appreciate your unique strengths and weaknesses.
What happens when the people around you don’t respect your worth? Whether it comes in the form of discrimination, sexual harassment, parental disapproval or judgmental friends, it can be difficult for anyone to defend their self-worth, especially if self-esteem has been a challenge.
You might not be able to change the entire world, but Loftus insists that there steps you can take to improve your interactions with the people who are important to you. Identify your personal priorities. Recognize your worth. Making sure that you are living in harmony with your values and focusing on healthy boundaries can give you the confidence to guide people on how to be in a relationship with you.
It is impossible to overstate how remarkably unique each and every individual human is, which makes you exceptional. You are the only one like you. You are rare, precious, one of a kind, irreplaceable. You don’t need to do anything or be anything to deserve self-esteem. It begins with constructing a healthy, realistic self-identity. As Loftus says, “I’m aware of my faults, but super glad to be who I am.”