At some point in our lives, most of us learn that bullies are weak people. They’re not so tough once we’ve had enough and finally confront them. Then we wonder why we didn't do it long ago.
When I was eleven years old, a bully who used to torment me got me so upset one day that I socked him square in the face. He told me right then how surprised and impressed he was with me. He never tormented me again, and in fact, wanted to be my friend.
I believe that low self-esteem is a schoolyard bully.
Signs of low self-esteem
Here's a typical list of the signs of low self-esteem:
Fear of failure
Lack of control
Lack of boundaries
Not feeling deserving
Worry and self-doubt
Need to please others
Difficulty in speaking up
Difficulty in asking for help
Difficulty in making choices
Negative social comparison
Difficulty with accepting positive feedback
There’s a big problem with this list. Every item describes how most people initially feel when first presented with an intimidating situation. None of these traits are necessarily signs of low self-esteem!
If you’ve ever found yourself suddenly in charge of something complex or unfamiliar, you’re going to be a bit nervous (fear of failure) and initially may not know what to do (difficulty in making choices). These are normal, healthy human reactions. We get to feel things when stuff happens to us. The items on this list don’t describe “low self-esteem” until these feelings persist over time and adversely impact our lives.
You may have heard the following 13th-century quote (some of us are that old):
Good judgment comes from experience.
Experience comes from bad judgment.
It’s wise to take small bites at first. It’s better for you to work your way up the corporate or leadership ladder before being put in charge. But it’s when you begin to blame yourself for your difficulties rather than recognize that the situation is just plain difficult, when low self-esteem begins to develop.
When confronted with a difficult situation, an emotionally healthy person may think,
“This situation doesn’t look good,” or
“This situation may not turn out well,”
while someone with low self-esteem may continue to think,
“I can’t handle this,” or
“I won’t do well in this situation.”
Low self-esteem is the unhealthy internalization of feelings experienced during a difficult situation.
Internalization is accepting the blame for a negative or destructive feeling.
Internalization is when you keep the bad feeling indefinitely.
It’s especially tragic when a young child or even a teenager owns an emotional reaction he or she should not.
In a social gathering, I once watched a number of two-year-olds pass a ball back and forth between each other across the floor. One of the children hadn’t gotten the ball for a while and began to cry. He appeared to be more than upset. I believe he was terrified. It may have been the first time in his life when he felt ignored. That’s the sort of experience that can be internalized improperly. How much wisdom does a very young child have? Any at all?
Yet, we do this to ourselves as older people. If you go to a party where no one talks with you, it may not have anything to do with you. It could be they’re just as anxious about you as you are about them. Or they're jerks.
Perhaps it would be beneficial for you to learn to be more outgoing. It’s an important skill, like learning to speak English or being practiced in the mannerisms of ordinary party etiquette.
But no matter how hard we try not to, we’re occasionally going to find ourselves in uncomfortable situations. The big question is what are we going to do about it?
The root cause of most psychological problems
Aside from genetic disorders or physical damage to the brain (stroke, disease, injury), low self-esteem is at the heart of most people's emotional problems. These include:
Most people are inflicted with some of these issues at some level in their lifetimes. True, long-lasting, low self-esteem inflicts severe hardship on those possessing it as well as their families and associates.
The cause of low self-esteem can be reduced to one word: Fear. That is an entire topic on its own.
When someone intentionally mistreats you repeatedly, that person most likely possesses low self-esteem.
This puts the problem on the person doing the inflicting instead of on you. Your challenge is to learn how not to internalize--or blame yourself--for that person's behavior. This isn't easy to do! But it's part of developing a healthy personality that allows you to withstand the negative effects of others without damage. If you can succeed in being immune to the darts of destructive people, then you'll be well better off.
What’s the fix?
How do we improve our self-esteem? I propose that you pick one item on the fourteen-item list shown above and work to undo it. Then you pick a second item on the list and work to undo that one. And so on.
Review the following two examples:
To undo the effects of internalizing “Poor outlook,” accomplish something good. Anything good. Help someone move from one house to another. If you can do one thing, then you can do others. Doing such things helps undo what you’ve been telling yourself for years. It's much easier to believe you can accomplish good things when you actually are accomplishing good things.
To undo the effects of internalizing “Fear of failure,” decide to do something that takes significant effort and planning, such as preparing for a difficult hike, writing a story, painting your bathroom—anything you’ve been wanting to do anyway. Complete the job. Then pick another task that requires planning and persistance and succeed in doing it.
Eventually, your own experience will show you that what you've been telling yourself for so long is incorrect. You'll become a better person than you've been in the past.
You do what you want
People often complain about their lives, not realizing that their lives are just the way they want them to be. Not always, but most of the time.
You don't agree with me? Review these examples:
I want to lose weight. But I don’t do what it takes to lose weight.
I want a better job. But I don’t do what it takes to get a better job.
I want to quit smoking. But I don’t do what it takes to quit smoking.
I want better friends. But I don’t do what it takes to have better friends.
I want to be less stressed. But I don’t do what it takes to be less stressed.
Most often, the quality of our lives is a reflection of what we want the most. People are surprised to hear this notion because we’re constantly taught by society that our happiness and standard of living are the result of what other people do to us.
Sum of decisions
I’ve heard that we’re the sum of all our decisions. I like that idea because I can choose to better myself anytime I want to. The moment I take action to fulfil an obligation, compete an assigned task, or go the extra mile, I become a better person. How liberating is it to know I have total control over my progression in life!
What’s most important?
Notice that over time, both the cause of low self-esteem and the work to improve it involve no one but you. No one in the world knows you as well as you do. This means that the person most qualified to help improve your current state is you.
Your job is to create a second column beside the fourteen-item list. In this second column you write actions you can take to help improve yourself. You may choose close friends or family to help you if you wish. But you must understand that their understanding of you is limited. They want to help you, but they are not responsible for how you feel.
"Maturity is realizing that your problems are similar to everyone else's."
The approaching victory
It’s a tragedy that our emotional challenges most likely started when we were young and innocent and had little if any coping skills. What happened to all of us at that age is not fair! But you are a far stronger, more capable, and more experienced person now than you used to be.
It’s time for you to sock that schoolyard bully in the face.