By Leon F. Seltzer
Most advice that claims to help elevate your self-esteem eventually falls flat for the same reason that, as Sancho proclaims in Cervantes’ Don Quixote, “Many words will not fill a bushel.”
Successfully remedying deficits in your self-image can’t be done linguistically. What works? Pro-active behaviors that function to validate a positive perspective of self, and actions that serve to verify that your inherent value is real. Truly liking and respecting who you are must be grounded in a pattern of behaviors that demonstrate your competence, lovableness, and worth.
Contrary to much of what’s been written about positive versus negative self-evaluation, research shows that authentic, internally anchored self-esteem is “the natural consequence of [your] tendency to consistently cope with, or avoid, that which [you] fear” (R. L. Bednar, M. G. Wells, and S. R. Peterson, Self-Esteem: Paradoxes and Innovations in Clinical Theory and Practice, 2nd ed. Washington: American Psychological Association,1995).
This post elaborates on how to significantly increase your self-confidence and feel better about yourself.
As already suggested, self-affirmations alone, regardless of how frequently they’re repeated, won’t get the job done. It’s no coincidence that a couple of decades ago, books offering daily affirmation were strikingly popular. Yet over time they disappeared from bookstore shelves. In my own clinical experience, I discovered that when favorable self-statements sound false to clients, they feel even more demoralized than before. Being able to move from telling yourself, “I’m not good enough,” to believing, “I am good enough,” requires a fair amount of committed personal work. And this endeavor has almost nothing to do with endlessly repeating phrases about what you’d prefer to think about yourself.
In addition, it may be of limited value to systematically review your past so as to recognize that you were more worthwhile or capable than your parents ever made you feel. True, re-perceiving your past may help change the way you appraise yourself. Still, it’s substantially less likely to transform deep self-doubts that—at a feeling level—you still harbor about yourself. (See “The Past: Don’t Dwell on It, Revision It! Parts 1 and 2.)
Let’s get back to how to best address your (all-too-empty) self and the deficiencies you experience in your innermost thoughts and feelings. And let’s explore how you can move to a much “fuller” appreciation and acceptance of who you are—one almost guaranteed to improve your relationships and contribute to living a much happier life. In fact, how intelligent, rich, or successful you believe othersmay see you is far less important to your life contentment than being able to espouse a more favorable view of yourself
The Habit of Avoidance and How It’s Toxic to Your Self-Esteem
No doubt we all want to experience an overarching and enduring sense of self-approval, one impervious to adverse life events. To feel compelled to assess—and re-assess—your value or acceptability strictly on the basis of your latest endeavor or interaction is to be “afflicted” with merely conditional, or provisional, self-esteem. The self-esteem I refer to is one that’s independent of specific outcomes; it’s a favorable self-regard that’s maintained regardless of how particular situations you’re involved in end up.
What engenders and grows self-esteem in the first place? Many of the ideas here were first proposed by Bednar et al. in the groundbreaking book I mentioned earlier. The volume’s considerable authority is rooted in numerous clinical studies and research, so the authors’ conclusions warrant serious attention (and are in line with my own 30 years of clinical experience).
The authors believe that the primary enemy of high self-esteem is the self-protective habit of avoidance. When a person feels threatened—whether it’s by someone they fear competing with or being rejected by, a project they’re anxious about because they’re afraid they won’t complete it successfully, or anything they fear might lead to failure or defeat—almost instinctively they search for an escape route. Rather than actively coping with whatever feels menacing, in the emotionally-driven effort to lower their trepidation they’re inclined to beat a hasty retreat.
But when you avoid what you lack the confidence or strength of will to confront, how do you feel about yourself? Such passivity in the face of an external challenge isn’t something you typically experience as self-affirming. And the more frequently you evade things that make you tremble, the more you might disapprove of yourself.
In addition, if to gain others’ acceptance, your attention is (anxiously) focused on not disappointing them, you won’t feel very good about yourself. Moreover, if to avoid conflict, disapproval, failure, or defeat, you put off pursuing opportunities that would advance your interests, such avoidance only in earns you moreself-disapproval.
In short, avoidance is a powerful and common defense mechanism. And like all other psychological defenses, it can be quite costly. In the moment, avoiding what makes you anxious can safeguard you from disturbing feelings. But it also damages your self-image, leading you to see yourself as less competent, worthwhile, and resourceful. Each time you sell yourself short (or maybe, sell yourself out), your self-esteem takes a hit. And once this avoidance is firmly entrenched, your doubts about yourself and your perceived deficiencies become more severe and difficult to dislodge.
The Solution: Coping Actively with Life’s Challenges
In their self-esteem volume, Bednar et al. contrast “avoiding” with “coping,” arguing that only the latter enables you to feel good about yourself. But avoidance can be understood as a way of coping. The actual dichotomy is between passivecoping (i.e., avoidance) in the face of a perceived threat versus active coping, which is the alternative the authors so strongly advocate. (Of course, it might also be noted that “avoidant coping” is really copping out.)
What are some of the advantages of actively coping with situations that make you feel awkward or intimidated? The substantial research done by the authors above makes clear that having the courage to face your anxieties prohibits you from acting in deferential or defeatist ways that inevitably result in self-disapprobation. After all, retreating from what makes you uncomfortable does nothing to foster a healthy self-image.
Adopting a “can do” stance toward difficulties and obstacles in your life almost always makes you feel better about yourself. And ironically, if your (probably exaggerated) fear of failure convinces you to not even tryto deal with these challenges, that reluctance may result in a worse sense of self than if you’d tried and failed.
In other words, failing to try is itselfa failure and, deep down, that’s how you’ll see yourself. On the contrary, research shows that if you give things your best shot, you’re more likely to feel good about yourself than if you forfeit your chances by playing it safe and not permitting yourself to go for it.
Here’s how Bednar et al. summarize the advantages of actively grappling with what feels threatening:
“We maintain that high levels of self-esteem are the product of a response style that favors coping over avoidance. When this is the case, conflicts are faced, understood, and resolved, resulting in self-confidence, personal approval, and feelings of personal well-being. Patterns of excessive avoidance breed just the opposite results. The very act of avoidance, by denial and distortion, precludes any feeling of adequacy.”
Also of note:
“It is of [the] utmost importance to note that self-evaluative processes and the levels of self-esteem they create are based on the process of coping and avoidance, not the outcomes they produce.”
What shouldn’t be over-emphasized is that inherent in such an orientation is a sense of self strong enough to take risks. And that’s precisely what helps you appreciate yourself as a responsible person who’s willing and able to tackle what you need to.
Working to overcome avoidant tendencies enables you to experience life in a more dynamic fashion and see yourself as possessing resilience and personal power. Independent of the actual consequence of your actions, the very fact of your acting contains its own intrinsic rewards. True, your inaction may allow you to experience less fear, yet the predictably derogatory, self-referencing thoughts and feelings that result are punishment enough.
Moreover, your avoidance precludes the possibility of learning anything new. Coping, or activelycoping, with internal or external conflicts leads to greater understanding of what you’re capable of and where you need to improve. And regularly confronting situations that feel threatening offers the wonderful bonus of making such situations seem less ominous. As a result, you build self-confidence and assertiveness skills.
The 4-Step Process of Active Coping That Boost Your Self-Esteem (adapted from Bednar et al.)
1. In situations that trigger anxiety, identify and describe in detail the primary avoidant patterns you typically employ to reduce your emotional discomfort.
Writing this down can be extremely helpful in giving you new insights into your self-sabotaging behaviors. Your analysis should take the form: “When [the feared situation] occurs, I generally try to lower the anxiety it causes me by [characterization of your self-protective, risk-avoidant reaction].”
2. Identify and describe the negative thoughts and feelings about yourself that derive from each of your primary avoidant patterns.
You may have to dig deep into your unconscious. Your negative self-evaluations might include such denigrating statements as: “I’m a disappointment,” “I’m inadequate,” “I’m incompetent,” “I’m inferior,” “I’m useless,” “I’m a loser,” “I’m not smart enough,” “I’m spineless,” “I’m lazy,” “I’m shameful,” “I’m helpless,” “I don’t belong,” and so on.
It’s important to consider the negative emotionsgenerated by your self-disparaging thoughts: frustration, embarrassment, guilt, self-disgust, humiliation. And not only identify them but experiencethem. That way you become much more aware of the high costof your avoidant behaviors and how they block your genuine feelings of happiness, contentment, or well-being.
Consider that the more you may have been prompted to back away from confronting a necessary—and esteem-building—challenge, the more quickly you’re likely to experience trepidation in anysituation that requires you to summon your courage and be pro-active. Finally, the more you understand how heeding the voice of your anxiety stifles you, the more motivated you’ll be to pursue the benefits of changing this habitual, self-defeating stance.
3. Develop the habit of regularly contesting your negative self-assessments and avoidant patterns.
The very act of identifying and labeling them can be seen as a coping response. You should give yourself credit for confronting what you’ve previously shied away from and allowing yourself to experience more of the anxiety that, historically, you’ve fled from.
4. Bit by bit, teach yourself how to actively and effectively cope with the various conflicts you’ve traditionally avoided.
Identify and label the different aspects of your reformed coping style so that it feels ever more feasible to you. Also note the contrasting thoughts and feelings that accompany your new approach to resolving problems and inner conflicts.
The practice of active coping is inherently rewarding in that almost every time you practice it you replace a negative self-evaluation with a positive one. Remember that this internal reinforcement isn’t about succeeding in your latest endeavor but demonstrating the courage to face up to it. Regardless of the outcome, it’s essential that you applaud yourself for your efforts.
Here’s a key question to ask yourself: “In this situation, what do I need to do—or what decision do I need to make—that will result in the most self-approval?”
Remind yourself that taking the line of least resistance is an act that immediately reduces your anxiety, so your answer here generally will be one that is likely to increase your anxiety, and your self-respect. Consider a post I wrote called “Line of Least Resistance—Really the Line of Most Resistance?”
A complementary question (or a somewhat different way of posing the same self-query just portrayed) might be: “If I were to act just like the kind of person I most want to be—and would most admire—how would I respond to this conflict (issue or dilemma)?”
And yes, the right response is likely to challenge you. But remember, taking more risks is tantamount to taking more responsibilityfor your life. (And you’ll end up feeling much better about yourself for doing so.)
In the end, it’s something like the famous expression, “No pain, no gain.” You can expect to feel moreemotional pain if you stay with your anxiety and prod yourself to do what your self-approval depends on. Realistically, you can’t assume that such an approach to raising your self-esteem will start out in your comfort zone. If it did, you wouldn’t harbor the fears that have made you decide against this more active coping style.
Given enough time and patience, exercising assertive, pro-active coping behaviors gets easier as you come to realize the abilities and strengths your anxiety previously prevented you from adequately developing.
- An earlier post (and one of my most popular), “The Path to Unconditional Self-Acceptance,” goes beyond self-esteem and self-evaluation to a more global—and unconditional—acceptance of self.
- My next post will focus on adults as parents, and how they can help their child develop a high—and healthy—self-image. Here’s the link.
- If you could relate to this post and think others you know might also, kindly consider forwarding them its link. To check out other posts I’ve done for Psychology Today online—on a broad variety of psychological topics—click here.
© 2016 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D
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