We are all hooked on the same set of tactics to help us feel good about ourselves, most of which have no lasting effect. To achieve sustainable self esteem, the first step is to become more aware of how our usual tactics are self-defeating.
Your Unproductive Self Esteem Building Tactics
1. Feast on bad news about other people. The media feeds us universally bad news because it meets our deep need to feel good about ourselves. Seeing other people suffering makes us feel that we are not as bad off as we think. When we see people in California lose their homes to fire, we feel that, however hard up we are, they are worse off. We feign sympathy while inwardly feeling relief.
2. Criticize other people or find ways to put them down. A common way to pump ourselves up is to gloat over the stupidity of others. As angry as the mistakes of others make us, we would be lost without them. We need their mistakes to realize that surely WE are not that stupid.
3. Win as many arguments as you can. Being right is a good way to score points, if only to convince yourself that you are better than the other person. It doesn’t really matter if you distort the facts or overlook some inconvenient truths, as long as you can convince yourself and your opponent that you know best.
4. Be quick to spot how people differ from you. Despite sharing 98% of our genes with chimpanzees, we can spot how people differ from us more quickly than an eagle can spot a mouse. Differences automatically mean inferiority in others and superiority in us. Looking for things we have in common with other people does nothing for our self esteem, so why bother?
5. Align yourself closely to a select group – community, political party, ethnic group, religion, club, nation, age group or racial category. Just as we identify with winners in sports, we need us-them relationships with other groups to feel superior.
6. Exaggerate someone’s faults. The greater someone else’s faults appear, the more faultless you can regard yourself.
7. Blame someone else, circumstances or bad luck whenever something goes wrong to take the heat off yourself.
We are hooked on these tactics because they give us the same quick fix we get from food, drugs and alcohol. Equally, they give no lasting boost to our self esteem.
Why We Feel Bad About Ourselves
Our search for more productive ways of building self esteem must begin by recognizing the self-defeating habits listed above. Next we need to understand why we feel bad about ourselves in the first place. Here are some of the most common reasons why we don’t always like ourselves:
1. We’re not sufficiently aware of our strengths and daily good deeds because they come naturally to us so we discount them by saying “Surely, anybody can do that!” The things we are good at, enjoy doing or find easy to do are indicative of strengths but we discount them as strengths precisely because they are easy for us.
2. Similarly, we overlook how much we have got to be happy about (like just being alive) and focus primarily on what we haven’t got.
3. We compare ourselves with unrealistic role models thanks to media attention constantly paid to the rich and famous.
4. We get more negative than positive feedback because people react to what annoys them. People want to focus on their own needs. As long as no one bothers them, they don’t notice good deeds unless they are remarkable. But as soon as you do something that distracts them from themselves, they turn nasty and put you in your place. No wonder you see yourself as a bad person.
5. We compare how we feel with how everyone around us behaves. If they seem OK, we feel worse because we think we are the only ones with bad feelings.
6. Some parents idolize their children, making them think they are invincible and setting high, unrealistic expectations for them, thereby unwittingly setting them up to fail. Conversely, some parents go to the other extreme and see their children as never doing anything right.
7. We quickly forget our successes and good fortune. Even if we win the lottery, six months later we return to our normal state of dissatisfaction.
This list is not exhaustive, but there are enough reasons here to be down on ourselves. You likely have your own unique reasons to beat yourself up.
Twelve Ways to Build Sustainable Self Esteem
1. Monitor yourself closely to avoid self-defeating tactics and short term fixes.
2. Engineer more positive feedback for yourself by focusing a lot more attention on meeting the needs of others. Enough people will show appreciation if you do nice things for them to help you feel good about yourself. This is also about taking the focus off yourself, being less self-absorbed.
3. Recognize that everyone has similar fears, anxieties and low self esteem and that you have the power to make them feel better about themselves. Helping others is a sure way to feel good about yourself.
4. When you catch yourself thinking or saying something negative about people, force yourself to list a comparable number of positive facts about them.
5. When you want to disagree with someone, begin by stating a few aspects of their position that are agreeable to you.
6. Become more aware of your strengths and daily good deeds. Stop taking them for granted just because they are easy for you to do.
7. Instead of placing blame, focus on the future, and ask yourself: “What can I do differently to improve this situation?” Take ownership. By placing blame, you disempower yourself. While you may feel better immediately by getting your anger off your chest, it never helps. in the longer term, to feel disempowered.
8. Meet regularly with your team, boss or colleagues and review what went well since you last met. Most meetings focus on problems, creating a negative atmosphere.
9. Compare yourself with realistic role models and set realistic goals for yourself.
10. Regularly remind yourself of your good fortune, the reasons you have to be happy.
11. Be active. Practical action is better than excessive soul searching. Too much introspection breeds discontent and self-doubt.
12. Spend more time with upbeat friends, less with those who are overly negative.
Mitch McCrimmon has over 30 years of experience in executive assessment and coaching. He writes extensively on leadership and personal improvement topics. His latest book challenges conventional thinking on leadership: Burn! 7 Leadership Myths in Ashes, 2006. See his website for more information: www.leadersdirect.com