by Nancy Poitou, M.A., M.F.T. , C.T.S. ©1998
Steps for Recovery Magazine June 2001
I have been asked often about what is self esteem, self love and self centeredness. These are very good questions and it is a fine line that separates these concepts.
Self esteem means to hold oneself in high esteem, feeling worthy of a good life and good treatment by others. Self esteem results from self respect and respect from others. Self respect includes competence, confidence, honesty, mastery, achievement, independence and freedom. Respect from others includes recognition, acceptance, status, and appreciation. Healthy self esteem is a realistic appraisal of one’s capacities and begins with deserved respect from others.
This usually begins to be built in childhood, when we learn some new skill, or take a risk, a parent says, “Good! You learned how to tie your shoe!” And so begins the building of self esteem. However when a parent is overly critical or abusive, we get a message that we will never be good enough, that there is just something inherently bad about us, that we are defective. As children we are dependent on adults to give us the foundation of our self esteem and be role models for what is good.
Self love is the ability to hold onto our good qualities and strengths even when we are feeling bad about ourselves or something we have done. It is the strength to see our short comings and love ourselves enough to know that we can learn and grow and not to give up on ourselves because we are not perfect, made a mistake or still have some problems, in other words, we are worthy of love even if we are not perfect.
Self centeredness is self esteem and self love gone too far. It means that the world revolves around us, we are at the center of our world, meaning that we think that we are better than anyone and everyone else and so are more deserving, in other words, selfish.
Good self esteem means that we have enough self confidence to not need the approval of others. We don’t need to wear the latest fashions, be the thinnest or the richest to feel good about ourselves. So it is feeling good about who we are on the inside so that approval and love do not have to come from the outside before we can love ourselves.
Many people function just the opposite, they don’t feel good about themselves unless in a relationship, so that they can say I am loved so I must be loveable. But that means needing the relationship too much, that you will endure anything, any abuse or maltreatment to stay in the relationship, because without it you feel empty. It is always good to receive approval and love from others but good self esteem means we are not dependent on it to feel whole or good.
Without self esteem and self love we are so desperate to be in a relationship that we do not see the red flags, in fact we may be in denial that there are potential problems. Usually we attract another with the same level of self esteem and when the other does not have your approval or love 100% without question they resort to putting you down in order to feel better about him or herself. And so the cycle starts, then we put the other down and around and around we go trying to be on top, yet at the same time we are putting the other down, we erode any self esteem we might have had and a downward spiral begins for the relationship and the individuals involved.
Besides relationships there are other traps in life we can fall into. Drugs and alcohol can temporarily make us feel good and that is how some people start an addiction. Other examples are things like new cars, clothes, money, sex and thrills, only are a temporary high, and we are unaware that we need these things or activities to feel good. These traps are only temporary external fixes to an internal problem, and distract us from acknowledging our shortcomings and getting in touch with and working on healing past hurts that contribute to low self esteem.
To have self esteem and self love we do not need to be self centered, we do not have to be the best looking or make the most money. In fact acting or being self centered is a kind of arrogance that is usually a cover-up for low self esteem, or a lack of self love.
In order to have good self esteem we need to act in accordance to our conscious and unconscious beliefs about what is good in a human being. This often comes from a spiritual ideal, one individual that sets an example for us, or a role model that demonstrates the inner qualities that attract us and draws us to that person. It also means treating others as we wish to be treated, the times tested Golden Rule that exists in nearly every religion
This means being around someone with good self esteem makes us feel good. That person can validate us and see our good qualities and strengths and reflect that back to us because they have good self esteem and self love. That person does not need to feel better than or one up to feel good and appreciate others’ good qualities. That person is not self centered in needing to feel that they are better than anyone else around them. Their self confidence and security comes from earned respect from others and self respect from acting in accordance with what a good human being would do. There is usually an honesty and authenticity in them as well, they can acknowledge their mistakes and shortcomings and therefore work on them, they are “a work in progress.”
Barksdale, L.S. (1972) Building Self-Esteem. Idyllwild, CA The Barksdale Foundation for Furtherance of Human Understanding
Bradshaw, John (1988) Healing the Shame that Binds You. Dearfield Beach, Florida. Health Communications, Inc.