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TOPIC TITLE: Building Self-Esteem
Created On 7/24/13 5:35 PM
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7/24/13 5:35 PM
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(Originally appeared in the May 2013 issue of Mind, Body & Soul)

By Yehuda Lieberman, LCSW

I don’t believe that anyone can reach the pinnacle of true self-esteem. We all view ourselves externally at least to some extent. The goal is to reduce externally based feelings about ourselves and to increase those intrinsically based. Some people will focus on building self-esteem so as to reduce or eliminate depressive or anxious feelings. Others can continually work toward an increasingly better sense of self.

The great irony of self-esteem is the contrast between how we feel toward ourselves and how we feel toward others. Though we tend to view ourselves almost completely based on external factors, we generally view others based on who they intrinsically are.

Consider someone whom you know well and like. Ask yourself what it is about him that you like and appreciate. The answer probably relates to how kind-hearted he is, how interesting he is, or any number of other internally based qualities. His accomplishments, looks, fashion sense, or other purely external qualities likely have no bearing on how you feel about him.

The irony is that the only person whose intrinsic qualities you truly know is yourself. Regardless of how well you know someone, you are nonetheless making at least some assumptions about who he really is inside. Though you know how you think and feel, you nevertheless find it much easier to have “other-esteem” (based on how you assume they think and feel) than to have self-esteem. We like others for who they are, even though we’re not absolutely certain of their intrinsic nature; yet we have trouble liking ourselves for who we know we are.

One reason for this contrast is the very fact that we don’t know what others are thinking. Since we cannot analyze others’ thoughts and feelings, we are forced to view them based on who we feel they are. On the other hand, since we are constantly aware of, and focused on, our own thoughts and feelings, we are in the position to continuously question our actions and the motives for them. Basically, we barrage ourselves with thoughts, both positive and negative, thereby sabotaging our ability to simply feel good about who we are.

Intrinsic attributes should be based solely on thoughts and feelings. For instance, I know that I am kind because of how I feel toward other people. I might feel sad when I hear bad news and happy when I hear good news. Whether or not I act on my feelings is a separate issue that does not speak to who I am.

Since most of us have been trained since childhood to view ourselves externally, we need to retrain ourselves to begin focusing on intrinsic attributes. It is important to define each attribute. For example, the attribute of “caring” can be defined intrinsically as “feeling for others.” It should not be defined externally as “always helping others.” The attribute of “funny” can be defined as “the ability to see humor in life,” not as “making lots of jokes,” or “making people laugh.” Remember to focus on thoughts and feelings rather than on actions.

If you’re not sure whether the attribute and definition are truly intrinsic, imagine yourself stranded, alone on a deserted island with no hope of ever being rescued. There is no need to create shelter or to forage for food. Nothing needs to be done. In this setting, most of the external basis for sense of self disappears. There are no people upon whom to rely for their approval. Possessions, titles, and physical abilities become unimportant. Once this imagery is clear in your mind, ask yourself whether the attribute in question holds true in that situation. If it does, it is likely that it is an intrinsic attribute.

Once you have identified and defined your attributes, take time to focus on these attributes, one at a time, placing particular emphasis on their intrinsic nature. Focus is placed on how the particular attribute is manifested in you—what makes you recognize the attribute in yourself, what you admire about the attribute in general, and how you therefore appreciate the attribute within yourself.

Yehuda Lieberman, LCSW-R, QCSW, DCSW is a NYS licensed clinical social worker. He maintains a private practice in Brooklyn, NY, where he counsels individuals and couples. He specializes in anxiety and depressive disorders. He can be contacted through his website: www.ylcsw.com, or at 718-258-5317. Yehuda’s book,”Self-Esteem: A Primer” is available at Amazon.com or on his website: www.ylcsw.com.

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