"How we feel about ourselves crucially affects virtually every aspect of our experience, from the way we function at work, in love, in sex, to the way we operate as parents, to how high in life we are likely to rise. Our responses to events are shaped by who and what we think we are. The dramas of our lives are the reflections of our most private visions of ourselves. Thus self-esteem is the key to success or failure. It is also the key to understanding ourselves and others."

(How to Raise your Self-Esteem, Nathaniel Brandon, London:Bantam Books, 1987)

What exactly is self-esteem? A lot of controversial publicity has surrounded this issue. Some of the coverage has been favourable and some most certainly has been derogatory. So what is your understanding of self-esteem? Do you think it’s about confidence, self-belief, and letting the world know how great you are? Is it about promoting yourself at the expense of others?

I would like to share my perspective with you – one that is both based within education and steeped in personal experience. In my own life I have experienced that building my self-esteem changes my outlook on life. It makes me more positive, more focused and more effective.

This perspective holds that, in essence, self-esteem is a deep-seated belief that I am valuable and worthwhile.My thinking is that I matter and that my family, my place of work, my community, and my country would not be the same without me. Do you believe this to be true of yourself?

I was exposed to the concept of self-esteem over six years ago. I embraced it then and continue to embrace it wholeheartedly today and every day. At that time – in 2002 – my husband, the ever attentive and involved father, raced off to a talk at our son’s school on the topic ‘Building your child’s self-esteem’. That night I returned home to an inspired man. He had met a wise woman who had exposed him and other concerned parents to the concept of building self-esteem. And so our process started . . . This woman has become a mentor, a colleague and a friend. She is a noticeably calm, positive, driven, successful and significant human being – the benefits of living with self-esteem.

I was leading a largely average life, coasting along in my comfort zone, when five years ago my life changed forever. My husband – my pillar, my dynamic leader, my reason for being – died, suddenly and unexpectedly. He was 36 and I was 35. Our children were 7 and 5. My grief was intense and I was desperate. A crucial decision faced me: Was I to crumble? Or was I going to choose to lead in my own life and assist my children in theirs? And so my personal journey truly began.

On a number of occasions my bereavement psychologist has posed this question to me: When people are faced with tragedy, why is it that some are able to move forward and others remain where they are? My answer is always the same. In my opinion it is their level of self-esteem, their self-belief and – in the absence of self-belief – the belief of one other human being in them that enables them to make progress.  

Actively working with the tools required to build self-esteem has enabled me and my children to move forward in a positive manner. We are far from perfect, but we actively choose to embrace our lives. In this time I have established Real Self, a successful self-development company; I have climbed Kilimanjaro; I took my two children sailing on the Indian Ocean for a whole year and successfully home-schooled them; at 38 I returned to university and graduated cum laude with a teaching qualification in Life Orientation and also graduated as a self-esteem facilitator with the Building Self-Esteem Organisation; I have remarried and we are adding to our family.

So, by now I am sure you are asking: If self-esteem is a deep-seated belief that I am valuable and worthwhile, then how do I cultivate this belief? Making the following steps part of your life will assist you to take off from the starting blocks:

  • Step One: Acknowledge that you have a ‘CD’ playing in your head
    The first step is to acknowledge that you have many messages about yourself circulating in your head. Some are true and some are not. Over the years you have stored this information from influential people in your life: parents, teachers, peers, bosses, siblings, the media, and many other sources for that matter. The way in which you were communicated with as a child will have made an enormous impact on your opinion of your value and worth. Often this information will have become your reality. You may agree that much of this information is negative and does not serve you well 
  • Step Two: Take responsibility for the quality of the ‘CD’
    You need to realise the importance of taking responsibility for these messages and for your thinking. You need to choose to take responsibility for the CD that plays in your head. You may want to record over some of the messages. In fact, make the decision to re-record some of those messages. Now take time to write a list of your current messages – both positive and negative. 
  • Step Three: Identify the tracks that should be playing
    This is an exercise in self-awareness. Write down the lyrics for your CD tracks; in other words, write down positive information about yourself. What do you know to be true about yourself? What kind of information would you like to be constantly reminded of? The plan is that, over time, you will keep adding new tracks and new positive information about yourself to your CD.
  • Step Four: Commitment and repetition
    Progress takes commitment and repetition. It is your responsibility, first, to commit to recording these new messages and, second, to create opportunities for repetition. This means that you should keep your lyrics or positive information about yourself in an easily accessible place and read through it often. Continue adding to the lyrics, consciously acknowledging experiences in your day-to-day life that support and highlight your new tracks.

It is so important not to rely on others, or to use their opinion of you as your reality.
Knowing your strengths has nothing to do with perfection. It is neither comparative nor competitive with others. It is an acknowledgement of your own capability.

My exposure to the concept of building self-esteem is based upon two pillars. I have touched on the first pillar – knowing your capability and strengths, in other words, living in the world believing that you are competent. Being competent means that you are able to live effectively and to cope with your day-to-day life. The belief that you are competent enables you to wake up and believe that you can.

The other pillar is knowing that you are worthy of love, that is, living in the world believing that you deserve as much love, success and sunshine as anybody else on this planet. It is your responsibility to claim that. This second pillar refers to your relationship with yourself. When you treat yourself as a person who is worthy of love, you live in the world believing that you deserve. We know that just as food feeds physical hunger, so love feeds emotional hunger. This pillar focuses on you treating yourself as you would treat your best friend. It is important, however, to draw a distinction between the positive attitude of deserving that comes from a place of high self-esteem and the negative attitude of entitlement that comes from a place of low self-esteem.

When our thinking about ourselves is that we are competent and worthy, then we are able to assert ourselves in our world. Of course, our thinking determines our behaviour. Thus, assertion is a communication skill that ensures we live in the world as valuable and worthwhile human beings. Assertion gives us a voice to communicate our thoughts, feelings and needs in a way that does not impact negatively on our self-esteem or that of others. It allows us to live powerfully.  Society does not always promote this way of thinking and living, but it is essential to learn to include it in our way of thinking and living if we are going to be effective.

It is important not to confuse self-esteem with arrogance. Arrogance comes from a place of low self-esteem in which there is a need to feel more important than others. When you have good self-esteem and knowledge of your own positive traits, it becomes easy for you to acknowledge the positive in others. Self-esteem is centred between selflessness, where the thinking is that you are powerful and I am not, and selfishness, where the thinking is that I am powerful and you are not.  The thinking of self-esteem is I am powerful and so are you. 

Living powerfully is living assertively. This impacts on our values and beliefs, our personal vision and mission, our goal-setting, connectedness and relationships. In future articles these concepts will be explored in depth.

Where is your level of self-esteem right now?

Complete this self-esteem checklist by circling the number that best applies to you right now. How you relate to yourself in terms of the listed behaviours will be a good indication of your current level of self-esteem and how to enhance it – 1 means seldom and 5 means always. Bear in mind that these behaviours reflect your relationship with yourself. 

Behaviours that build and reflect a healthy self-esteem

Belief in my capability 1 2 3 4 5
Belief in my lovability 1 2 3 4 5
Assertive communication 1 2 3 4 5
Self-affirmation 1 2 3 4 5
Positive self-talk 1 2 3 4 5
Acceptance 1 2 3 4 5
Supportive 1 2 3 4 5
Set and achieve goals 1 2 3 4 5
Problem-solve 1 2 3 4 5
Encourage self and others 1 2 3 4 5
Healthy diet 1 2 3 4 5
Understanding 1 2 3 4 5
Regular exercise 1 2 3 4 5
Compassion 1 2 3 4 5
Value self and others 1 2 3 4 5
Responsible 1 2 3 4 5
Loving 1 2 3 4 5
Kind  1 2 3 4 5
Humorous  1 2 3 4 5
Caring  1 2 3 4 5
Challenging 1 2 3 4 5
Fair 1 2 3 4 5
Relaxed 1 2 3 4 5
Balanced lifestyle 1 2 3 4 5
Take appropriate risks 1 2 3 4 5
Clear values 1 2 3 4 5
Make decisions 1 2 3 4 5
Deal with feelings 1 2 3 4 5

Low score:     28 to 64
Middle score:  65 to 102
High score:    103 to 140 

Where is your level of self-esteem at present? Refer back to the list for examples of behaviours that will help to build your self-esteem. 

Would you agree that building and maintaining high self-esteem takes consistent and conscious effort from this moment on?