I believe that one of the biggest struggles a human being goes through in life is figuring out how to truly love oneself. As a mental health professional, I can’t tell you how many times I have worked with a client presenting with “self-esteem” issues. Why is this? Why do some people seem to struggle to love themselves more than others? And why do some people seem to have the innate ability to completely love themselves? The truth is that everyone struggles with this, but some more than others. Also, someone might present one way on the outside and feel and think completely differently on the inside. You never know what someone else's experience is, so try not to assume. There are many different reasons for varying levels of self-esteem; some are internal forces and others are external. So let’s differentiate between internal and external forces regarding how we feel about ourselves.
Internal forces are things like biology and personality. This is what social scientists refer to as “nature.” These are the things we are born with. But these are also things inside ourselves that we create such as thoughts, beliefs, attitudes, feelings, and behaviors.
External forces consist of many different things, referred to as “nuture.” These are things in the environment - people, places, things. This can include events that happen, messages we receive from the world and the people in it, things we observe, or interactions that we have with the people around us. For example, it has been a common belief in the world of traditional psychology that if an individual is raised by one or more highly critical adults, he/she is likely to develop self-esteem issues. Another example might relate to information presented in the media, and individuals feeling as though they need to be or look a certain way.
What I will propose to you is that self-esteem is ultimately based on the internal processes. What do I mean by this? We all have our own reactions to things. We react by thinking and feeling and perceiving and acting. We make sense of the world on a conscious and an unconscious level. You form perceptions and make meaning from the things you experience in the world, but also from the things you experience internally. For example, if you feel shy and nervous around people, this internal discomfort might cause you to perceive that something is wrong with you, which is not exactly a loving message you’re sending yourself. Now, obviously one could argue that this perception comes from the pressures and expectations of an extroverted society, but ultimately it’s up to you to make meaning out of what you observe, hear, and experience.
So what can we do to nurture our own sense of self-esteem? How can we learn to love ourselves? Many different things. But it starts with making a choice to love yourself, and also includes a willingness toward self-awareness. What is important to know is that even if you have lived most of your life struggling to love yourself, it CAN be learned! For some general thoughts on loving yourself, click here.