How do you feel good about yourself?
February 2, 2009 4:21 PM   Subscribe

How do you not allow your self-worth to be a function of what other people think of you, but rather what you think of yourself?

This is something I have always had a hard time doing. I guess it must be down to self esteem issues. It took me a long time to get a girlfriend, and both major relationships ended terribly.

I usually feel very good when I'm in a relationship. Or even the times when I was single (and am right now), I have found that the times I feel best is usually when I have the attention of someone of the opposite sex. When that attention ends, for whatever reason, I feel very sad and lonely and reminisce about what it used to be like to have someone.

In the worst case scenario, that person could make or break my day just by how they speak or react to me, in a good way or a negative way, whether they call or don't call.

I realize that this is a problem. I have many things going for me, opportunities that my parents never dreamt of having for themselves, I'm going to graduate school in another country, I do very well and I think I'm reasonably good-looking, nothing spectacular.

In an effort to try to overcome this, I have tried to act more self-confident, however I believe I might be coming across as arrogant. Is it okay to be arrogant about yourself, rather than to put yourself out there and just getting hurt again? I realize at this point I have probably digressed.

Any tips or advice for how you guys feel good about yourself just by internal forces, and blocking out bad external forces would be appreciated.
posted by althanis to Human Relations (20 answers total) 41 users marked this as a favorite
Oh, I should also add that this problem I have has resulted in me just finding myself attracted to absolutely anyone who is interested in me, without me stopping to judge whether it would be a good relationship, or how it would affect other more important relationships in my life.

It's a little pathetic, but I find it almost impossible to say to myself that this would not be a good relationship, and is not in my best interest, so leave that behind and move on.
posted by althanis at 4:25 PM on February 2, 2009

For me, it came from learning to value personal qualities, rather than basing my sense of self (and self-worth) on my relationship status or my possessions or interests.

Kindness, compassion, humor, loyalty, generosity, creativity and honesty -- just to name a few off the top of my head -- can persist whether or not you have a significant other, whether or not you have your dream job, whether or not you're well-traveled, whether or not you are seen as cool.

So think about your qualities. Think about the qualities you admire in others. Find ways, large and small, to cultivate them every day. It's where the potential to cultivate and cherish your real self lies, without arrogance or the need for others' approval or attention.
posted by scody at 4:40 PM on February 2, 2009 [9 favorites]

A couple of things have helped me with this same sort of problem. It's a tricky one, as having other people like and approve of you can be such a huge source of satisfaction that it distracts you from building a sense of who YOU are and what YOU want. This is what I'm learning: esteem (and that includes self-esteem) is something that you have to earn. So go out there and make yourself proud!

And if you're not sure what that would take, here begins the journey of figuring out what you're really into, what gets you going, what you really like and don't like. I was so caught up in being what I thought other people wanted me to be that I didn't even get started on figuring those basics out until grad school. Life has been much easier since then.
posted by kitcat at 5:10 PM on February 2, 2009

It's easy: age.
posted by ecorrocio at 5:22 PM on February 2, 2009 [3 favorites]

First of all, you can't know what others really think of you- nobody is a mind reader.

Second, take some time to consider the futility of trying to satisfy others. Yes, it feels good to have approval and to make people laugh and to see love in someone else's eyes. But what if these people changed their minds? Or went nuts? Would YOU have changed?

Third, if you just can't find a way to break the connection between your self worth and what you think others think about you, try to go about it a different way. Imagine you are someone else- would you like yourself if you met yourself?
posted by gjc at 5:40 PM on February 2, 2009

First thought: Do you make time to spend great, rewarding time alone? What exciting, adventurous things have you done just on your own? Go somewhere wonderful alone, keep a journal the whole time, and don't worry about taking bunches of photos and telling everybody about what you saw and did. Cultivate an interior life that is rich and satisfying and nobody's damn business but your own.

Also, try (and this took me years to do, and I'm still working on it)-- try to be friends with yourself. Try to cultivate a fondness for the little quirks about yourself that currently embarrass you, as you would with a person whom you liked. And yes, age will help with this (I'm in my mid-30s and I notice a huge difference in my self-esteem from when I was in my 20s).

I used to be really afraid of being socially awkward and unlovable, and one day before I went out to meet up with some people I made the decision to try to accomplish three things that night 1)be as socially awkward as I felt like 2) pay attention to other people at least as much as myself and 3) have a really, really good time. I challenge you to try to do all three at once; one of them will have to give.

I've come to realize that my low self esteem was really just a bizarre form of youthful self-aggrandizement: i.e. I am sooo different and inferior and special and weird and unlovable than other people. The reality is that you are far more normal and charming and average than all of that.
posted by cymru_j at 6:07 PM on February 2, 2009 [9 favorites]

Hmmm. You sound a bit like me. I don't think there's any quick, easy answer to this.

But I do have a few comments/suggestions:

1) With the exception of hermits and psychopaths, everyone, to one extent or another, cares what others think of them. This is a part of being a caring person and member of society.

2) I have had similar tendencies of wanting to go out with/hang out with whoever would have me. For me this is just a function of not wanting to spend time alone. I don't typically buy all that stuff about how rewarding being alone can be. For me, it pretty much sucks. It's boring and depressing. However, there are worse alternatives: spending time with someone who does not respect or care about me. Over the last few years, I've been weeding those people out of my life. It's hard, but it's one of the most rewarding things I've ever done. Most malicious are the ones who prey on your insecurities. I'm reminded of this song lyric from "Laura Laurent' by Bright Eyes:

"But do you know we're in high demand, Laura, us people who suffer?/
because we don't take to arguin', and we're quick to surrender"

Culling people like that from my life means I spend more time alone. It sucks sometimes. But it's worth it.

3) re: the "confidence vs arrogance" thing: even within your own question, you're worrying about how others will perceive you. Some may see confidence as arrogance. Some may react badly to newfound confidence, because, as above, they enjoy having the weak you to push around. You can't control their perceptions, but if you have to choose one, yes: act with what you think is confidence, and screw the perceptions. Those who are worth knowing will stick with you.
posted by drjimmy11 at 6:42 PM on February 2, 2009 [1 favorite]

It's easy: age.

Scientifically, there's something to this claim. Adolescents definitely conduct self-appraisals (what do I think about myself type evaluations) and reflected appraisals (what does someone else think about me) in a way that involves similar anatomical structures in the brain when compared to the way that adults do (i.e., the processes recruit distinct areas in adult brains).

However, there isn't really any solid evidence about the subtle ways this process changes between early adulthood and later adulthood, as developmental social neuroscience is a pretty new field.

Sorry if this isn't practical advice, but I'm really interested in this topic, and would be happy to direct you toward some pertinent articles if you're interested.
posted by solipsophistocracy at 6:56 PM on February 2, 2009 [1 favorite]

A few years ago, I was in the same situation as you are. Maybe I'm still in the same situation. I find both scody and ecorrocio answers ring true, so my advice is simply patience and trust that as long as you live and try hard, things will fall into place for you. Don't give up, don't despair; simply keep on learning and enjoy the pain in your path to search for the truth. The path to wisdom is never easy or pleasant.

Strategically, I've found that these things help:
1. Perspective: Knowing that your condition is temporary and changeable really helps. The odd of you finding relationship is scientifically proven to be extremely high. The difficult obstacles are likely to be self-generated. Learn to improve your communication skill, and devote resources toward the goal you want, but above all, believe that what others can do, you can too.
2. Objectivity: Read about Maslow's theory of human needs. Gain self-awareness in different situation. Prioritize resource to the most pressing need.
3. Flexibility: Realize there are many paths to achieve the same goal. Understand and realistically evaluate your capability of change (as well as your inflexibility). Devote resources in search for alternatives and opportunities.
4. Boldness: Fear can close off a lot of opportunities. Learn to be bold. Recognize the cost of certain actions; but overcome fears. Try new things.

Tactically, I've found some of these things help:
1. Focus on the present, try to prepare for it, and always try to live in the moment.
2. Limit the influence from the past. Often, wrong lessons from the past can cripple your present. Be analytical about your experiences and avoid generalizations. Allow yourself to make mistakes; but insist on new mistakes.
3. Project only the best future for yourself. Aim high.
4. Realize that others share the same struggle as you are.
posted by curiousZ at 6:59 PM on February 2, 2009 [2 favorites]

a follow-up comment, since I'm just sitting here by myself waiting for someone to email or come on IM, haha.

I think you should try to do more things on your own. However, I wouldn't buy into that pie-in-the-sky stuff about "you'll love being alone in no time it's so great!!!1" For a lot of people like me, and probably you, it's not great. I recently went on a three week vacation by myself. It was good in some ways, but I was often bored. When i thought of something funny or saw something cool, I wished I had someone to talk to about it.

Maybe one day I'll truly learn to enjoy being alone, but I doubt it. The point is, doing it and not entirely enjoying it beats being afraid to do it.
posted by drjimmy11 at 7:02 PM on February 2, 2009

Here's my two cents:

I'm nearly 41 years old, and I'm getting less and less worried about these type of things.
So age - yeah, get into your 40's with these issues and you're just in a rut and not assessing anything.

Another thing is: you have to start asking yourself some hard-hitting questions. Why do you need the "fix" of other people's approval? Doesn't that make you a wee bit anxious when it's happening anyway? The threat of it always (maybe) being taken away? Do you ever feel like even when you're in a relationship that you have to be on guard?

Thirdly, are you able to get any exercise to clean your system out with? Get some good strength in your muscles and you'll be stunned at how you feel about yourself. Even a quick walk to the store or somewhere close can get your mind right.

Finally, get away from yourself. Go volunteer somewhere, go to a new church if you need a space for the spiritual in your life. Get into a situation where you can do something to assist others or mentor someone with your skills. Nothing improves self-esteem more than absolute loss of self in service to another person in need.

Best of luck.
posted by Lipstick Thespian at 7:55 PM on February 2, 2009 [2 favorites]

The only thing I really took out of counseling was that satisfaction does not equal self-worth. My satisfaction with my job or my relationship or whatever, does not raise or lower my self-worth. People have value just because they are.

Anyway, I decided that "satisfaction does not equal self-worth" would become my new mantra. I wrote it on a sticky note and put it on my computer monitor at work, so I would constantly see it. If you tell yourself something long enough, it'll finally sink in.
posted by at 8:25 PM on February 2, 2009

You learn that you're really not that special. That is to say, everyone around you isn't constantly thinking about how lame and shitty you are. They're thinking about what to have for lunch, how much they like your shirt, and sometimes even the subject of your conversation. Very rarely is someone sitting there making a checklist of your flaws.

So you learn that basic fact and really get it through your head, and the rest falls into place with a little bit of practice. Basically you expose yourself to social situations that make you uncomfortable, not just romantic relationships that are relatively "safe" because it's just you and one other person. You do something that's out of your comfort zone. You put yourself out there and learn that the world won't stop turning if you're not liked by everyone.

Who the hell is liked by everyone? No one I've ever met. Not really. Just be yourself, stop focusing on the negative, and stop being so self-centered. You're really not that special. And I mean that in the kindest possible sense.
posted by balls at 8:34 PM on February 2, 2009 [4 favorites]

You sound very effeminate to me. Are you a momma's boy? How old are you? Are you financially independent of your parents? If you depend on your mom for money or housing, I think it's not possible to have your self-worth be a function of what you think of yourself. Maybe when you graduate and get a real job and pay your own bills.

On the other hand, it's pathological to not exist in society. Why try? Who told you that you should rely on your own opinion of yourself? A goat is not a duck? What do you really think of their advice?

I have a hard time imagining you being able to pull this off. The big question in your life is different: whether you follow a life partner who takes advantage of you, or whether you follow a life partner who cherishes and protects you. In either case, you'll probably be the follower. Maybe it's just fate, which path you end up on.

Good luck though!
posted by peter_meta_kbd at 8:35 PM on February 2, 2009

Take a look at other aspects of your life. In terms of Maslow's hierarchy of needs, where do you stand? A human is a social animal. Like it or not, to varying degrees we need other people and that in turn implies we value their acceptance. But if you have other things in your life that you can fall back on - family, hobbies, dreams and hopes, job - what is disappointing does not have to become a life crashing experience.

And I second balls. You are not that special. Virtually none of us is. People don't sit constantly around judging you.
And yes...age taught me that bit of humility.
As they say "Time is the greatest teacher. Unfortunately it kills all of its students" :)
posted by 7life at 10:01 AM on February 3, 2009

There are two aphorisms (I suppose you'd call them) that made the most difference in my life regarding your question.

The first came from Shakespeare:

"To thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man."

And from my Mother, who probably didnt originate it:

"You can never be insulted by someone who's opinion you do not respect."

Just sayin'.
posted by elendil71 at 11:03 AM on February 3, 2009

Thank you for all the answers, except for peter_meta_kbd, who said nothing constructive.

It's given me a lot of food for thought, and encouragement.
posted by althanis at 12:52 PM on February 3, 2009

Actually, contrary to what was said above, like everything else, being alone neither sucks or is great. It has good and bad qualities.

You need to find the good and bad in both being hooked up with someone and alone. Be honest with yourself during both periods and you'll do fine.

Some people will make snap decisions about you and will want to easily categorize you in ways that make them feel better about themselves. Avoid them like the plauge.

Finally, I'd recommend "Feeling Good" by Dr. David Burns and "Intimate Connections" by the same. They are excellent.
posted by Ironmouth at 1:06 PM on February 3, 2009 [2 favorites]

The end of my life-long struggle with poor self esteem felt almost like a spiritual experience (and I'm definitely neither religious nor really spiritual).

Basically, it was just the simple realization that we all have value, as humans, as living things: deep down, I'm not more nor less valuable than anyone else. I suppose it's the oldest cliché in the book, but the morning I woke up and finally really got it, it didn't feel like one.

So, I stepped outside the claustrophobic mental box of tallying good and bad qualities and measuring achievements and clinging to people who I hoped would make me feel better about myself. (I'm now also much more comfortable working on my weaknesses, too, when merely acknowledging them doesn't threaten to throw me into a mental abyss.)

My suggestions would be: be gentle to yourself. Stop negative thought loops when you notice them and focus on something else - your thinking can be trained. Try some simple meditation. And pursue some activity where you can feel connected to people and give them your time and kindness.
posted by sively at 1:26 PM on February 3, 2009 [4 favorites]

Having high self esteem won´t keep you from wishing you were in a relationship, or keep you from feeling sad and lonely when a relationship ends. Being happy with who you are and comfortable in your own skin is a good thing to work towards, but don´t expect that you will suddenly not care about getting attention from the opposite sex once you´re there.

The thing about self esteem is that once you have a bit of it you might be pickier about who you spend your time with, and prefer being a bit lonely to having someone around who isn´t quite who you are looking for. I still haven´t figured out if this leads to greater happiness in the long run.
posted by yohko at 5:43 PM on February 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

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