Dear Dr. Norquist:
I have struggled with poor self-esteem my whole life. My father was an embarrassing alcoholic and the whole town knew it. I was the kid that other kids’ parents didn’t want them to play with, because I didn’t come from a “good” family. This made my childhood miserable. I try to prove to others that I’m not like my father, but inside I’m afraid I am. I’ve done some things I’m not proud of; I also definitely have a desire to drink too much. I tend to not let others too close because I don’t think they would like the real me. On the outside I look well put together, but inside I never feel good enough, and I’m afraid of being found out. My question is: what creates good self-esteem? Can someone have good self-esteem even if they are not proud of their background? If someone was abused or treated poorly as a child can they ever overcome that and feel good about themselves? And if so, how? How can I start to feel good about myself?
Dr. Norquist responds:
This column is a continuation of an earlier column on developing good self-esteem. In my prior response, I spoke of turning your gaze outward and focusing on others’ happiness as an antidote to an inner obsession with our own faults and imperfections. In this column the theme is on actions, and on self-esteem as an active daily practice.
We all reap the consequences of our thoughts, feelings, and actions. If we do something that we know is wrong, hurtful, or non-truthful, we will reap the results. It doesn’t matter whether or not our wrong action is “found out” by anyone in the outside world. We know it is wrong and our inner sense of our own worth is diminished accordingly. It does not matter if the outer world thinks we are great. We can never feel good about ourselves if we are engaged in activities that we know are wrong or are avoiding actions that we know are right. We can not hide from ourselves that which we can hide from the world.
Practice truthfulness in speech and action. We have all engaged in “white” lies, things we say that we know are not really true. Perhaps the truth is inconvenient or hurtful or might lead to disapproval. What happens inside you when you say something that you know is not really true? Pay attention to the inner experience that arises. Perhaps an inner discomfort? This is a sign that you are not being congruent with your inner sense of what is true to you in that moment. This inner discomfort is our guide, our means of finding our way back to our innate goodness. This is Grace in our lives. Remember that the words we speak are also actions that either enhance or diminish our self-esteem.
Chose to live your life in a manner that builds an inner sense of pride. Do that which leaves you feeling good about yourself. If you make a practice of engaging in actions that reinforce your innate goodness, your low self-esteem concerns will become a distant memory. As a result, new doors for fulfillment will open in your life.
(Dr. Sallie Norquist is a licensed psychologist (NJ #2371) in private practice and is director of Chaitanya Counseling Services, a center for upliftment and enlivenment, in Hoboken.)Dr. Norquist and the staff of Chaitanya invite you to write them at Chaitanya Counseling Services, 51 Newark St., Suite 202, Hoboken, NJ 07030 or www.chaitanya.com or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, or by fax at (201) 656-4700. Questions can address various topics, including relationships, life’s stresses, difficulties, mysteries and dilemmas, as well as questions related to managing stress or alternative ways of understanding health-related concerns. 2012 Chaitanya Counseling Services