Self-esteem is a condition, a state of being. Unfortunately, it is not something we can put in a box with a fancy ribbon and hand out on occasion. It is observable in behaviors, but other than that, it's an inside job. According to the National Association of Self Esteem (NASE), self esteem is, "The experience of being capable of meeting life's challenges and being worthy of happiness."

How we arrive at a condition of high or low self-esteem has been the subject of extensive debate. Are our parents responsible? Our friends? Our spouse? Our co-workers? Can we change our self-esteem or are we stuck with the same 'condition' forever? How many people feel truly capable of meeting life's challenges or perceive themselves as worthy of happiness?

Data gleaned from the Internet suggests there are many who have an interest in self-esteem. A search on Google revealed 1,210,000 references to self-esteem. Despite the avid interest, according to statistics, there are an estimated 50 million Americans who suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder in a given year, ranging from depression to eating disorders.

The stigma frequently associated with emotional disturbances and mental illnesses can lead to low self-esteem, and also prevent many from seeking help. According to the recently released reports by the President's New Freedom Commission on mental health, mental illnesses and/or emotional disturbances affect almost every family and leave no school or workplace untouched. Stigma should no longer be an issue!

Substance abuse is known to be associated with many of the above disorders, whether a result of efforts to self medicate or a possible contributing factor in the onset of some of the disorders. It has been documented that there is a relationship between low self-esteem and violence, school dropout rates, teenage pregnancy, suicide, and low academic achievement. The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that suicide worldwide causes more deaths every year than homicide or war.

Based on the wide use of prescribed and illegal mood altering drugs, excessive alcohol consumption, and untreated mental health issues, it seems likely that few of us have truly high self-esteem. Hence, we're probably not ". . .capable of meeting life's challenges and being worthy of happiness." Which came first--the esteem issue, the mental health or substance abuse problems, or all of them, side by side, chiseling and wearing away at our happiness and self-esteem? Whose problem is it anyway?

Whether you were raised by 'perfect' parents, neglected, criticized or abused most of your life will have an impact on your self-esteem, and the choices you make. However, it isn't reasonable to assume that people with low self-esteem all come from dysfunctional families and those with high self-esteem had a perfect childhood. Many factors can contribute to self-esteem, but the road to higher ground is similar for all of us. Now, here's the hard part for many. Once we're old enough to recognize our self-esteem is in trouble, we're also old enough and responsible to take action for change. No, we're not stuck with the self-esteem to which we've grown attached; we can change. One factor that impacts our self-esteem hides in personal choice. Yes, choice!

A lifetime of troubles might lead back to one small, inappropriate and uncorrected belief and subsequent choice. Virtually everyone on the planet has made a decision they wish they could undo. If we had the capacity to go back, many of us would choose differently. The fact is, the baggage of guilt, remorse, and fear of repercussions follow bad choices, and it often becomes easier and less fearful to add one bad choice to another until it becomes a lifestyle. The intolerance, lack of forgiveness or encouragement of those around us often compounds the problem. Most of us would benefit by learning to be open, supportive, and tolerant of others. Chances are, we may need the same support and encouragement ourselves.

Our world is filled with diversity of experience, multiple types of families, various methods of parenting, and differing social and economic circumstances. We have differences of opinion on everything from politics to religion and values. The fact is, certain held beliefs may impede our personal growth, but there is no 'right' way to live or 'right' way to think. No matter what our exposure, at the magic age of self awareness and ability to acknowledge our feelings, we gain the right to choose our perceptions and behaviors. It is possible to grow past long-held beliefs that impede our personal happiness.

So, what does come first, low self-esteem and then poor choices, or poor choices leading to low self-esteem? It becomes obvious they both are true. Either way, your self-esteem belongs to you. Once you're ready to see positive changes in your life, and are willing to claim the happiness that is your right, you can begin to make choices that will lift you up rather than tear you down. Each new choice becomes part of a fresh, new foundation for your life, with one good choice building on another. Like a savings account, the process can seem hopeless, but given time, it will grow. Unlike money, good choices have an exponential type of growth, exploding your self-esteem as your commitment grows, and as you receive the support and encouragement of others. It is absolutely never too late to take responsibility for your choices.

Anxiety, worry, doubt, confusion, neediness, being driven for success, acknowledgement from others, or validation all contribute to a false sense of who we are. This is a façade rather than true self-esteem. Arrogance and a constant need to DO or perform generally indicate low self-esteem, whereas, high self-esteem goes beyond appearances and positively affects all aspects of life.

We are multi-faceted beings. Consider a common chair as an example, with four legs offering solid and reliable support. Imagine that you are the chair and each leg represents an aspect of who you are, physical, mental, emotional and spiritual. How would that chair function if it were missing one leg? How do we function when one aspect of our life is out of balance? Seeing ourselves in this way can help us see the puzzle of our lives and to redirect our motives, desires, behaviors, and intentions. As we begin to recognize we are more than just our physical senses, we learn the importance of keeping life in balance and to interact with others in a more open, respectful and supportive manner. With each facet in balance, we can see self-esteem stemming from something much greater than our appearance, accomplishments, or the things we have acquired. While each might contribute, none alone determines our worth. Just like the chair demonstration, one aspect out of balance will affect the stability of the whole.

You can begin by looking at just one leg of the metaphorical chair, (physical, mental, emotional, spiritual) and start to examine YOU. For many of us it is easiest to begin with the physical side of life and save the emotional and/or spiritual for when we're ready to jump into the mysterious ocean of inner SELF. You might begin by asking yourself how accepting you are of your current physical self. Make a list of what you like or what you would change. What changes are you willing to make to restore that aspect of your life to a level acceptable to you? Ask yourself how often you can say "I like who I am and accept me the way I am". L.S. Barksdale, a prominent researcher on self-esteem, suggests we affirm, "I accept myself totally and unconditionally as a unique and precious being, ever responsible for my own life, ever doing the best my current awareness permits, ever growing in wisdom and love." If you need help with some of your feelings, find someone you trust, a friend or a counselor to help you explore your experiences. Use this process for every 'leg' of your life. It is a method that can take as much time as you need.

Knowing that our self-esteem is up to us can be empowering. We no longer look to others to buoy us, nor do we allow them to send destructive messages our way. We begin to choose our perceptions of circumstances rather than reacting out of habit. Our feelings become the gauge for determining the best choices under all circumstances, and our choices will be based on awareness of our own intentions.

Begin to explore and discover what will restore balance to the puzzle of your life. Take back the responsibility for your self-esteem, and treat yourself to the life you deserve!

Author's Bio: 

Alexandra Delis-Abrams, Ph.D.
Alexandra is President of ABC Feelings, an organization she founded to encourage communication of feelings. In addition, she is a transpersonal psychologist in Sun Valley, ID and adjunct faculty at Boise State University.Molly Misetich, is an associate at ABC Feelings where she works in marketing, sales and management. She is a freelance writer, Vedic astrologer, 'Personal Profiler', and resides in Coeur d' Alene, ID.Either author can be reached at 800.745.3170, ABC Feelings, Inc., http://www.abcfeelings.comCopyright August 2003