1. Spiritual/humanitarian ways of thinking about self-esteem.
2. "Normal", everyday ways of thinking about it.
3. "Neurotic" ways of thinking.
First of all, what do I mean by "Spiritual/humanitarian"? This could include Judaeo-Christian beliefs, such as the idea that we are all created by God. It could be the idea that we have value because we are human beings. It could be based on values, such as the importance of honesty and integrity in living one's life. It could be based on the idea that all human beings have innate worth no matter who they are or what their situation.
Then there is the "normal" or "everyday" ways that people base self-esteem. We feel good about ourselves when people like us, when we do well on a test, or when we achieve something. We feel good when we are attractive and people seem to want to be around us or to date us. We feel good when we are sought out for our skills. There is nothing wrong with these, and they can be healthy. But these ideas sometimes let us down. That is, sometimes people don't like us. Sometimes we don't do well on tests. And sometimes we lose a job. Moreover, many of these things don't really change anything inside of us. That is, if somebody likes me, it doesn't reach inside of me and make me a better person. And the same person who likes me today may disapprove of me tomorrow. I can't have changed over night. So some of these are more externally based than internal to us. And if they are external, then they can't really have that much to do with us and our significance. It's okay to feel good about these things, but they can let us down.
Thirdly, there are the "neurotic" ways of basing self-esteem. The word neurotic is a somewhat dangerous word. It has no clear meaning, and people can use it against themselves as another negative thought. In cognitive therapy, we might call these "dysfunctional assumptions," or "irrational beliefs." Call them what you will, they can cause self-esteem problems. Some of these I have already written about:
- I must be approved of by everyone to be worthwhile;
- I must be loved by the person that I loved to be worthwhile;
- I must be in control at all times to be worthwhile;
- I must achieve great things to be worthwhile;
- I must be perfect to be worthwhile.
It is sometimes possible to meet the neurotic beliefs for awhile. We may be the smartest in our school--for awhile. We may be the most popular--for awhile. We may be the most beautiful--for awhile. But these canl not always be true for all times and all situations. And when the neurotic need or belief is not met, we will feel a tremendous sense of let down, and maybe even depression.
So in my way of thinking, it is good to start with a religious or philosophical base for our self-esteem. Then we can build on top of that with the things which will sometimes work for us and sometimes won't--the success, approval, and love that most of us want. And we need to stay away from the inflexible and problematic neurotic beliefs which can really hurt our self-esteem. If we set up overly stringent standards for ourselves, we will fall short at some time. It is inevitable that at some point we will not meet the standard. And to be frustrated by the inevitable is to be inevitably frustrated.