By Wendy Hoffman, LCSW-C, Therapy Services
One of the injustices of life is that when we are young, other people’s opinions of us define who we are. There is no way around it. If our mother looks at us with love, astonishment and joy, we feel we are worthwhile and all that a person can be. If she frowns or scorns, we do not think she has some issues or indigestion — we think that something is gravely wrong about us and may not be fixable. We don’t say those words in our infant minds, but the feelings are strong and urgent. The feelings define who we think we are, and who we think we are defines what we become. For example, if we think something is wrong with us and we are unlovable, we tend to spend our lives trying to please people, putting their needs above our own or being destructive or self destructive, letting anger drive us.
In our teenage years or sometimes earlier, we start to understand that our parents or other authority figures may have flaws or that other influences may be affecting how they react to us. This observation applies not only to people who have been demeaned, but also to those who have been overly praised. Sometimes excessively admired people have the hardest time adjusting to reality. When you realize that some people may not be relating to you in a way that describes you, you are on the way to a realistic assessment of who you are and how you feel about yourself.
One of the great quests of life is forming a realistic appraisal of ourselves. As we grow, we come to understand that how other people react to us does not necessarily define us. Self awareness is self esteem. Part of understanding ourselves is recognizing our strengths and weaknesses. In life, using one’s strengths and working on decreasing one’s weaknesses can lead to self awareness and productivity.
To determine whether you have adequate self esteem, ask yourself questions such as:
Does your life reflect who you are? Are you happy with yourself and your relationships? Do you take care of yourself by eating well, relaxing, exercising?
Do you believe you have overachieved or underachieved – or have other people told you that you have surpassed or not met certain expectations?
Do you apologize for yourself frequently?
Do you receive compliments graciously, or do you contradict the person complimenting you?
When you look in the mirror, do you see someone beautiful or handsome, or someone with loose skin or blemishes? Do you see something positive or negative?
Do you feel you have fulfilled or are fulfilling your potential in at least one area of your life, such as family relationships, career, or education?
If you feel peaceful and accept yourself as you are, you will know you are forming a healthy assessment of yourself. When your self esteem is shaken, you can do something about it. For example, if you feel unappreciated at work or at home, consider not absorbing the negativity into your self esteem. Be open to constructive criticism, but also tell yourself you did a good job when you did, even if others aren’t recognizing that. If you have done something wrong, explore the incident and find ways to improve your behavior. Even when you have been remiss, find something in yourself to appreciate and be proud of.
However you perceive your appearance, accept it and cherish it. Who you are is not skin deep, but resides underneath. Hold on to the good in yourself and rescue yourself from the internal and external voices that are putting you down. If you don’t abandon yourself, you will be able to take back an improved concept of yourself.
By Wendy Hoffman, LCSW-C, Jewish Community Services Therapy Services, Baltimore, MD
To learn more about how JCS can help you solve life’s puzzles please visit our home page or call 410-466-9200.