Self-Help Information: Self Esteem
What is Self-Esteem?
Webster’s dictionary defines self-esteem as a confidence and
satisfaction in oneself; self-respect. Self-esteem (or self-image)
is how you think and feel about yourself.
Someone with healthy self-esteem feels they are worthy and able
to cope with life’s challenges. They have a positive, yet realistic
view of themselves and their abilities. Even when things seem to go
wrong, they are able to accept themselves and feel they are worthy.
People with low self-esteem or low self-confidence doubt their
abilities and have unrealistic expectations for themselves. Their
sense of self-worth is excessively dependent on what others think
and they often put themselves down or judge themselves very harshly.
To summarize, self-esteem is made up of the thoughts and feelings
that you have about yourself and is influenced by the way you talk
to yourself (i.e., your inner dialogue). As humans, one of our
unique abilities is the awareness of ourselves. We are aware of what
we do and our impact on others and ourselves. This ability allows us
to live in a world with others and develop close relationships. Our
internal voice judges our behavior on a daily basis and makes
adjustments based on feedback from others. A person with low
self-esteem has an overly critical voice with a negative slant;
nothing is good enough, failures are highlighted and you are always
criticized. Psychologist Eugene Sagan terms this voice "the
pathological critic" – always looking for the negative and never
seeing the positive.
How Does Self-Esteem Develop?
Our sense of ourselves develops throughout our lives. As infants
and young children, much of our sense of self comes from our
parents. When parents provide an accepting and nurturing
environment, children develop a solid foundation on which to develop
good feelings about themselves. If parents are excessively demanding
or critical (or discourage moves toward independence), children may
begin to doubt themselves and feel inadequate or unworthy. As
children grow, attend school and develop peer relationships,
successes and failures in these relationships affect self-esteem as
well. Thus, the messages we are sent eventually become internalized
and can become the messages we send ourselves. We then develop a set
of assumptions and beliefs about ourselves based on prior
Critical Beliefs and Thought Patterns that Create Low Self-Esteem
There are many ways in which people talk to themselves. We may
encourage ourselves during a difficult task, "Keep at it. You’re
almost done. You can do it." We may also talk to ourselves in a
negative voice. Although it is important to evaluate ourselves
accurately, if this voice is constant or very negative it can do
harm to our self-esteem and is termed the "pathological critic". The
pathological critic keeps up a negative stream of self-talk. "You
can’t do it. You’re stupid. You’ll never make it." Frequent
techniques used by the pathological critic which undermine
If you did not do well in one situation, the pathological critic
overgeneralizes to all situations – "I got a D on the quiz in Math
today. I’m going to flunk that class and all the rest. I’ll never be
able to graduate from college."
Global Labeling.Your pathological critic uses pejorative
labels to describe yourself rather than accurately describing
your qualities. If you withdraw from a class you’re having
difficulty in, you’re pathological critic may label you – "I’m a
quitter. I never finish anything. I’m a loser."
Minimization of the Positive.With the pathological
critic, good things don’t count nearly as much as bad ones. You
focus on the negative and discount the positive – "I won four
tennis matches but lost one and that makes me feel terrible
Comparing Yourself to Others.The pathological critic
scans the room and finds the people who are better in some way.
Person A is prettier, person B is smarter and person C is a
better athlete. Somehow, these all get combined into one perfect
person who has everything you should have and you are unworthy
Ways to Improve Your Self-Esteem
Be Patient – Change takes time and is an ongoing process.
Remember a time in the past when you learned a difficult skill. You
didn’t learn to ride a bike or swim or rollerblade the first time
out. It involved many attempts and many mistakes (and many bumps and
bruises). Improving your self-esteem is the same kind of process.
Challenge your Pathological Critic
Notice the ways that you put yourself down. Make a list of the
negative statements you make to yourself everyday.
Challenge each negative statement
a. "Just because I got a D on that test, doesn’t mean I won’t
be able to graduate from college. I just need to talk to the
professor and learn a new way of studying that material."
b. "Dropping one class doesn’t mean I am a quitter. I’ve
finished many other things in my life. It means that subject was
difficult for me."
Emphasize the Positive
– Give yourself credit for everything you try, whether you succeed
or not. Focus on the effort rather than on the end product.
Utilize "Thought Stopping"
– When you find yourself thinking a negative thought about yourself,
imagine a large stop sign and tell yourself to "STOP". Switch to a
more positive thought such as "I’m okay." "I’m a good person".
Set Realistic Goals
– Start with small steps and give yourself credit for each little
step you achieve. When your confidence is low, it takes an extra
effort to even begin. Instead of worrying about being perfect,
praise yourself for making an effort.
List the Positive
– Make a list of positive things about yourself and post them in a
place you see every day. Spend a few moments accepting the positive.
Fake it "Til You Make it
– Tell yourself positive things even if you don’t believe them at
first. Sometimes it may take awhile to see that you really are a
worthwhile person, that others like you, and that you are
Be Compassionate with Yourself
– Frequently, we are more compassionate and accepting with others
than with ourselves. Give yourself the same understanding and
acceptance you give others.
Recommended Books to Read
Self-Esteem, Revised Edition. Matthew McKay &
Patrick Fanning, Oakland, CA: New Harbinger, 1995. This book
describes self-esteem and the negative messages we give
ourselves. It follows with a discussion of ways to counter the
"pathological critic" and how to deal with shoulds, mistakes,
and criticism. Discussion of other techniques such as
visualization and hypnosis are included
The Self-Esteem Companion: Simple Exercises to Help You
Challenge Your Inner Critic and Celebrate Your Personal
Matthew McKay, Patrick Fanning, Carole Honeychurch & Catharine
Stuker, Oakland, CA: New Harbinger, 1999.
Ten Days to Self-Esteem.
David D. Burns, NY: William Morrow, 1993. This workbook has
many exercises focusing on the interrelationships of depression,
anxiety and self-esteem. The emphasis is on self-exploration and
on changing your moods through changing your thinking.
Need Additional Help?
Washington State University College of Veterinary Medicine
Counseling and Wellness Services offer free individual counseling
for these and related issues for veterinary students (WSU Veterinary
Students ONLY). For more information or to schedule an appointment
call or e-mail:
Donna J. Scott, PhD
The information contained in these self help
documents is not to be used as a substitute for professional
care. Neither the authors, Washington State University nor the
College of Veterinary Medicine assume liability for injury incurred
by following the information presented in these self-help documents