I often hear people describe how poorly they think of themselves in my work as a psychotherapist. For some reason we tend to be overly critical of ourselves, and harsh in our internal speech. We probably never tell the people we love, “You’re such an idiot,” but most of us wouldn’t hesitate to say the same thing to ourselves.
Women and men face unique challenges to having a positive view of themselves. I recently spoke with licensed professional counselor and author Megan MacCutcheon, who’s well acquainted with these challenges. She’s been writing and teaching about self-esteem for years, and recently wrote The Self-Esteem Workbook for Women.
What Is Self-Esteem?
First I thought it was important to define what we mean by “self-esteem.” There’s been a somewhat predictable backlash against the concept in the past couple of decades, for a variety of reasons. One of the main reasons is that high self-esteem is sometimes portrayed as thinking we’re one hundred percent amazing and flawless, and yet we know that thinking too highly of oneself isn’t a good thing—especially when a high self-image is out of line with the reality of one’s actions. We can all think of people whose admiration of themselves doesn’t do anyone else any favors.
So I started my discussion with Megan by asking her what self-esteem is, and how it’s different from something like narcissism.
Seth J. Gillihan: There are a lot of ways we use the term “self-esteem,” and people have different concepts of what that means. How do you define self-esteem—what is it, and what is it not?
Megan MacCutcheon: Self-esteem is how you think about yourself as a person, how you treat yourself, and believing that you are a good and worthy person no matter what setbacks you face in life. So it’s not necessarily about being perfect, or having everything go exactly how you want. It’s just about being OK with yourself no matter what happens, or where you’re starting out, and being able to accept everything about you—both your strengths and your weaknesses.
SJG: When someone objects to the idea, what might they be including in the definition that you would not include as part of self-esteem?
MM: Sometimes people are talking about how we have to be accountable for our actions, and we have to look at our behaviors, and I think that’s true. How we feel about ourselves has so many components—our thoughts, our actions, our inactions, the comparisons we make to others. And it has to do with everything we’ve learned, experienced, and interpreted throughout our lives. So I think we do have to look at our behaviors. We have to take responsibility for our actions, and we can’t let poor self-esteem be an excuse for poor actions. We’re responsible for ourselves.
SJG: It sounds like you’re not denying that we have limitations, but really embracing them as part of who you are.
Repurposed from https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/think-act-be/201812/why-its-hard-women-feel-good-about-themselves