by Kassandra Lamb
(This post first appeared in spring 2014 on Pirkko Rytkonen’s blog. I’m re-running it while I’m on vacation, because I think this is an extremely important topic!)
A filter should be easy to change, right? I can change the one in my furnace in five minutes. Any self-respecting auto mechanic can change an oil filter in a car in less than twenty.
So why is it so hard to change our self-esteem filters?
Mainly it’s because they’ve been established for so long. It’s like those rusty screws or bolts in something that you can’t get loose for love nor money.
Our self-esteem filters are established when we’re kids. How we feel about ourselves is a product of how our worth has been reflected back to us by the environment. Our parents, other family members, teachers and peers even, influence how we perceive ourselves at a young age. Then it’s hard later to change that “first impression” of ourselves.
There are two components to self-esteem: self-worth and self-confidence. So we actually have two sets of filters. One is related to how we feel about ourselves as a person–are we worthy of love? The other is about how well we think we can do things.
We can have a parent who showers us with expressions of love but doesn’t let us try things for ourselves. That child will have good self-worth but may not be all that confident that they can handle what life dishes out. Another child may be taught how to do things and be praised for doing them well, but his or her parents don’t realize that the child needs to feel loved as well (that s/he needs to hear the words; kids don’t automatically assume their parents love them). This child may have confidence in his/her abilities but may feel less than worthy as a human being.
As adults, these beliefs about our worth and abilities become filters for new information. Any new input that counters what we already believe about ourselves will bounce off these filters. They won’t let that information in.
This is a good thing if you have high self-esteem. If you are mistreated by others, you will quickly realize you deserve better and do something about the mistreatment. When people tell you they love you, you’ll believe them, and when you do something well, you will let the pleasure of that accomplishment sink in. And if you fail at something, you will assume that you need to try harder and/or get more instruction, and you will likely try again.
But if your self-esteem is low, these filters are a major problem. They won’t let in the information you need in order to feel better about yourself. And the negative information they do let in just reinforces the poor opinion of yourself.
So when people tell you they like you, you figure they just don’t know you all that well, or they’re just being kind. If others mistreat you, that may feel like what you deserve.
If you do something well, you may dismiss it as luck or a fluke, or give someone else more of the credit than they deserve for that accomplishment. If you fail at something, you figure that’s par for the course and your self-confidence plummets even further.
What Can We Do To Change Our Filters?
I wish I had an easy answer for this. Most of the time it takes quite a few sessions with a professional counselor in order to get these filters turned around. But there are a few things we can do on our own–before, during and after that period of counseling.
1) Make a conscious effort to let the good stuff in. Accept the compliments rather than deflecting them. (See my post of a couple weeks ago for hints on how to do this.)
Take a long look at the people who say they like or love you. Are they idiots? Probably not. They’re probably reasonably intelligent and discerning folks who genuinely see value in you.
And when you do something well, make a conscious effort to give yourself credit where credit is due. This is harder to do than it sounds, which brings us to…
2) Watch your self-talk! We all talk to ourselves in our heads all the time. Make an effort to notice what you are saying to yourself. If the self-talk is negative, intentionally turn that around. It can help to keep a self-talk journal initially, and write down what you notice you are saying to yourself. Then write down the countering positive message and repeat that to yourself several times. Sounds hokey, but it helps.
3) Look at where the original filters came from. Do you know as an adult that your parents love you (most parents do love their kids)? Visualize that insecure little child that you once were in your mind’s eye. Tell that child that Mom and Dad really do love him/her; they’re just not very good at showing it. Or perhaps they had their own issues that made them less than stellar parents. That doesn’t mean that child is unlovable! (Imagery is particularly powerful for shifting the emotional charge on something.)
4) Examine your perfectionism. I did two whole posts on this subject not so long ago, so I’ll just say a few things about it here. Perfectionism comes from two sources: too harsh standards for performance when we were kids so we believe we have to do something perfectly in order for it to count as good, and/or an attempt to overcome poor self-worth by being perfect at what we do. If I do everything just so, then people will find me worthy of love.
I’ll make two counter points to those beliefs. One, nobody is perfect and nothing we humans do is ever done perfectly, so perfect as a goal is a set up for failure.
Two, our worthiness of love is not and should not be predicated on how well we perform certain tasks, and it certainly shouldn’t be required that we be perfect at everything in order to be okay as people. Nobody is perfect, or even good, at every single thing they attempt.
Give yourself permission to not be good at certain things that aren’t that important to you. Save your higher standards (but still don’t expect perfect) for those things you really care about.
Please share your thoughts and/or questions about these self-esteem filters below. (I won’t be online every day while traveling, so it may be a day or two before I respond.)
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SUICIDAL SUSPICIONS, A Kate Huntington Mystery, Book 8
Psychotherapist Kate Huntington is rocked to the core when one of her favorite clients commits suicide. How can this be? The woman, who suffered from bipolar disorder, had been swinging toward a manic state. The client’s family blames Kate and they’re threatening to sue for malpractice. She can’t fault them since she blames herself. How could she have missed the signs?
Searching for answers for herself and the grieving parents, Kate discovers some details that don’t quite fit. Is it possible the client didn’t take her own life, or is that just wishful thinking? Questioning her professional judgement, and at times her own sanity, she feels compelled to investigate. What she finds stirs up her decades-old ambivalence about the Catholic Church. Is her client’s death somehow related to her childhood parish?
When she senses that someone is following her, she wonders if she is truly losing it. Or is she getting dangerously close to someone’s secrets?
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Posted by Kassandra Lamb. Kassandra is a retired psychotherapist turned mystery writer. She writes the Kate Huntington mystery series and has started a new cozy series, the Marcia Banks and Buddy mysteries (coming soon).
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K.B. OwenOctober 6, 2015 at 8:02 am
Fab post, Kassandra! Definitely worth a re-visit. There are so many ways in which we sabotage our own self-worth. Sometimes it’s a reflex!
Kassandra LambOctober 12, 2015 at 6:02 pm
Good point, Kathy! It is a reflex at times. We get so in the habit of thinking the bad thoughts.
Susie LindauOctober 6, 2015 at 9:56 am
We sure are complicated beings! I think insecurity can also come from relationships we had when we were young. That pecking order thing can be fierce!
Congrats on your new book. 🙂
Kassandra LambOctober 12, 2015 at 6:04 pm
Thanks, Susie! And good point about those early relationships. I was always that “last one picked” during dodge ball and such. It took a long time to realize that the kids were just picking up on my insecurities and making me the “herd’s” scapegoat. Oh, and I feel another blog post coming on. 🙂
Vinnie HansenOctober 6, 2015 at 1:48 pm
Good post, Kass. I’m working on that “self-talk” one.
Kassandra LambOctober 12, 2015 at 6:05 pm
Yeah, that’s a tough one, Vinnie. Glad you liked the post.
Jess WitkinsOctober 11, 2015 at 10:11 pm
I’m so glad you ran this post again. I’ve been struggling for awhile with this. You’ve given me some things to think about and some reminders like let the good stuff in. Haven’t been so good at that lately.
Kassandra LambOctober 12, 2015 at 6:07 pm
And I’m glad the timing was so good for this for you! Hope this helps get your self-esteem back on the sunny side. You’re such a neat person!