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Emotional resilience: escaping low self-esteem

09 June 2016

In the third instalment on emotional health for solicitors, Julian Hall takes a look at the relationship between emotional resilience and self-esteem.


In this series examining aspects of emotional resilience I have already given you an overview of what it means be an emotionally resilient solicitor. I followed that with an article examining our relationship with stress. This time I want to shed some light on an equally important relationship in terms of emotional resilience - that is, the relationship we have with ourselves. I will focus on self-esteem: how it differs from confidence and its interaction with emotional resilience and stress.

The two essential parts of an individual's emotional resilience are their relationship with stress and their self-esteem. If my sense of self is not strong and I do not really know I am worthy, then my ability to meet life's challenges head on is limited and my sense of fear - and, accordingly my stress levels - will rise. Equally, if I am stressed and I am finding myself particularly challenged, then my ability to self-regulate and deal with difficult feelings such as fear is limited, and this in turn undermines my sense of self. 

Separating self-esteem and confidence

Before we move on to examine self-esteem, I want to clarify its relationship with confidence because the two often get confused. 

• I can fake confidence - I can put on the swagger and go out there to meet the world no matter how I am feeling. Healthy self-esteem cannot be faked.

• Confidence can be built quickly, often through the 'fake it until you make it' process. This isn't possible with self-esteem.

• Confidence, just as it can be built quickly, can also be shattered in a single event if we overstep our own capabilities. Healthy self-esteem, however, cannot be shattered so easily. It can be ground down over time, but not quickly.

• The difference between the two is summed up in the words 'I am' and 'I can'. Self-esteem is about me as a person, whereas confidence is about my capabilities.

• If I have healthy self-esteem and my confidence is shattered, I have sound foundations to rebuild it. If I have unhealthy self-esteem and my confidence is shattered, then I am in a dark and difficult place.

• There are many of us trying to 'fake it until we make it' while not dealing with the core challenge causing the need to fake it in the first place. Dealing with unhealthy self-esteem and building my sense of self over time is essential to my emotional health, and the quality of my relationships.

• If I have healthy sense of self, I know that no matter what happens to me I will always be OK.

The two aspects of self-esteem

Self-esteem can be broadly split into two areas. The first is our emotional needs - these form the largest part of self-esteem challenges and behavioural issues for most of us. The next part, though a smaller piece of the jigsaw, is the negative beliefs we carry about ourselves.

1. Our emotional needs

This is our need to be appreciated, respected, listened to, loved, liked and so on. Our list of needs is endless and we add to it as we go through life. Essentially, these are the needs that we somehow grow to think of as other people's role to meet for us. We measure our self-esteem by whether people like us, listen to us, respect us and appreciate us. Indeed, they are so important to us that we develop behavioural mechanisms for making sure we get our needs met.

Needs-related behaviour could be something as simple - and commonplace - as putting too many hours at the desk because that is how we get our need to be appreciated and respected met. It can arise in needy relationships as our need to have another's love for us affirmed grows. It can also be found in aggressive or passive-aggressive behaviour as we demand respect from others when most would agree it is something that must be earned.

2. Our negative beliefs about ourselves

The smaller, but no less potent, part of the jigsaw is related to the beliefs we pick up and hold about ourselves as our personalities are forming. Often formed in childhood, these negative beliefs can be so toxic that we are afraid to express them for fear of being vulnerable, and they drive behaviours that can be damaging. Common negative beliefs are concepts such as: I am lazy, stupid, a failure, worthless, ugly, uncaring, and so on. The list is endless.

Most people deal with these behaviours by burying them deep down and creating a set of behaviours that seeks to prove the belief wrong. Thus the one that has a belief they are lazy becomes the hardest worker in the building. The one that believes they are ugly takes immense care over their appearance. The one who believes they are stupid accumulates qualifications and certificates as proof of the opposite. However, there are those of us that, once we have the label, deep down inside give up the fight against it and just live the label.

The good news

Once we start to notice our negative beliefs, it is a relatively simple process to repair the damage and move on, however, it does require self-discipline, commitment and it takes some time. It is worth it in the end.

Why take action?

The level of personal development I have described above is challenging to most of us. Why would we want to open ourselves up to that level of soul searching and hard development?

For me, once I am in a healthy state I have clear perspective on my behaviours, my work and my relationships. I am able to understand that I love my wife because I love her, not because I need her to love me. That I work hard because I get a sense of satisfaction and because there is work to do, not because I think I will get respect from others. In fact, I come to understand whether or not I am dedicating myself to a job I actually enjoy, or whether it is connected to the transient happiness in the shape of the 'stuff' it buys me that I am attached to.

By taking responsibility for my self-esteem, if I want to work in a high-pressure, stressful environment I can do it in a healthy way, with enjoyment, a sense of fulfilment and knowing it is my healthy choice to do so.

Full article first published by the Family Section. 

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Tags: development | emotional resilience | stress | wellbeing

About the author

Julian Hall is the founding director of stress, conflict and anger management specialists Calm People.
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