In this series, I dig a little deeper into the meaning of psychological terms.
This week’s term: self-esteem
Wikipedia defines self-esteem as “reflects an individual’s overall subjective emotional evaluation of his or her own worth”. It reflects a person’s beliefs about the self and emotional states. Self-esteem is seen as a predictor of outcomes such as academic achievement, happiness, and interpersonal relationships. While there may be short-term variations, self-esteem is thought to be an enduring trait. Self-esteem is heavily influenced by life experience, particularly childhood experiences.
People with high self-esteem firmly stick to their values/principles, trust their own judgment and problem-solving abilities, and are sensitive to the needs and feelings of others. People with low self-esteem tend to be self-critical and hypersensitive to criticism from others, are indecisive and fear making mistakes, tend to be perfectionistic, tend to feel guilty, and have a negative general outlook.
The last time I was in hospital, one of my doctors was a quacky psychoanalytic type. He was telling me I needed to do this psychodynamic therapy-based group after discharge, and the part of the group he thought I needed most was the module on improving self-esteem. I told him that when I’m well my self-esteem is actually quite good, and he condescendingly explained that no, it was not, because if I had good self-esteem I wouldn’t have attempted suicide. I would’ve slapped him upside the head except that’s generally not the best approach with someone who has the final say in your discharge.
It’s true, though. When I’m well I have good self-esteem. I know myself well, am comfortable in my own skin, know what I’m good at and not good at, and I’m fiercely independent, which makes it easier not to spend much time worrying about what other people think of me. I suspect a lot of that comes from a very well-adjusted childhood. Affection was never lacking. School was easy for me and I did well at it, and this was very positively reinforced by my parents. By the time high school rolled around I felt pretty far removed from the world of the “in crowd”, but I was comfortable in my little niche. From a young age I wanted to do things my own way, whatever that might be, and again, this was something that was encouraged by my parents.
Being stuck in a prolonged depressive episode, my self-esteem has suffered. I don’t know this depressed self as well because she’s an unpredictable, fluctuating self. The things I used to know I was good at are now so much harder and are not predictably reliable. Some of the things that used to make me me feel hidden away somewhere. I’m not always self-critical, but I’ve become ultra-sensitive to criticism from others. Strangely, though, while I’m sensitive to the criticism that is wielded outwardly as a weapon, I don’t care that much about what people might think about me. As long as it stays inside their heads, I don’t place a lot of value on what others think, in large part because in general I hate people (thanks to the depression). It doesn’t make a lot of sense, but that’s the best explanation I can come up with.
Has your self-esteem been influenced by your illness?
You can find the rest of my What Is series here.