Self-esteem exists on a spectrum or a scale if you will. At the extreme ends of the spectrum/scale is pathologically low self-esteem and pathologically high self-esteem. Healthy self-esteem is the balance between the two. Self-esteem is quite complex as it is your overall opinion of yourself — the complete sum of how you feel about your abilities and limitations across a variety of situations and within a variety of familial, intimate and interpersonal relationships. For this reason, maintaining healthy self-esteem can be tricky as it requires a delicate balance between the internal and external factors that influence it.
Which internal and external factors can influence self-esteem?
#Our thoughts and perceptions about ourselves.
#How other people react towards our presence and how they evaluate us.
#Our education, our social indoctrination.
#Our experiences within different social groups.
#Our experiences at home, school, work and in the community.
#Illness, disability or injury.
#Age, race, culture, religion.
#Role and status within society. Media messages.
The ability to maintain healthy self-esteem requires us to honestly appraise both the internal and external factors. This honest appraisal is essentially how we regulate our self-esteem to ensure that it remains stable and consistent over time and across situations. For example, if our internal thoughts and perceptions are focused only on our positives and strengths, and we also only internalize the positive and good evaluations from the external world, then our self-esteem might be artificially INFLATED. Likewise, if our internal thoughts and perceptions are focused only on our negatives and weakness, and we also only internalize the negatives and bad evaluations from the external world, them our self-esteem might be artificially DEFLATED.
So healthy self-esteem requires a good mix of internal and external influences. When we receive constant praise and attention from the external world, rather than allowing all of the praise and attention to raise our self-esteem too high, we utilize both our internal factors (by reminding ourselves that we also have weaknesses, faults, flaws, etc) and external factors (by remembering that not everyone praises our abilities, talents, looks, etc) to bring our self-esteem back down to the healthy level. Likewise, if we are being too harsh on ourselves, and we are overly deflating our self-esteem, we can utilize both the internal and external factors to bring our self-esteem back up to the healthy level.
Healthy self-esteem is also about having a balanced state of esteem across a variety of settings. For example, your self-esteem might be high within the workplace but low when it comes to interpersonal relationships. Or it might be high when you are with one group of friends and low when you around a different group of friends. This is where self-esteem and mental health can become intertwined. Mental health is like self-esteem. Mental health needs to be healthy and balanced across multiple settings and situations in order for it to be deemed ‘good’ or healthy as a whole.
To begin improving our self-esteem we need to first reflect upon how our esteem differs between and across situations. For those situations where our esteem is ‘good’ or high, why is it ‘good’ or high? What factors are positively influencing your esteem? Can these factors which are positively influencing your self-esteem be found in the other areas of your life? If not, why not? What is different between this situation and another situation?
Let’s look at an example. Let’s say that your self-esteem is relatively high in the workplace compared to your esteem levels when you are with your friends. What factors in the workplace are positively influencing your esteem levels? Maybe your co-workers treat you with respect and validate and praise your efforts. Maybe you feel a sense of camaraderie, team work or just general inclusion and acceptance from your colleagues? Now looking to your group of friends, are the positive influences present within your workplace also present within your group of friends? What’s different or the same between the two groups? How does the way you view yourself differ between the two groups?
When our self-esteem becomes balanced and healthy across time and across situations, so too will our mental health become balanced and healthy across time and across situations. That’s not to say that our mental health is solely dependent on our self-esteem. A lot of factors, internal and external, influence our mental health. Our esteem levels though play a vital role in our overall mental health. Healthy self-esteem can help protect us from stress, improve our immune function and protect us from illness, improve our familial, intimate, social and occupational relationships, enhance life satisfaction, increase optimism and hope and reduce anxiety and depression.