Getting Strong Inside


Often psychologists tell people who are low on self-esteem to simply ‘love’ themselves in order to build resilience and a stronger internal sense of self. 

However, after more than 25 years of clinical work at the Smart Therapy Centre, I find this is simply not enough information to guide people in that endeavour.

Being told to ‘love’ yourself assumes that we build our sense of self from the inside-out and all we need do is change our internal dialogue about ourselves.

The reality is different.  Humans are highly social and socialised, and we build our self-esteem largely from the outside-in based upon what others think about us. Over time, we eventually internalise that information.    

For example, if a child is told by others that she is good at maths she will continue being a keen learner of maths in order to maintain that social approval. 

Then as she gets more and more social approval over time (more nods, more smiles and more affirmative rather than negative comments), she will gradually ‘internalise’ that information into ‘I am good at maths’ and this will become part of her sense of self. 

It is crucial to understand here that she was not ‘born’ good at maths.  It was instead a socially reinforced behaviour that she later internalised. 

It is easy to make this mistake however, because the child being taught this skill at a young age means that later as an adult she will ‘feel’ like she has always been good at maths as if she somehow had a ‘natural’ or intrinsic aptitude.

It is also worth noting that she did not simply become good at maths by wishing it upon herself by saying ‘I love myself and I am good at maths’. 

She instead practised maths and absorbed the positive reinforcement as she became better and better, until the skill was so well-practised it felt like it had always been a part of her.

Keep in mind here that we can also have the reverse happen and we can come to regard ourselves negatively when social nuances from others as well as real-life outcomes (such as failing maths tests) indicate that we are poor at skills.

In the end, our self-esteem will depend upon how we perform in the real world, which is essentially based on the number of skills we hold positively versus the number of skills we hold negatively from both our own perspective and from the perspective of others.

If we want to improve our self-esteem, we must build skills.  Abstractly ‘loving’ yourself is not enough and it is not even plausible when you profoundly lack skills and repetitively fail to get good outcomes in the real world.   

Instead, we must try to build all sorts of skills, not just the ‘hard’ skills like maths, languages, debating, dancing, sports or general knowledge (although these obviously help enormously), but also ‘soft’ skills that ultimately make huge differences to real-life outcomes. 

Soft skills are things like being relaxed, open and friendly in conversations (these are behaviours we can easily learn to control even if, due to lack of practice, we don’t initially ‘feel’ them).  Other soft skills might include, knowing how to initiate, sustain or end conversations well; understanding socially acceptable behaviours, contexts and nuances; exercising high levels of internal discipline during conflict (not becoming angry, sulky or passive aggressive); or knowing how to assert both your own interests while cooperatively advancing others’ interests at the same time in order to achieve win-win solutions. 

These skills are often built during life-coaching sessions with therapists, but you can also learn them yourself with truly honest discussion, guidance and feedback from peers and loved ones.