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Regulation of Self-Esteem

Self-esteem refers to the way we feel about ourselves. This is an important concept because good self-esteem is necessary to the enjoyment of life. I think we can all agree that we want to feel good about ourselves and to believe that we have truly earned the right to feel good about ourselves. In this paper I present a way of how to feel good about yourself and know that you have earned the right to feel this way.

It is important to note that how you judge yourself has to be considered separately from how other people judge you. The reason for this can be demonstrated by examining the following imaginary but not unusual situation: one person might like you a lot and think that you're terrific, while at the same time another person might hate you and think that you're awful. Another situation which makes the point is one in which your motives are misunderstood: someone might hate you for doing something which you know you did with the best of intentions; someone else might think you're terrific for doing something which you know you did out of bad intentions. Judging yourself as to whether or not you deserve to feel good about yourself is something only you can do. This does not mean that how others think of you is unimportant. It is important, because we all need to love, and to be loved, liked, and admired, but this needs to be considered separately from the need to feel good about ourselves.

This separation of how others feel about us from how we feel about ourselves is not easy to achieve, however. We all start off in life basing our feeling about ourselves on how our parents showed that they felt about us, but we cannot afford as adults to base our self-esteem on our parents' view of us. A serial killer's parents might have always loved him, but that does not mean that he should feel good about himself as an adult.

Presumably we all want to be as good as we can be. However, none of us can ever be perfect. It would therefore not be appropriate to insist on perfection as being necessary for self-esteem. If you need to be perfect to feel good about yourself, then you will always feel badly about yourself.

One basic principle that I will work from is the idea that your self-esteem should be based only on factors within your control. It is not fair to be judged because of something that you cannot be responsible for, and you cannot be held responsible for something you do not control. If you accept this principle, that means that you cannot base self-esteem on luck: this includes height, colour, intelligence, talent, being born into a respected family, or being born into a rich family.

Furthermore, it also means that self-esteem cannot be based on how well you perform, because so many factors outside your control will determine how well you perform. How well you perform depends upon your talent, your state of health, the weather, your equipment, your coach or teacher, and numerous other factors over which you have no control and therefore no responsibility; this means that how well you perform cannot be the basis for judging whether you deserve to feel good about yourself.

This still leaves open the question of what a suitable basis for feeling good about yourself would be. Based on the argument above, it needs to be something that we can control. If we examine the different aspects of human experience, we can readily see that there are only two domains within which we can exercise direct control: our actions and our thoughts. This does not mean that we have control over all of our actions and thoughts. For example, although you can choose to lift a pen, you cannot control your actions when you are asleep, and not even very well when you are tired or ill, and you can never control your actions perfectly. You can choose to think about a green elephant, and that thought is controlled by you. But there are also many thoughts which come into your mind which do not come because you choose them. Just try listening to a boring lecture, or doing boring homework, and you will know what I mean: you can find yourself having a lot of random thoughts. Within the domains of action and thought, however, we can make an effort and as a result of those efforts we can carry out certain actions and we can have certain thoughts. It is only the effort within those domains over which we have direct control and for which we therefore can accept responsibility.

So, where does all of this get us? The question still remains: how to regulate self-esteem? I propose that the following steps be followed, in the following order:

Step 1:
Imagine an ideal version of yourself. This image or picture, because it is ideal, must be acknowledged from the outset as impossible to achieve, simply because we are human and therefore imperfect. Each person will have a unique version of an ideal self that is meaningful to that person and not necessarily to anyone else. For that reason there cannot be a universal ideal for everyone.

Step 2:
Imagine how that ideal version of yourself would think and act. Remember that it is only in the domains of thinking and acting that we can exercise direct control, and therefore any regulation of self-esteem has to relate only to these domains.

Step 3:
Try to think and act in the manner described in step 2. Notice that the instruction is to try. Although we have some control over thinking and acting, we do not have complete control, ever, and this has to be recognized. Remember to expect to make mistakes as you try to do this, because you are only human.

Step 4:
Reward the efforts made in step 3 with encouragement and praise. The encouragement and praise that you give to yourself are what will result in feeling good. Because of the way that this system has been constructed, you will know that the encouragement and praise are truly deserved, because of the effort you made. It is also worthwhile pointing out that because rewards bring about the desire to do more of whatever it is that is being rewarded, this method not only makes it easier to feel good about yourself but also leads you to try more to become a better person.

There. It's done. Now you know how to feel good about yourself and deserve it, without having to be rich, or smart, or good-looking, or successful. All you have to do is try to be a better person than you were, and pat yourself on the back for the effort. Try it. The effort is worth it.

You may find it easier to remember this approach to regulating self-esteem by referring to the following mnemonic (memory aid) which summarizes the above: REPEAT IVY - Reward with
Encouragement and Praise your Efforts to Act and Think like an Ideal Version of Yourself.

Remember that having just made the effort to learn how to regulate your self-esteem by reading and studying the above material, you are now in a position to give yourself encouragement and praise for that effort.