Raising selfesteem

In an emotionally confusing world, maintaining your self-esteem is sometimes a hard task. Indeed, the concept of self-esteem needs some further explanation, for it is at the root of why so many people feel that they are not ready to learn. It is a hugely complex area with which, as a global society, we are only just beginning to get to grips. Self-esteem—how much you value yourself—is slippery stuff. One day you feel great. Then you lose your job or something devastating happens in your personal life and your esteem suddenly plummets.

Of course, loss of self-esteem can be much more subtle than this. Not doing as well as you would like to, feeling undervalued, feeling uncertain of your role: these are just some of the more common experiences leading to a lowering of self-esteem. Or it could be a single aspect of life that is going wrong and infecting all the rest, like a rotten apple in a fruit bowl.

Although it is always a good thing to give people positive feedback and seek to bolster their self-worth, if someone feels they are a failure, it may not help to tell them that in your eyes they are a success, because repeated failure is a sure way of lowering self-esteem.

Telling someone who has low self-esteem to cheer up or be more confident or pull themselves together is very unlikely to help. What they need to do is reprogram their mind and come up with new mental models to see them through the difficult time.

Martin Seligman has argued that it is important not to confuse low self-esteem with having a naturally pessimistic frame of mind. In particular, both states produce a feeling of perceived powerlessness that can pervade all aspects of life.

Two approaches to raising self-esteem seem to work well: cognitive behavioral therapy and neurolinguistic programming, NLP for short. Both have the effect of creating a new mental model and hence a new mood. The starting point of both approaches is an acceptance that you are experiencing something unpleasant and that there are things you can do to improve the situation. You need to talk and think about what is on your mind, to try to put into words what you are feeling low about.

Cognitive therapy improves your mood not by working directly on it, but by working on the thoughts that have brought you there. To begin with, it is important to challenge your point of view and see other possible interpretations. Perhaps you are feeling hard done by about a particular job that you applied for and did not get. It may actually be helpful to decide that the interview was unfair and that it was not carried out very well. Or you may have been feeling steadily undermined by your new boss. You may have made certain assumptions about this: for example, that you are no good at your job and that you must be doing things all wrong if your boss feels it necessary to intrude. Or there may be a defect in your superior's character of which you need to be aware. Some therapists go on from here and help you to stop "beating yourself up" about it. By this, they mean that it is counter-productive to waste time blaming yourself when the cause is elsewhere.

Another element of cognitive therapy is the close connection between feelings and thoughts. Interestingly, Susan Greenfield, in The Private Life of the Brain, puts feelings at the center of consciousness and what it means to develop your mind. This is a long way

from the old division associated with Descartes and his famous saying, "I think therefore I am." For someone experiencing low self-esteem, "I feel therefore I am" will be much more helpful, validating as it does the emotional reality of their situation.

Brain science increasingly seems to support this view. For some people, music helps at this stage. Music can lift the mood or perhaps support and draw it out. It depends on individual taste and mood.

One of the most powerful ways of improving the way you feel about yourself is through the support you can receive from friends and loved ones, who, in Maslow's terms, can make you feel that you "belong." Choosing to spend time with people who make you feel good about yourself is an important decision. As a result of starting to think differently about things, you begin also to feel differently about yourself and your mood changes for the better. You have changed your mental model of the world.

The second approach, NLP, was the idea of linguist John Grinder and mathematician Richard Bandler. It draws ideas from a number of disciplines and combines them. NLP involves increasing awareness of the way your mind processes experiences—the "neuro"—being aware of how the way you use language affects the way you see things—the "linguistic"—and creating new models or ways of doing things—the "programming."

A key concept in NLP is the idea that there is no such thing as failure, only feedback. This is an uplifting and important element of learning to learn more effectively. Not surprisingly, an NLP approach to improving self-esteem would involve reprogramming your feelings so that you do not see a setback as a failure.

NLP is always looking for a positive slant on behavior. So, as part of NLP, it will be important for you to take clear positive steps toward sorting out whatever it is you have decided is the cause of you feelings and affirming how you feel at each stage. Using sentences beginning "I can..." and "I am..." works well. Creative visualization is another beneficial technique. You imagine you are an onlooker observing yourself. In your mind's eye, you rehearse what it would feel like to achieve your chosen activity. This technique helps you to learn what it feels like to be competent at something.

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