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Self Esteem:
Take a Look at Yours

by Patti Normile

In high school Rick always finished dead last in his 1600-meter track event. After crossing the finish line, he would check his time and run to tell family and friends, "I knocked two hundredths of a second off my time!" His joy at the accomplishment was contagious. Those who saw his enthusiasm when he achieved his small goal knew Rick was a winner even though he came in last.

Rick has a serious learning disability. He accepted the fact that his learning disability made him require more time to take the MCATs (medical school SATs), and requested extended time for testing. By applying the winning attitude that he practiced on the track to studies, Rick is succeeding in medical school today. Rick will make one terrific pediatrician because he sees good in himself and others. He focuses on what he can do rather than his limitations. Rick sets goals and works diligently to accomplish them because he has high self-esteem.

In contrast Jennifer has experienced many successes in class and in athletics but anguishes, "Nobody ever notices me. I'm no good." Her negative attitude about herself sometimes makes people think she is a loser even when she wins. Her self-esteem rests not on her belief in herself but on what she imagines others think of her.

Self-esteem: A Personality Skeleton

What is self-esteem? I like to think of self-esteem as the skeleton on which our personalities hang. You know how that bony skeleton hanging in the science lab looks. Imagine it inside a body supporting a human person, enabling her togo through life's activities. A healthy physical skeleton, composed of strong bones nourished by good food and exercise, will support a body that walks tall and confidently, one that can do many things.

Self-esteem, like your physical skeleton, is hidden within your being. You cannot see it with your eyes but you can observe the effects of positive self-esteem (or the lack of it) in your life. It supports you and makes you feel worthwhile and lovable. It enables you to be pleased with your successes without bragging or downplaying their value. Self-esteem provides the inner strength that provides the power to try again when you fail.

Broken bones create pain in the physical skeleton, causing the body to slump or not move at all, affecting the ability to live effectively. Like a fractured bone, broken self-esteem can cause pain. For the person with weak self-esteem, each mistake creates the pain of feeling worthless. Feeble self-esteem diminishes your self-confidence causing you to fear anything new. A person lacking confidence feels unwanted, unlovable and incapable much of the time. Such feelings disable people for daily living.

How's Yours?

This self-esteem evaluation can help you determine the strength of your self-esteem.

  1. Do I often compare my appearance, clothes, grades, talents to my peers?
  2. Do I feel like a failure when I attempt something that does not work out?
  3. Do I envy a classmate or friend who is chosen for a role in a school play or voted into a class office?
  4. If I had enough money, clothes, high grades, popularity, friends, would I be happy?
  5. Do I put others down for the sake of a laugh?
  6. Does being alone make me feel unwanted, worthless, unlovable?
  7. Am I always fearful of voicing my opinions in a group?
  8. Do I frequently make excuses for my actions?
  9. Does any criticism make me angry?

If you answer "yes" to any of the questions, your self-esteem may need a little nourishing. The more "yeses," the more selfesteem exercise you need.

Self-esteem reflects the way you really feel about yourselfyour worth, your abilities, your talents. As you read this Youth Update, you will understand better why a "yes" to the questions may indicate a gap in your selfesteem structure.

Where It Starts

Self-esteem develops very early in life. Psychologists believe that by the time a child is three years old, self-esteem-either positive or negative-is fairly well established. Therefore, it is vital that parents, brothers and sisters, teachers and babysitters treat small children with love, kindness and respect. To the extent that you have been treated this way, your self-esteem has grown.

Along the way, other factors altered your self-esteem. If you did well in school, made friends easily, succeeded at sports, music or art, self-esteem flourished. Success nourishes your personality skeleton of selfesteem like good food nourishes your physical skeleton. If you overcame difficulties (like striking out each time you came to bat in T-ball) by practicing harder, laughing at your mistakes, selecting other activities in which you succeeded, then even failures made your selfesteem stronger. You learned you are a good and valued person in spite of setbacks. However, along the way if you or someone else said that you were no good or stupid because you failed or made a mistake--and, you believed this-your selfesteem suffered.

High-low Indicators

How can self-esteem bring you happiness? You are free to set goals and know you are O.K. even if you fail. You are free to seek friends because you are worth having as a friend. You are free to attempt new challenges because you have abundant abilities. Self-esteem frees you to become your best self, and in doing so you find happiness. Persons with strong self-esteem may be identified by several traits:

  • cooperative spirits
  • talent for communicating feelings and opinions in reasonable ways because they believe their thoughts have value
  • good decision making because they trust themselves
  • withstanding peer pressure
  • taking responsibility for their behavior
  • accomplishing things at school, church or home
  • exhibiting pride in achievements without bragging
  • handing frustrating situations
  • tackling challenges and taking reasonable risks
  • complimenting others with sincerity
  • accepting criticism and growing from it
  • feeling free to be creative and original

Weak self-esteem also leaves its marks on individuals:

  • powerlessness
  • being excessively loud in a group or not talking much at all
  • school performance below their abilities
  • experiencing difficulty saying "no" to drugs, alcohol or sex
  • needing to be right at all times or always feeling wrong
  • judging self and others by clothing labels and dollar signs
  • refusing to learn from criticism
  • making excuses for inappropriate actions
  • refusal to take responsibility
  • fearing to try something new or taking wild and reckless risks
  • inability to accept praise for accomplishments

By now you may be getting a sense of your own self-esteem. Does it enable you to stand up confidently for yourself? Or is your self-esteem skeleton weak and slumping? Most people experience moments when selfesteem is powerful. "Yes!" you say to the next challenge. You set goals and put forth the effort to achieve.

At other times your selfesteem is so shaky that you even doubt your ability to brush your teeth correctly. Past failures or embarrassing moments poison your mind to the possibility of tackling something new. "Not me!" you reply when asked if you are going to apply to be peer counselor for the sixth graders. Why? Because self-esteem has been damaged and needs to be healed.

Healing and Growing

Ultimately you are responsible for your own self-esteem. Your head start is the abilities with which you were born, and your family's nurture. Your job is to build on that.

What is special about you? List your own gifts, talents and good qualities. Include obvious ones like playing the violin since you were eight or running the fastest 100 meters in your class, but don't miss the less obvious qualities like tossing your neighbor's newspaper on the porch or smiling at people who look as though they need a friend.

Each positive thought about yourself that surfs on your brain waves will enable you to see that the world would not be the same without you. You are special. That realization is at the heart of healing self-esteem.

Another step toward healing is to ask yourself, "Who am I?" Write your response or record your thoughts. Continue questioning "Who am I?" To my parents? To my friends? To other relatives? Teachers? Coaches? You might share your thoughts with a trusted friend. If you are feeling courageous, you might want to ask parents, grandparents, friends, etc., who you are to them. You may find some fascinating and affirming answers.

You may discover that some people tend to put you down because they lack strong selfesteem themselves. The same can be true of a parent, coach or teacher who lacks self-esteem. You may not be able to change them but you can remind yourself that when another person puts you down, that reveals a flaw in them not you.

It may be necessary to spend less time with people who do not build your positive sense of self. Enter worthwhile activities that enable you to spend time away from those who make you doubt yourself. Search for the people who help you appreciate yourself in genuine ways. At the same time deal honestly with the selfimprovements you discover you need.

Tristan Jones is a sailor. Although he lost his legs in an accident, he teaches disabled young people how to sail. Grappling with his own loss, he noticed that many teenagers with physical disabilities were angry, unhappy and often in trouble. They did not view themselves as lovable, capable or valuable. Jones dedicates his life to instructing them in sailing difficult waters around Thailand. As they challenge these treacherous seas, they discover that they possess many gifts and abilities. They learn to like themselves.

Challenging yourself to accomplish something worthwhile that you really want to achieve is a positive way to build self- esteem. Chris, who has cerebral palsy, met that challenge when he amazed his youth group by teaching them Indian dancing. Though Chris has difficulty walking, the rhythm of dance fits his movements. Only a person with positive self-esteem could have risked giving his dance lesson.

You can increase this power within yourself. Spend a few minutes thinking about a person who really makes you feel good about yourself. Ponder words that have boosted your feelings about yourself. "Great job!" "I can always count on you." "I'm glad you're my friend." Think about actions that gave your self-esteem a shove in the right direction-a slap on the back in the locker room or a look of understanding when you were having difficulties. Your special self-esteem builder is able to give you a boost because he feels good about himself. When he is able to affirm the good he sees in you, he feels even better about you and about himself. Self-esteem is contagious.

Learning to discern between genuine compliments and insincere flattery is tricky. Practice shapes this skill. Does the person spread compliments as thick as peanut butter on bread or does she choose what is worthy of a compliment? Do you believe in your heart that the action or words are sincere?

Practice building self-esteem in others. Tell them when they do a great job. Thank them when they make life a bit brighter. Smile at people! Avoid criticizing another unless you believe you can actually help that person. Give sincere compliments while remembering that something too plentiful can lose its value. Building self-esteem is a mutual activity. As you enable others to discover their own best selves, you uncover your own.

Ultimate Questions

We have said a lot about building self-esteem through accomplishments and through words. In reality the good you do and the good you speak result from who you are. The question rises again, "Who am I?" The ultimate question to strengthen selfesteem is, "Who am I to God?" No one knows you as God does. No one loves you as God does.God created you. You are made in the image of your Creator. That is an awesome image. It means that you are much more wonderful that you can imagine.

God created you so special that the Holy Spirit lives in you. The Holy Spirit is the life-giving marrow of the skeleton of selfesteem that is being built within you. Take time for a sit-down conversation with God. Ask "Who am I to you, God?" No voice will boom from heaven, but expect to receive a response in the quiet place of your heart. Strong self-esteem grows from seeing yourself as God sees you.

In the movie Home Alone Kevin enters a church in the midst of his difficulties. He wisely says, "This is the place to be if you're not feeling good about yourself." Kevin reminds us that church is a place where we are valued, where we are loved, a place where God builds self-esteem. Church is not just a building. Church is people who love and worship God and help one another to become what God has created them to be. Sunday Mass and youth group activities can help you feel good about yourself.

God also speaks to you through the Bible. When your self-esteem feels undernourished, think about what the Bible says about you: I am God's child! "The Spirit itself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God..." (Romans 8:16). I am a brand-new person. "...whoever is in Christ is a new creation: the old things have passed away; behold, new things have come" (2 Corinthians 5:17). I give my problems to God. "Cast all your worries upon [God] because he cares for you" (1 Peter 5:7).

Now you are ready to celebrate being yourself. Make yourself a poster that says, "Congratulations on being me!" Hang it in your room as a reminder to thank God for making you just as you are! Rejoice in being yourself!

Patti Normile is at work on her second book for St. Anthony Messenger Press and has written three previous Youth Updates.

Joseph E. Beck, 17; Andy Beimesche, 18; Melissa Bratta, 16; Chris DeBrunner, 14; Amy Russell, 17; and Mara Tomaszewski, 15, all from St. Gertrude Parish in Madeira, Ohio, met one cold and snowy day with both the author and the editor of this Youth Update. They took a critical look at its message and their ideas have become an important part of this Update.


Ten Ways to Boost Your Self-Esteem

Place this list or a copy of it somewhere you look every day. You deserve a "star" each time you boost your self-exteem by doing the following:

  1. Stop putting yourself down. When you think a negative thought about yorself, recall two qualities that you really like.
  2. Respect your feelings; appreciate your ideas.
  3. Learn to manage your time and money.
  4. Set reasonable goals for yourself and stick with them.
  5. Be tolerant of others. Look for good in everyone(including yourself).
  6. Accept responsibility.
  7. Build values for yourself that help you and others.
  8. Discuss problems with someone you trust.
  9. Follow rules at school, home and in your community. Mostrules make life better for everyone.
  10. Give yourself a hug. Look in the mirror each morning and tell yourself, "You are one terrific person!" Then live the day like you believe it.

Can I do anything about friends with low self-esteem?


You have already done something important you have called the person friend. To have a good and true friend is to know you are of value to another person-an important step in building self-esteem. But a friendship can be difficult to maintain if your friend constantly puts herself down orfears to enter into worthwhile activities. Honestv is at the heart friendship. You may say something like, "When you put yourself down, it bothers me because I see so much good in you." You may lead your friend through some of the steps ofthis issue such as listingpositive qualities. Each time you feel your friend is acting like he or she doesn't value himself or herself, you could mention two good things you see.


I know high self-esteem is good, but how can I keep from appearing conceited?


The best prevention for this very real problem is to be genuinely interested in other people. Be friendly. Ask about what others are doing and listen to them. When you focus on the other person rather than on yourself and yon r accomplishments, you are less likely to appear conceited. To have high self-esteem and be truly humble is a terrific combination.


How can I keep from judging other people's self-esteem?


You have already begun to avoid judging others'setfesteem by acknowledging that judging is not desirable. When you find yourself making a mental (or verbal) judgment of another person, stop. Look for a positive quality in the other person. Ifyou have judged an action, recall a positive thing the person has done. Ask yourself why you have judged the person. Sometimes we are hard on others when they reflect our own shortcomings. Your judgmental thought would be a hint of what you need to change in yourself.


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