Mud and mirrors: Building your self-esteem

One of the most common threads I see in therapy is people battling with low self-esteem. This presents itself in many different forms. Sometimes it looks like a person very concerned with what other people think of them. Others constantly look for reassurance from people. Some constantly criticise themselves. Most of the people I see don’t even realise they are even doing this. Or if they do, they ask me how they can change it 

“I know I shouldn’t care about what people think of me, but I can’t help it.”

“I don’t want to, but I feel uncomfortable when I walk into a room. Like everyone is looking at me like I’m weird."

And the common question is, “how can I change this?” I’d say you can start by asking the right question. The question is not 'how can I change this?' The question is 'what is your self-esteem rooted in?'

Self-esteem is a big, and sometimes seemingly vague topic. I have Googled and read through countless articles on ‘how to build self-esteem’. I haven’t come up with very much that has been useful. So let’s go back to how self-esteem develops in the first place…

Right from the start of life, we exist in a world of connectedness. There’s a lovely African saying that takes Descartes “I think therefore I am” into “We are, therefore I am”. This talks of the world as a relational one. We grow up in a world where we relate to all sorts of people. And self-esteem takes shape through every single interaction we have with another human being.

Imagine that every person in your world is holding up a mirror for you to look into. Every time you look into that mirror you see a reflection of yourself. Eventually, once you’ve seen enough of the same reflection, you start to believe that the reflection is accurate – that it reflects what you look like, or who you are. Now imagine, for various reasons, a person holding up a mirror takes some mud and smears it on the mirror. You look into that mirror and you see a muddy reflection. You look into another person’s mirror and see a muddy reflection there too. Eventually, if you see it enough, you will believe that your image is muddy. And so your self-image becomes a bit murky. But why would someone else have mud on their mirror? Well, that is a whole other blog post, but someone once told me that if someone has a problem with you, it’s usually got to do with their own demons. I have since come to realise how true this is in most circumstances.

So where does low self-esteem come from? It comes from looking in the muddy mirrors of other people for long enough that you develop a murky self-image. And the way to undo this is to stop looking in other people’s mirrors. Stop looking to other people to tell you who you are. You are tossed to and fro by other people and their opinions about who you are, only because you do not know who you are. And until you get to know who you are, you will spend your life looking to other people for affirmation. Get to know yourself. Spend some time thinking about who you are, what you like about yourself, what you contribute to the world and to the lives of others. I’m not talking about things like how much you have achieved in your life or how successful (or unsuccessful) you have been. That is not who you are, that is what you can do. And most people I see get stuck because they have these two things confused. If your self-esteem is linked to how much you can achieve then you’re in trouble. I’m talking about a deep knowing of yourself. Getting to know the vulnerable self that you’ve hidden away for so long. Finding the characteristics that are embedded in your character that you like about yourself. Once you can find these things, you will see an unclouded reflection of yourself, and you will only find that when you stop looking at other people’s mirrors and start looking in your own. 

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