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Does Self-Esteem Come From Esteemable Acts?

One of the things that was said a lot in my early recovery that I still hear occasionally today is “Self-esteem comes from esteemable acts.” The strong implication here is that if you just do good things, you’ll feel good about yourself. Similarly to what I talked about with achievements, I’ve found this perception to be far too simple, and here’s why.

I was a Boy Scout when I was a kid, and one of the Scouting slogans that stuck with me is “Do a good deed daily.” When I was a Scout, the stereotypical good deed was to help an old lady across the street. While I don’t remember actually doing that, I did make it a point to try to be helpful to those around me; holding open doors for people, putting away groceries at home, that sort of thing.

But, I would often then have very critical self-talk about the perfectly nice thing I had just done.

“You should have been quicker to see that they needed the door held open.”

“You should have smiled more while you were holding the door.”

“You should have said something nice to them after they walked through the door.”

“You should have remembered where the rice goes without having to ask again.”

Or, on the occasions where I would forget to hold the door, or not notice that someone could use my help with the door, I would criticize myself for that:

“You should be more considerate!”

“You should pay attention more.”

This sort of self-talk is completely antithetical to self-confidence. It doesn’t matter how many good things I’m doing — if I’m beating myself up about how I’m doing them, or telling myself that I’m not doing them “good enough”, or downplaying them in my head, I’m not going to build up any self confidence.

Also, note that all of that self-talk is “should”-based; I’m applying a whole set of judgements to myself, and those judgements are often not grounded in any sort of beliefs and values that I actually want to live my life by. I talked about this in more detail in “The Broken-ness of ‘I Should Be …’”. When they are in fact grounded in my real beliefs and values, they’re often hopelessly perfectionistic.

While they’re important, esteemable acts are only part of the story. The more important part of the story, in my experience, is how do I talk to myself about myself, particularly my experience and my actions.

Do I give myself credit for doing a good deed? Do I give myself credit for doing a good job, even if it wasn’t perfect or perfectly timed? Do I talk to myself the way I’d talk to a friend? Do I talk to myself with love and compassion? The more that I can change my self-talk so that the answer to those questions is “yes,” the more I can nurture and develop my self-confidence and self-esteem.

I’ve talked elsewhere about the power of compassionate self talk. This is especially important when I’ve done something good. It doesn’t have to be perfect, or perfectly timed, or even the thing that I would do if I had the chance to do it all over again. If it was a good thing, I can talk to myself about the good-ness of it, and that’s a great way to grow self-confidence.

One of the consequences of this is that a great way to build self-confidence is to set little goals and then achieve them. When we live up to the promises that we make to ourselves, it gives us ammunition with which to fight back against the self-critical voices. Now, obviously, it helps if the goals grow in size and scope, but there’s nothing wrong with starting small and building from there.

While it is true that it’s easier to feel good about myself if I’m doing good things, what I’m doing is not the only part of the story, and not even the most important part of the story. If you’re struggling with self-confidence or self-esteem, I’d suggest starting by looking at your self-talk, not your actions.

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