Dear Dr. Wes & Julia: Everything I read talks about self-esteem and being true to yourself. Is that something that comes with age? I don't know anyone at school who feels good about themselves. I'm finding out that people I thought had it "all together" hate themselves, too.
Wes: Self-esteem seems like such a good concept. We SHOULD experience positive feelings, confidence in our physical, mental and emotional attributes and pride in our achievements. Logically those who see themselves in a more positive light will have few problems in life.
Unfortunately, like so many good ideas, this one's gotten such a work-over by pop-psychology, it's become the magic cure-all for every teen problem. If you struggle with mental health, drug use, body image, sexuality, bullying, schoolwork - the list is endless - then the diagnosis is low self-esteem, and the prescription is to get more.
Your question also belies the problem to the solution of self-esteem. When it's treated like a commodity to be gained or lost, it becomes another reason to feel bad about yourself, because somehow you're missing something that everyone else supposedly has. As you point out, we don't really have a large normative sample of good self-esteem teens out there to judge by. Perhaps "low-self-esteem" is the norm and "high self-esteem" a lofty goal. A great many teens do not have good self-esteem, while others only appear to have it because they present very well on the outside but are terribly self-critical on the inside. The rest - no matter how cute, funny, athletic, interesting or intelligent, are in a constant battle with the mirror, both real and metaphorical.
Maturity probably will help your self-esteem, but I'd lean more toward the change in social environment that occurs in late adolescence. Self-reflection is a product of advanced abstract thinking. Prior to about age 10 or 11, we aren't really evaluating ourselves in a critical manner. Thereafter, self-esteem emerges as a product of who we interact with, and how they perceive and treat us. This is why some kids do great until sixth or seventh grade, and suddenly they become self-loathing. Their relationship to the environment changes dramatically at the precise moment they become more able to consider it intensely. So the best remedy for low self-esteem is to be sure your life after high school puts you in healthy and positive environments.
For all these reasons, I'm not even sure the chase for the holy grail of self-esteem is such a great idea. I prefer to focus on "self-hope" - the idea that one has a vision for him/herself and a sense of how to get there. This is easier and more practical to teach kids than the more nebulous idea of "feeling good about myself." For this, I suggest taking a look at who you want to be and making a list of those attributes, goals, hopes and dreams.
I'd also let someone - a parent, sensible friend, counselor - review your list for a reality check. Then figure out the steps to getting there. This can be as small as getting a 3.5 GPA next fall, or as large as getting into the college you want. It could be a healthy diet, more exercise or a post-graduation road trip. It matters less what the goal is than the fact that you develop your ability to achieve it. The more you do this, the more you'll respect yourself and your abilities. While this may garner the admiration of others and thus raise your self-esteem, your own personal successes will make you far less dependent on that fleeting commodity.
Julia: Like most teenagers, I've had too much experience with this topic. In seventh grade my self-esteem was close to nonexistent. Eighth through 10th grade was spent seeking, learning and developing it. Now that I finally have "self-esteem" it feels useless and excessive. What is being true to oneself and having self-esteem if that self-esteem is fabricated or developed? What "true self" is there to rely on?
I think esteem is less about a personal state of being and more about a social presentation. If you are honest with yourself, how you feel and how you present yourself are two different views of the same person. The way someone presents to their peers may take adjusting. A normally quiet person becomes more bubbly and outgoing. However, regardless of how many extra personality traits you can fake or even believe are real, there's always a genuine person inside - when you, not the situation or people surrounding you, feel most comfortable. So the deal with self-esteem is whether you have confidence in your genuine self, or in some alternate social identity.
I can rely on my public personality and I have a great self-esteem in that person. However, since I so rarely access the quieter side of myself, finding self-esteem somewhere new can be hard. People say that if you fake it, it will eventually become real, but I think faking self-esteem only creates a larger shell of a person as the true identity inside them shrivels up.
It is pretty obvious in school that everyone seeks a desperate balance between individuality (who they truly are) and acceptance (what everyone else is doing). It's easy and fun to fit in. You tell a joke; you make a comment, and bam, you're accepted. By relying on this accepted version of yourself, you build self-esteem for something that is either partially or not at all a real piece of you. Then, when people get older and start to fully reject or accept their personas, issues such as self-esteem play a large role. Rejecting acceptance means having to build up a different kind of self-esteem, make some new friends, accept feelings you didn't know you had and so on. It's tough, and anyone who feels that pull between rejection and acceptance might "hate themselves" for not their lack of real self-esteem or for the rejection of their social identity. It's fine to experiment with being a different person - perhaps one who's more generous, assertive or competitive. But having an honest self-esteem to fall back on is what gives people the quality of being true to themselves.
Next week: A frustrated reader revisits a previous column on Individual Educational Plans (IEPs).
- Dr. Wes Crenshaw is a board-certified family psychologist and director of the Family Therapy Institute Midwest. Julia Davidson is a Bishop Seabury Academy junior. Opinions and advice given here are not meant as a substitute for psychological evaluation or therapy services. Send your questions about adolescent issues (limited to 200 words) to firstname.lastname@example.org. All correspondence is strictly confidential.