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What is Healthy Self-esteem?

 By Donnie McKinney   c 2006

Why do so many teens suffer from low self-esteem? What causes low self-esteem? How do you build healthy self-esteem? What is self-esteem, anyway? Do self-esteem and self-help even fit in the same sentence? Why is self-esteem for women such a problem?

First, let’s talk about what self-esteem is not. It’s not self-confidence. The two are closely related, but there is a subtle difference. Self-confidence is built by experience. Success at doing small things builds self-confidence. That self-confidence makes it easier to try bigger things. Self-confidence is gained by doing. You feel good about yourself. Feeling good about yourself is also what self-esteem is all about, but it’s totally different from self-confidence.


There seems to be a lot of confusion in the world about what self-esteem really is and how to build healthy self-esteem. Some of the programs in grade schools, for instance, seem to involve a lot of praise on the teacher’s part. Praise is great, if it’s real, but simply praising someone doesn’t necessarily enhance self-esteem. It’s a lot more complicated than that.


Self-esteem is simply knowing you’re “O.K.” before you ever do anything. It isn’t related to experiences. It comes from within. When you have healthy self-esteem, you simply accept yourself as you are right this instant, an imperfect, but changing and growing, worthwhile human being.


That simple statement contains several powerful basic assumptions. First, it means that you are taking responsibility for your own life as of this instant. Taking responsibility does not mean that you are responsible for all of the things other people and events in your life have caused up to this point. It means that you are taking responsibility for your life right now - from this point forward. It’s up to you to change your reactions and perceptions about what other people have done. It means that you are simply recognizing who you are, warts and all. It’s up to you, not other people, to make your life the way you want it.


You are accepting the fact that you are an imperfect human being. Everybody you know is. Once you acknowledge that you aren’t perfect, it removes the need to act like you are. You no longer have to be embarrassed when you fail at an attemp. It frees you to try new things. It’s “o.k.” to fail occasionally. There is no need to put on a “front” around friends because you know they are all just imperfect human beings, too. As a matter of fact, all the teens around you are just like you have been. They are so worried about what you and others think about them that they aren't even paying any attention to you at all.


The next basic assumption in that statement is that changing and growing means you aren’t a finished product. You never will be. You are learning every day. You are more than a human being. You are a human becoming. You are moving closer and closer every day to the image you have established for yourself, either good or bad. As long as you are alive and on this earth, you are going to be human. But you are getting closer to the person you want to be every day. You’re setting new limits. You can have a positive self-expectancy because you know things are getting better every day.


Finally, the very core of healthy self-esteem is acknowledging the fact that you are “worthy.” You’re “O.K.” just as you are right now. You deserve great things in your life. This is the part of us that gets so completely messed up by other people and events in our lives (understand that events are primarily other people, too). We start out with a clean slate. Then other people get involved. They have to, we can’t even feed ourselves. But we start absorbing whatever they are giving us. By the time we’re old enough to think for ourselves, we have a fictitious and erroneous image of ourselves. It’s always skewed in the negative direction, because the vast majority of people are negative. We start life climbing out of a hole.


Where Do You Start?


You just start by just “recognizing” who you are. You just accept the fact that you’re “o.k.” You “recognize” that God made you in His own image. You “recognize” that you’ve been confused all of your life. You ’re better than you’ve allowed yourself to accept. It’s an awakening of the inner self that has been lost in all those layers of fictitious and erroneous conclusions you’ve reached with the “help” of other people. You can finally see yourself being free to live life the way God intended.

Teacher's Pet

By Donnie McKinney  c 2002, 2005, 2007


I had a startling revelation this morning during breakfast at the Cracker Barrel.  I sat down by one of the neighborhood guys with whom I had gone to school, played in the creek and camped out with during the summertime of our youth.  At some point between bites of pancakes and talking about old times Wayne mentioned our fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Ellis.  I said something about how insecure I was as a fourth grader, and how I only had one friend.  Then, that one friend moved to another school.  I felt like I wasn't part of the group, and always felt inferior for some reason.  I felt like we were poor and everyone else wasn't.  I even felt conspicuous wearing the hand-me-down blue jeans that were passed to me by my uncle.


Wayne said, "What does that make me?  I envied you in the fourth grade.  I thought you were this cute little boy who was the teacher's pet."  Isn't that interesting? There I was, an insecure little boy who didn't have any friends, and Wayne was thinking I was the one who had it all.  That's the way kids are.  We each see other people as having all those things we think we lack.  The ironic thing is, Mrs. Ellis was probably taking me under her wing because she saw that I needed a friend. 


I wish I'd known then what I know now.  Now, I know that we humans have a tendency to unfairly compare ourselves to other people's best traits.  We always come up short when we do that.  If we weren't so blind, we would see that person comparing himself to our best traits, and causing damage to his own delicate self-esteem in the process.  Here we are, a bunch of imperfect, changing, growing worthwhile human beings all wanting to think we're great, but each of us is continually knocking ourselves down by making unfair comparisons.


      Every person has natural, unique God-given talents that, when used, will bring happiness, success and fulfillment in life.


Each of us has our own natural, unique God-given talents and abilities.  Each of us is better at that particular thing than someone who has different talents and abilities would be.  If we could see from the other person's perspective, we'd see that they are just like us.  We'd realize that we're all in this together.  We're all just a bunch of imperfect, but changing and growing, worthwhile human beings.


To illustrate this basic principle, I use an exercise in which each person fills out a sheet about someone else, listing that person's "good" traits and "bad" traits, and each does the same for himself.  When comparing lists, each person invariably finds that his own sheet lists a lot less "good" traits and a lot more "bad" traits than what the other person saw in him.   Hmmm.  Why can't we just accept the fact that we're O.K.?


Are you the debate team member who thinks you're less than perfect, because you can't play basketball as well as the center on the school team.  Or, are you that basketball player who thinks he's less talented than the guy who leads the football team in touchdowns.  Are you the valedictorian who thinks she isn't talented, because she can't sing as well as the soloist in the school choir.  Or, are you that singer who feels inferior to the valedictorian, because she isn't "smart" enough?  Well, you get the picture.  Stop doing that!  It's your choice.

The way to start getting rid of all the old unhealthy thought patterns is to replace each unhealthy one with a new healthy one. That is the only way habits can be changed. Replacing old thought patterns is a process of recognizing an undesirable one and making a conscious decision to change it. That doesn’t happen all at once. It’s a process throughout life.

One way to jumpstart the process is to 
Download the Word document with the following affirmation, print it out and stand in front of a mirror and say it out loud to yourself at least twice a day. This allows you to start assimilating this great truth into your subconscious memory banks and replace the old thought patterns you've developed.


“I accept myself exactly as I am right this minute – an imperfect, but changing and growing, worthwhile human being. Every day, in every way, I’m getting better and better. I like being me. I’d rather be me than anyone else on earth.”


Once you can say that, and truly believe it, you will have achieved healthy self-esteem. It’s that simple. What’s hard to understand is how it got so messed up in the first place.




You’ve talked about how other people have affected your self-esteem. Now, let’s talk about the person you listen to the most, the one you believe the most. Let’s talk about you. In your mind, you are constantly talking to yourself. What you tell yourself, over and over and over again, has a tremendous effect on your own self-esteem. Do any of these phrases sound familiar?

Examples of Typical Negative Self-talk

"He is frowning. He didn't say anything, but I know it means that he doesn't like me!"

"She turned me down for a date! I'm so embarrassed and humiliated. No one likes or cares about me. I'll never find a girlfriend. I'll always be alone."

"I got a D on the test. I don't understand anything in this class. I'm such an idiot.”

"People said they liked my report, but it was nowhere near as good as it should have been. I can't believe no one noticed all the places I messed up. I'm such an impostor."


Those may be a bit extreme, but you get the idea. We’re all guilty of talking unkindly to ourselves. As you make those statements, you don’t think much about it. However, your subconscious mind simply records them as facts. If you continually say things like that to yourself, it drastically affects your self-esteem.


When that type of comment comes out of your subconscious mind, consciously replace it with rebuttals that are more correct, more realistic. For example:

Examples of Rebuttals for Negative Self-Talk

"O.K., he's frowning, but I don't know why. It could have nothing to do with me. Maybe I should ask."

"Ouch! That hurt. Well, she doesn't want to go out with me. That doesn't mean no one does. I know I'm an attractive and nice person. I'll find the one who's right for me."

"I did poorly on this one test, but I've done “o.k.” on all the homework. There are some things here that I don't understand as well as I thought I did, but I can do the material. I've done fine in other classes that were just as tough.”

"Wow, they really liked it! Maybe it wasn't perfect, but I worked hard on that presentation and did a good job. I'm proud of myself. This was a great success."

The I’m’s

Do you have a drawer full of self-definitions you use on a regular basis? I call these the I’m’s. These tags or labels often include descriptions that you might recognize in your own life.

Typical "I'm" Labels

I’m shy

I’m lazy

I’m not musical

I’m clumsy

I’m forgetful

You may have a whole catalog of I’m’s. There are probably some good ones, too; but recognizing the limiting labels will help you grow. By using labels you could be negating yourself by identifying with your trademark rather than with your potential for growth. All self-labels come from out of the past. What did Carl Sandburg say about the past? "The past is a bucket of ashes." Our I’m’s chain us to the past.

All self-defeating I’m’s are the result of one of these four neurotic sentences:

Neurotic Sentences

“That’s me'”.

“I’ve always been that way.”

“I can’t help it.”

“That’s my nature.”

Your I’m’s keep you from growing, changing, and making your life new and exciting. Every time you use one of these four sentences, you can just add the unspoken remainder of the sentence, ". . . , and I intend to continue being the way I’ve always been."

There are two ways the I’m’s got started. They were either pinned on you as a child or were a result of a choice you made to avoid an uncomfortable or difficult task. Consider the forty-six year old who finally figures out what his natural talents are and is thinking about going to college. His I’m’s might include: “I’m too old;” “I’m not smart enough;” “I’m not really interested.” In effect, all he is really doing is subconsciously avoiding a difficult task. It’s just a lot easier to stay the way he is.

Don’t let the I’m’s limit your life. When you do, you’re saying, “I’m a finished product in this area and I’m never going to be different.” That sounds like the opposite of changing and growing, doesn’t it?

Start catching those I’m’s that you’ve collected in your drawer full of labels. Like all of the other areas in which you are changing from the old person to the new one, correcting labels is a process. It’s not instant. Start catching yourself when you toss out a label.

Instead of:  

 “That’s me.” 

“I can’t help it.” 

“I’ve always been that way.”

“That’s my nature.”   


“That was me.”

“I can change that, if I work on it.”

“I’m going to be different.”

“That’s what I used to believe was my nature.”

The Big One

In my experiences with teens, one thing has become apparent. The “biggie,” as far as self-esteem is involved, is early childhood experiences and usually parents. Every confused, depressed or suicidal teen I’ve ever met has had one thing in common – the inability of one or both parents to adequately express love. A young child craves the love and acceptance of his or her parents. When he doesn’t get that love and acceptance, or even perceives that he doesn’t, a subconscious process starts. It doesn't seem to matter if the lack of love is real or just "perceived" by the child.

The feeling that one or both parents don't love him seems to warp itself around in the child's subconscious mind through a thought process that become something like, “If my own parent(s) can’t love me, then nobody can.” Then, over time, his self-esteem is totally destroyed. By the time the person is fourteen to sixeteen years old, in my experience, he or she is at least confused, sometimes depressed and often not having a reason to live. They don't seem to know why they are here, and have no idea what lies in the future for them. That’s sad. It’s so simple to love. Yet, a lack of love is far too common.

There are some other childhood experiences that can also lead to healthy or low self-esteem:

Healthy Self-esteem

Being praised.

Being listened to.

Being spoken to respectfully.

Getting attention and hugs.

Experiencing success in sports or school.

Having trustworthy friends.

Low Self-esteem

Being harshly criticized.

Being yelled at or beaten.

Being ignored, ridiculed or teased.

Expected to be "perfect" all the time.

Experiencing failures in sports or school.

Often given messages about failed experiences. (losing a game, getting poor grade, etc.)

What does your inner voice say to you? All of your past experiences are alive and well in your subconscious mind. Good or bad, they are going to be popping out of your head. Learn to recognize them. Consciously change them from negative to positive feelings. It’s a process. This is a good time to discuss another Basic Truth.

Basic Truth #3 - You cannot control other people. You can change your reactions to them.

This is another tool that you can use to make your life better. There are a lot of confused people in the world. Unfortunately, you will come into contact with a lot of them. If you react to them the way you’ve learned to react from other people, then it will make your life more complicated and less fun. Begin to understand that other people aren't going to change. They don't know what you're learning.

The hardest thing for teens, well anyone, to learn is how to react to and process input from other people. We accept the things people say as fact. It’s not fact. It’s usually confused. What that person says is probably incorrect to start with, because it is recorded in your own mind erroneously, depending on your conditioning. This problem is most serious when parents are involved. The teen has a very strong desire for his parents to be the way he wants them to be. Often they’re not that way.

The healthy way to respond to a parent, or any other human in your life, is to simply accept them exactly as they are and, hopefully, love them unconditionally. You only have two choices. You can either accept them as they are, or you can drive yourself crazy wishing they were different. That's it! If a parent can’t express love, then you simply have to understand that “they” are the problem and not “you.”


Your own self-esteem, which is critical in every single thing you hope to achieve in your life, has been affected by other people and by your own self-talk. In order to set new limits for your life, it is essential that you start the process of undoing all the damage that has already been done and start accepting yourself exactly as you are. What you are is an imperfect but changing and growing, worthwhile human being. What you’re becoming is "unlimited." All you need to do is release yourself to be the human being God created in His own image. It's your choice!

If you haven't already done so, 
Download  following affirmation, print it out and tape it on your bathroom mirror (or any place you will see it once or twice a day, and then repeat it to yourself EVERY DAY of your life until it becomes a part of your subconscious memory banks. It will change your life. Once you can say this affirmation, and truly believe it, you will know you have developed healthy self-esteem.

“I accept myself exactly as I am right this minute – an imperfect, but changing and growing, worthwhile human being. Every day, in every way, I’m getting better and better. I like being me. I’d rather be me than anyone else on earth.”

Then, copy the following questions and paste them into a Word document and REALLY answer them. This section will quite possibly have more influence on your life than any of the other areas:

What kind of self-talk do you use? Think about some of the things you say to yourself when you fail at something or do something dumb?

Think of a situation in which you felt embarrassed?

Why do you think you felt embarrassed?

Now that you know you’re just an imperfect human being just like all your friends, how can you react differently in that same kind of situation?

Think about a time you got angry with someone.

Why do you think you got angry?

How can you react differently the next time you’re in that situation?

Think about a situation in which you felt shy.

Why do you think you felt shy?

How can you react differently the next time you’re in that situation?

Think about a time you were afraid to try something.

Why do you think you were afraid to try?

How can you react differently the next time you’re in that situation?

Think about a time when you got your feelings hurt.

Why do you think you felt that way?

Now that you know that you can’t control other people, and what they say doesn’t affect who you are, how will you react differently the next time you’re in that kind of situation?

Can you identify some ways that you’ve been letting other people run your life?


Ask Donnie

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