Where Self-Esteem Starts


A key lies in high-quality relationships with others.

I’m a psychologist and a bishop of a singles branch. I’m also a husband and a father, and that means I’ve spent years becoming aware of the dimensions of the problem we call self-esteem. And that’s in addition to the time I’ve put in on myself. Every day, including most Sundays, I see people who want to be loved and to love themselves but who really aren’t doing very much to merit love.

And they feel terrible—lonely, cynical, or helpless.

And it makes me feel bad too, because I can plainly see that what they are doing and feeling moves them away from love. Since they often feel no value in themselves, they usually see little value in others. They don’t know that the self love they need to develop is not selfishness or self-centeredness; in fact, it is its opposite.

But usually they want to change and can change; and for me as a family counselor and a bishop, there’s nothing quite like the first flicker of hope that lights up their eyes when they realize they are worthwhile and that change is a possibility.

Our present feelings about ourselves were born in our intimate relationships with family and friends. But most of us face disappointment or hostility at one time or another and develop fears and self-protective reactions. And what has happened seems beyond our control.

It is true that we can’t change the past, but we can deal with the present. The question is, how do I deal with my life in a healthy and productive way now? If I don’t deal with life adequately my self-esteem is low. So my capacity to change, to bring my life under my control, becomes the key issue. That’s where self-esteem begins: with change, with the conviction that I have control over my attitudes and actions toward others.

Changes in behavior are easier to talk about than to do. One of the hard facts of life is that self-esteem comes from your ability to solve problems, not from sympathy, not from realizing that life has handed you a raw deal, and not from blaming your parents or teachers or employer. If you can’t solve problems and deal with conflict, your self-esteem is going to stay low. When we operate out of control, we have the awful feeling that circumstances control us, rather than that we control ourselves.

A few weeks ago, I spent an afternoon with a bitter, angry couple. They’d been accumulating frustrations for a couple of years and it took about two hours for them to express all of the resentment and anger for each other. They had a real problem; and my job, when they were ready to listen, was to help them define the shape of the problem that they felt helpless to solve. We discussed the consequences of the direction they were heading. A first question was: “Do you want to feel this way towards each other?” It took a little probing to get past the bitterness (“I want a closer marriage, but he—”) but they both agreed, sincerely, that they wanted to be more united, that neither liked what was happening.

The next step was to help both of them decide what parts of the problem were within their control. She couldn’t control him (she wanted to); he couldn’t control her (he wanted to). But both of them could tell me quite a list of things they each did that hurt their spouse, created angry feelings, and intensified feelings of division.

Then I asked each a hard question. “What could you say right now that would help both of you feel more united?” It took them a long time to think about it, but they started saying a few things—the first positive things in two or three years—that started making them feel closer again. And as they felt better about each other, taking a first step toward solving their problems, their self-esteem increased. And then they had more self-confidence and more power to change—to solve other problems in their relationship.

The husband and the wife in this case need to go through intensive retraining to get rid of several bad patterns they have developed over several years. The paradox is this: wanting to succeed, we often learn to fail. This husband and wife have actually learned to fail with each other.

The retraining process is too long to discuss in detail, but here are some highlights:

1. Both people in the relationship need to know what will happen if they continue as they are now.

2. They need to know what success experiences they both want. (For example, do we want to trust each other more? Do we want to feel safer with each other?)

3. They need to disregard those judgments that erode the relationship: who is right and who is wrong only leads to blame and alienation.

4. They need to apply new standards, such as what weakens our marriage or what strengthens it; or what divides us and what unites us.

5. They need to take responsibility for their own behavior.

6. They need to learn better interaction skills: how to listen, how to accept, how to control put-downs, how to break the cycle of hostility, how to build trust, how to make commitments.

These skills can be learned when people decide they want to learn them, when they become aware that a new way of living is possible.

There are many ways people try to escape from change. One is by saying, “That’s all very well for Sister Robinson. But my situation is different.” Of course it is. Every situation is different. A second common escape is by saying, “But that’s too hard. I can’t do that.” And of course change is hard; but it is always possible and always worth it.

In another case I worked with, a recent convert who was trying to be a good Latter-day Saint father thought he had to tell his teenagers every move to make. He imposed controls on them, rather than helping them set controls agreed upon by both parents and children. His wife was about to leave him. His children avoided him as much as possible and would barely speak to him. His bishop and stake president were both deeply concerned about the bad effects on the whole family. I tried to help him see the consequences of this pattern, and it took awhile before he could stop blaming and realize that what he was doing was making him and his family more bitter, even hateful.

We talked about how his children felt about him and how he felt about them, whether he liked what was happening, and how he really wanted to feel instead. He, like the angry couple, wanted a feeling of unity and closeness. With that goal acknowledged, we could look at the consequences of giving out a checklist each time one of the teenagers wanted to take the car and see if those consequences would bring his family close or not. It took time, but it was all necessary before he could stop blaming others and start changing the parts of the problem that genuinely lay within his control.

But what if you can’t control the problems? I remember being in a bad working situation some years ago where on-the-job conversations consisted mostly of put-downs, dirty jokes, sexual exploits, and unsubtle innuendoes. I realized that the atmosphere was polluting my interior environment in ways that were destroying my spirituality. And when I heard myself laugh at the jokes or join in the put-downs, then I knew something had to change. I liked the work, so first I went to some key people, told them how I felt, and made what efforts I could to change the situation. But it was clear that no change was going to occur. Either I had to isolate myself while at work or I had to leave. I left. And I stopped feeling guilty and felt better about myself.

Someone else might have the problem of chronic poor health. This isn’t a situation you can walk out of, and I recognize that it’s tough. But though you can’t change the poor health, you can control your attitude towards it. I try not to be sympathetic with self-pity. Long-term sympathy tends to weaken its object rather than strengthen it.

I’ve tried this approach sometimes: “Yes, it’s tough and I can see that it’s hard for you, but let me ask you a question. What can you do today that will make you feel better tomorrow? What will make you feel worse?”

Those questions identify pretty quickly what parts of the problem are genuinely within the individual’s control and what he wants to feel. Self-esteem soars as the problems go down, one by one, before a determined, disciplined approach.

The unbelievably marvelous bonus of developing this kind of self-esteem is that you’re also developing a loving and trusting relationship with the people who are closest to you. Good self-esteem and good relationships are both a cause and effect of each other. I feel a special trusting closeness to certain people. Once I’d tasted it in our home, I knew I never wanted to settle for anything less. Over the years, my wife and I have developed an instinct for dealing with each other—and the instinct is nearly always right. I hunger and thirst for her company and that of my children because they are such a totally safe place for me to be. Because I feel such total love and trust, my self-esteem—and my power to change—is high. I know we can work out any problem we have.

The fear-anxiety level is the lowest level; the duty-justice level is higher; and the love, trust, and care level involves the healthiest and deepest motivations. Such families come closer to living the celestial law.

Those at the fear level have low self-esteem, often hidden or disguised, but do not care for themselves or others. Those who can freely love and trust have high self-esteem, feel valuable, and are most capable of truly believing they are sons or daughters of God.

Let’s see how a father would handle the same problem with his son on the three different levels. The son is supposed to come in at eleven P.M., but he comes in at one A.M. The father who is operating on the fear level with threaten: “You keep that up and I’ll make sure you don’t get the car again.” Or he will appeal to the boy’s guilt and beg, “Please don’t do that to your mother and me.”

In the family where the main motivations are duty and justice, the father will explain, “Son, we had an agreement that you would come in at eleven and you haven’t kept that agreement. You’re grounded for a week.” They neither hate nor love each other, but they haven’t solved the problem in the most healthy way. The father is dispensing fair punishment, but the boy doesn’t necessarily become more responsible or stronger.

In the third type of family, though, where relationships are characterized by love and trust, both the father and the son are willing to do whatever needs to be done to solve the problem in a way that doesn’t jeopardize the relationship and allows both to grow. The father might approach the problem this way: “Son, I know it’s important to you to be trusted—isn’t that right? And I want to trust you. But I have to tell you that when we both agree that you’ll come in at eleven and don’t come in until one A.M., I trust you less. I don’t like feeling that way about you. I want to feel totally good about you. What can both of us do that will make us feel good about this situation?”

If the son is rebellious, he may growl something like, “It’s unreasonable to expect me to come in at eleven. None of my friends have to.” But the father doesn’t get trapped into blaming, fighting, or withdrawing. He wants both himself and the son to succeed. “I understand that you feel it isn’t fair,” he says, “and I don’t think its fair to me either. But both of us want to be trusted. What can we do that will make us feel good about this situation?” They work on the situation until they can agree on a solution. This father doesn’t want to succeed at the son’s expense, but he also knows it isn’t healthy if the son succeeds at the father’s expense.

It’s not easy to conduct human relations this way. But problems solved by participative solutions often stay solved. Parents can’t be naive. They can’t relinquish control to their children. But they can teach their children to take the responsibility for their own actions as equals. In this atmosphere of mature love and respect—not pity, not manipulation, not sentimentality—the kind of self-esteem our Father wants us all to have will thrive.

[illustration] Lacking self-esteem, too many people see little to love in themselves—or in others. (Illustrated by Bob Simmons.)

C. Kay Allen, a psychologist and family counselor and the father of four children, serves as a Sunday School teacher in the Denver Twentieth Ward, Denver Colorado Stake.