As a therapist, I have the exciting – and often challenging – opportunity to work with many adolescent girls and young women. One of the most prevalent themes I’ve noticed in their (and my own) struggles is self-esteem and body image. Our society, not just media, puts such an emphasis on appearance, “beauty”, and being “just the right shape” that it clouds out what is at the core of looking – and more importantly feeling – our best as women.
That brings me to self-esteem. I’m not just talking about feeling confident enough to wear those skinny jeans. I’m talking about who we are at our core. That’s where true self-esteem begins. And it branches out from there.
When we have true self-esteem: when we know who we are, why we are here, where we are going, and we are OK (or even happy!) with that, it shows. It shows not just in our bodies or our appearances. It shows in how we carry ourselves, how we treat ourselves and others, and what we are able to accomplish.
But how are we supposed to accomplish this when we are bombarded with counterfeits for self-esteem?! Yes, counterfeits! Magazines, ads, sometimes even our friends constantly tell us if we are just 10, 20, 30 pounds lighter we’ll feel better. If we just have clearer skin, if we just have bigger boobs, if we just have longer eyelashes we’ll feel better ourselves.
These are all counterfeits for true self-esteem. Lexi and Lindsey Kite, founders of the Beauty Redefined movement, have the right idea. In July 2013, they wrote on their blog, “With the help of for-profit media upheld by advertisers who make billions off unattainable beauty ideals, many of us have come to believe a very distorted picture of what it means to look like (or weigh like or fit into clothes like) a ‘normal’ woman.”
What will help us get past all the negativity and find true self-esteem? I suggest four principles and practices:
- Instead of thinking about what we can look like, let’s think about what we can DO. Our bodies are amazing creation: they heal themselves, generate new cells, tell us when we are in danger, and give us the support and strength to DO amazing things. When we focus on treating our body in a way that lets us accomplish our dreams, we are promoting true self-esteem.
Whatever your goals and dreams are, let them be your guide to nutrition and exercise, not some unattainable ideal you saw in a magazine. Set some goals and figure out what you need to do and how you need to treat yourself in order to achieve them.
- Gratitude. According to Robert Emmons, PhD and leading expert in the science of gratitude, “grateful people have a higher sense of self-worth. I think that’s because when you’re grateful, you have the sense that someone else is looking out for you. Once you start to recognize the contributions that other people have made to your life—once you realize that other people have seen the value in you—you can transform the way you see yourself.”
Start a gratitude journal – write down at least one thing you are grateful for each day.
- Small acts of kindness. It may seem counterintuitive, but focusing less on ourselves and more on how we can serve others strengthens our true self-esteem. Positively influencing someone’s day lets us see our true potential for doing good.
Set a goal to find a way to brighten someone’s day everyday. Smile at a stranger on the street, help with the dishes, spend five extra minutes playing with a child. It doesn’t have to be big, it just has to be kind.
- Loving kindness meditation. Take time to accept and love yourself. Here’s how to do it: Sit comfortably with your eyes closed. Think about what you wish for your life. Think of these wishes in phrases. Repeat these phrases in your mind and direct them at yourself. Even if meditation is not your forte (it’s so hard for me to sit still!) it can be powerful if you keep at it.
Christine Carter, PhD says this type of meditation “increases a wide range of those resources that make for a meaningful and successful life, like having an increased sense of purpose, stronger social support, and less illness.”
We can each find our true self-esteem, our true purpose, and our core self. We don’t have to let how we “measure up” to others define us.
“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be?” Marianne Williamson