Self-Esteem Lesson #1: Staying Out of Your Leaves

If I asked whether you spend most of your day feeling cool and confident, you’d probably laugh at me, right? We’re all constantly working on knowing who we are and feeling OK about ourselves. And too much of the time we’re looking for this feedback from the outside—other people, accomplishments, a number on the scale—instead of looking inside ourselves.

There’s a metaphor I love to describe this phenomenon. I liken people to beautiful, old oak trees. Our trunk is where our strength and sense of self is. It’s literally grounded, connected to the earth through a network of roots, and it’s solid, hefty, and multilayered. Up higher are the branches, and at their ends lay the leaves, constantly blown around by wind or rain. If we think of other people’s opinions (or traffic, or problems at work, or financial worries, etc.) as the weather, and our sense of self as the leaves, we can see how quickly and often we get battered.

When we “live” up in our leaves, we feel that we’re easily swayed or, worse, hammered by outside influences. If we can work on “living” in our trunks, we feel solid, unable to be knocked down.

So how do we get out of our leaves? First, we recognize what we’re doing. For instance, if you’re feeling a lot of anxiety and depression, this could be a clue that you’re worried about how other people see you. Anxiety commonly carries a message of “I have to be perfect or other people will feel let down.” Depression often sounds like “I’m not good enough.” Both of those statements, and the hundreds of other, similar ways we beat up on ourselves, lose track of how we feel about ourselves, and instead are all about the way we think we come across to others.

When you recognize that you’re being hard on yourself because you’re worried how others will perceive you, label that: I’m doing it again—I’m in my leaves. Then turn your attention to your trunk.

Your idea of your trunk will take some time to develop, but it can be a fun project. First, come up with an image. You can look online for a lovely photograph of a tree, remember one you grew up with, or create your own fantasy picture. Next, think about the qualities that make you unique, and that you feel good about. Your values, strengths, and dreams are a good place to start. By making lists and spending some time considering these characteristics, you may come up with a stronger sense of who you really are and what you like about yourself.

When we “live” up in our leaves, we feel that we’re easily swayed or, worse, hammered by outside influences. If we can work on “living” in our trunks, we feel solid, unable to be knocked down.

Values are how we decide what’s important to spend our time on, and if our lives fill us with a sense of purpose. If we’re not clear on where our values lie, that can make us feel lonely, alienated, or confused, and open us up more to being manipulated. Thinking about your values can get you in touch with your spiritual beliefs, lessons from relatives or mentors you admired, or books or movies you’ve felt inspired by. You can use a worksheet, such as this one, to calculate how you prioritize aspects of life.

Listing strengths can be really challenging for people battling low self-esteem. If you’re one of them, this exercise may take some time. You can use an online tool like the ones at the Institute on Character, or you can just sit and try to list 15 things you like about yourself. Fifteen is an important number. Many people can list five pretty easily, and then can strain to come up with 10. Fifteen takes thought, creativity, and commitment, and the mere act of investing the time often makes people feel better. If you truly can’t finish the list, ask relatives, friends, or coworkers to help.

Finally, look into your dreams. What did you want to be when you were a kid? Was there anything you felt passionate about as a young adult? For many of us, we tend to be our most idealistic in our teens and twenties. We find causes or have goals that are lofty and principled. By looking at those, or remembering them, we can get in touch with what fires us up and makes us feel committed—and passion and commitment are two of the most important qualities shared by happy people, according to the field of positive psychology.

By turning our attention from our leaves (the outside judgments of other people, the annoyances of daily life) to our trunk (the inside assets and standards we appreciate about ourselves), we can worry less about what other people think of us and concentrate more clearly on who we know ourselves to be. Which is the very definition of self-esteem.

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