Something happened to me over Christmas and it has taken me until now to write about it. I think it fits into the general topic of self esteem. Christmas, as we all know, is a time for meeting up with friends you haven’t seen for a while. Yes, humbug, but it’s got to be done, I suppose. In blog 100 I wrote about the lack of feedback from people on my blog. The price to be paid for blogging? This Christmas this issue had a poignant twist. I found out from two sets of friends who we met up with at Christmas, that they had been reading my blog. They hadn’t posted a comment and they certainly hadn’t told me, until it came out, in the most casual way, that they had been reading my stuff.
Hence the title of this blog. Would it, I asked myself but not them, have been so difficult just to give me a little positive reinforcement? Just a hint of encouragement? Isn’t that what friends are supposed to do? The most positive comments I have received about my blog are from a guy I met only once on a course and an ex-colleague who I fell out with at one point. Hmm, that’s a puzzle. It upset me a bit and I discussed with Mrs Summerhouse why this thing, this dent in my self esteem, might have happened. Her first suggestion – well, you are a bit sensitive, was dismissed by me as unhelpful. We moved on to considering other explanations – jealousy, confusion on their part, indifference, which as we know is worse than hate. Then a terrible thought struck me – maybe they thought my writing was crap and, because they were friends, were unable to tell me. The moral of this story sounds like, don’t put your well-being in the hands of others and if you do make sure they are strangers not friends. Well, I can’t leave it there, that sounds a bit negative.
Read the psychology text books on self-esteem (i.e. those that don’t have a package or an ‘approach’ to sell)and generally they will make the point that our self-esteem comes from a mixture of what other people say to us about ourselves and what we say to ourselves about ourselves. A little later in this series of blogs on self esteem I will talk about internal and external locus of control, at this point I will just say that people with strong internal locus of control have less interest in what others think of them. At its extreme that person might be called a psychopath or a sociopath. A person with a strong external locus of control will worry greatly about what others think of them. At its extreme this person will be incapable of acting without the approval of others. I think generally it’s helpful to our well-being and self esteem to be somewhere in the middle.
Carl Rogers argued that people have two fundamental needs – first, that we need the positive regard of others – love, affection or respect and second, we need to ‘explore and develop our own abilities and potential’. Rogers called this self-actualisation. He also suggested that sometimes these two needs clash. Some people feel unable to develop their abilities or potential because they feel to do so would bring disapproval from others and lose the positive regard so important to the balance of our well-being. The good news is that most of us manage to strike a balance between the two and these needs do not conflict. So that’s OK then.
That is unless, like my friend who used to be a lecturer in philosophy at Leeds University (so no nincompoop he), you have the view that it’s all about what others think of you. He and his wife came round for dinner the other night and we were discussing the topic of self esteem in the retired person. She was being supportive of my ideas but my friend suggested that my notion that you could determine to a significant extent your own self esteem was given short shrift. What he actually said, and I quote, was ” all this individualism is crap.” In other words forget self determinism it’s all about what happens to us, how other people treat us that makes the difference to our self esteem. I begged to differ, conveniently ignoring the discomfort I described earlier in this piece. Wouldn’t have made much of a psychologist if I didn’t believe in the power of people to help (maybe with a little help from others) themselves. So how to balance out the feedback or lack of it from others?
I suggest a balanced view of how our self esteem develops is something like this :
Accept that we contribute to our self esteem by what we choose to think about ourselves – the goals we set for ourselves, how we arrive at these goals and how we handle the process of achieving these goals. The process being more important to our self esteem than the result or achievement of the goal. Another topic for a later blog.
Accept that what others say and do to us has an impact on our self-esteem. All I will say at this point is incline towards the interested and amused by this kind of feedback rather than the devastated or depressed if it’s negative. And similarly if it is positive. Keep it in perspective. We will be less ‘pulled out of shape’ if we have a clear sense of our own identity and the role of other people in that identity. A considered notion of what we need from others if you like.
In blogs that are to follow, I will expand on those strategies which derive from this broad view with a particular reference to part one – what we can do for ourselves.
In my first blog on self esteem I suggested that retirement was a period in our lives in which some of us could be easily ‘pulled out of shape’, in which our self esteem can be damaged because of the 13 areas that impacted on our self esteem, I referenced in that blog. If it is broadly ‘true’ that this is a potentially very challenging period in our lives, then the retired person needs to take a carefully constructed view of their self esteem, where it comes from and what it takes to maintain or develop it. I will describe how this process works in the blogs that follow. Be alert my fellow retirees, these are dangerous times.