Dear Therapist:

I'm in my early fifties, married with children and grandchildren. Problem is I'm still trying to figure out who I am. I don't have good self-esteem and not sure of my opinions. I don't express my emotions, maybe I don't trust them. You can even see in my walk that I am nervous/not confident (at least I think so). I grew up in a house without shalom bayis. What can I do now, at this stage of life, to help myself? Thank you! 



You state that you don’t have good self-esteem. Based on your self-description, this is undoubtedly true. Although I could argue that the average person does not have good self-esteem, you painted a picture of someone who has poor self-esteem on a constant and pervasive level. This is not to say that your feelings and thoughts toward yourself are unusual. Unfortunately, low self-esteem appears to be a very common problem. There are scant few people who truly feel positively toward themselves to the point where others’ opinions and other external factors have little impact.

We can separate your discussion and examples of low self-esteem into two categories. Some of your points refer to your own thoughts and feelings; other points focus on your actions and others’ feelings toward you. I would refer to these latter as external factors. Feeling good about external factors is not what I would call good self-esteem. It may be confidence, but it is entirely reliant on those external factors. If these were to be impaired, the person’s self-confidence would diminish.

To what extent do external factors inform your feelings—which, in turn, inform your thoughts and beliefs? And to what extent do you have (inaccurate) beliefs toward yourself, leading to negative thoughts and feelings, seemingly bolstered by these external factors? For instance, is it clear that others recognize that you are not confident, causing you to feel worthless, leading to the belief that your opinions are not valid? Or do you have an underlying belief that you are not okay, causing you to feel negatively around others, leading to the belief that others can clearly tell that you are nervous?

It would appear that regardless of the origin and process, the issue remains the same. However, your focus can make a big difference in terms of your ability to change these beliefs and feelings. If, for instance, your focus is on the “fact” that others see you to be incompetent, it can be very difficult to get past that in order to work on the true source of you low self-esteem. It can cause you to obsess about your perception of others’ thoughts, thus robbing you of the ability to acknowledge—and work on—your feelings toward yourself. If you begin focusing, however, on your own thoughts, feelings, and beliefs, this can help you to begin challenging those that are inaccurate.

With regard to building self-esteem, it is definitely not too late. I have worked with people of all ages in this regard, and most of them have increased their self-esteem, some to a large degree. For some, the shift from an externally-based focus on feelings toward themselves to an intrinsically-based one was enough to jump start their new way of seeing themselves—and therefore their work on building self-esteem.

The first step is to clearly recognize whether your negative feeling, thoughts, and beliefs are in fact due to an underlying issue rather than a realistic source (e.g., “People clearly see that I’m nervous,” or “I can objectively recognize that my opinions make no sense.”). If you are able to identify an unconscious basis for the problem (e.g., “I don’t feel good about myself, so I act unconfident and assume that others can tell”), the next step would be to begin focusing on what should be the true source of sense of self.

True self-esteem comes from feeling good about our intrinsic attributes rather than those external to us, like how we look, what we have accomplished, or what others think of us. Intrinsic attributes can include “smart,” “funny,” “caring,” and many others. These words can all be defined externally or intrinsically. For instance, if your attribute is “funny,” but you only feel humorous in social situations where you can monitor others’ responses, you don’t feel that “funny” is something that defines you.  Rather, you feel that “funny” is something that you do. Someone, however, who recognizes that he is intrinsically a funny person can sense this quality within himself. Without relating “funny” to other people or to specific situations, he simply feels funny. That is, he recognizes aspects of himself—his thoughts and feelings—that are humorous.

Of course, this is a simplistic view of self-esteem. Although theoretically, changing your perspective to better focus on your feelings toward yourself can help you to increase your self-esteem, this is easier said than done. Also, there are other aspects to this process. Additionally, there may be traumas, negative mental associations, or other issues that should be addressed separately. Changing focus may help you to begin raising your self-esteem. Working with a professional, however, can accelerate this process and help you to identify and address other related issues.


-Yehuda Lieberman, LCSW

  psychotherapist in private practice

  Woodmere, NY

  adjunct professor at Touro College

  Graduate School of Social Work

  author of Self-Esteem: A Primer / 516-218-4200


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