This Self-Esteem Thing

Wrong RoadIn my recent blog post discussing what to say to girls about body image and self-esteem,  mentioned intrinsic self-esteem.  I’ve since received several questions about it so I thought I would go into more detail about it today. If self-esteem is a word that’s triggering to you, then you have both my apologies and my suggestion to try substituting self-worth or something else that works for you, the main idea here is to think about how we think of ourselves.

The theory that I’ve learned that makes the most sense to me is that there are two types of self-esteem – intrinsic and extrinsic.

Extrinsic is what we get from external feedback:

  • Roles:  We play lots of roles in life – mother, father, sister, brother, partner, volunteer, employee, boss, parent, child etc.  and how we perform in these roles can inform how we feel about ourselves
  • Social Approval:  This is about how we perform based on social conventions, stereotypes etc.
  • Third Party information: This is about what we read/hear/learn about people who are like us.

Intrinsic Self Esteem

This is our sense of our innate value We are each the only person who can determine our intrinsic self esteem – how we feel about ourselves – and part of that is deciding what factors we include in our calculations.

Many people choose to determine their intrinsic self esteem based on their extrinsic self esteem values – people are, of course, allowed to do this but it can be pretty problematic for a number of reasons.  Our performance in role values varies from day to day – even minute by minute as anyone with a toddler can attest –  so one day we might feel like we are an excellent parent, employee and friend, and the next day we might feel like we are epic failures in all three.  If we base our intrinsic self esteem on our role values we can end up on a self-worth roller coaster that isn’t necessarily that much fun.  If we base it on societal approval and third party information then we are putting our sense of self worth entirely in the hands of other people, some of whom have the very specific goal of making us feel bad so that they feel better.

Another option is to realize that we are the only person in charge of how we feel about ourselves and that, as such, we can decide that we are intrinsically amazing and that there is nothing that will ever change that. If today we were a crappy employee, parent, and friend then we are an awesome person having a bad day, or maybe even a bad year. At any given time we may be damaged goods, but we are always goods nonetheless. (Bonus points for the movie reference)

If we can keep our intrinsic sense of self esteem high, then we can handle the extrinsic blows with our head held high.  We can see ourselves as always being worthy of respect, love, and good care – and we can see that when we aren’t treated that way the issue lies with the people treating us poorly and not with us.  We shield ourselves from attacks made by those who are hoping to make themselves feel better by making us feel worse.  We can see through the lie that our belief that we are intrinsically amazing is somehow hubris or arrogance (a lie most often repeated by those who profit emotionally or monetarily from its dissemination.)

Here’s an example:  I’ve been getting a lot of troll mail lately on my post about my first official 5k.  Most failed to comprehend the post, and think that I’m claiming to be an athlete soley based on my having having walked this 5k. Of course that’s not the case and wasn’t the point of the article, but so what if I was?  When did they get to be the “Athlete Decider”?  Was there a ceremony? Was it nice?  There are plenty of people, of all sizes, for whom walking a 5k is an athletic achievement and there is nothing in the world wrong with that.  There are plenty of people, of all sizes, for whom walking to the mailbox i an athletic achievement and if they want to do a butt-shaking happy dance with their newly acquired junkmail then I’m all for that and there is no reason that anyone would be against it that doesn’t begin and end with petty animus.

Anyway,  back to the example.  I’ve received tons of comments suggesting that, not only shouldn’t I be happy that I did the 5k, but I should feel bad about myself for not running it, that I should have been kicked out for walking, that nobody should be allowed to walk these races or do anything other than what the commenter has chosen to do.  These are easily identifiable as people in two camps – those who are desperate to hold onto their stereotypes about fat people and thus have to find a way to negate fat people’s achievements/experience that don’t support their prejudice, and/or those  who are trying to increase their self-esteem by putting other people (in this case me) down.

Alas, I’m not the jackass whisperer and I can’t make these people behave like they’ve had some home training.  I do get to choose whether or not I want to fall for their crap.  I choose not.  In the end, I’m truly sorry that these people are in such a bad place but I’m not obligated, or willing, to fall on my self esteem sword to help them out of it.  I would suggest that you don’t have to either.

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37 thoughts on “This Self-Esteem Thing

  1. That’s one of the best explanations of intrinsic and extrinsic that I’ve seen. It’s such good advice.

    Not always easy to follow, though, in the face of lots of social cues saying there’s only one right or worthy way of living. Effort worth making, though.

    1. Hi, I’m commenting here because for whatever reason I’m unable to use the “leave a reply” button. This was a great, inspiring article. I’m just wondering why self-esteem might be a trigger word to some people; I have never heard this before.

  2. Thank you, thank you, thank you. I know that I judge myself on extrinsic values rather than on intrinsic but that is me. I give you accolades for completing your 5K, no matter how you decided to run it. Life is a race and it’s your choice how you want to spend it, racing around, walking and enjoying or both. Kudos!

  3. “Alas, I’m not the jackass whisperer…” this is funny, I giggled!

    Intrinsic Self Esteem is something I’ve been struggling with since I hit puberty. I can’t remember ever feeling “right” or just not caring about being “right” after my childhood years and I am 34 now, so that’s kind of miserable. I’d love to have a switch that I could just use to put back my own intrinsic self esteem back on, but that doesn’t exist, unfortunately.

  4. Some of you may know of this exercise from your school days. I use this with my middle schoolers when we discuss self-esteem, self-concept and personal characteristics. They start with a paper that has IALAC written on it (stands for I Am Loving And Caring). Throughout the next 24 hours, until they see me again, they are to pay attention to the messages they get from other people and media. Each time they hear or see a negative message (insult, harmful or hurtful ctiticism, etc) they are to tear off a piece of that paper. What they return with is a pretty damaged, if not completely shredded paper. We discuss the impact of external messages.

    Another quick activity I do is that I have my students raise their hand as soon as they think of something they’d like to change about themselves. Usually all hands are up within 30 seconds or less. Occasionally there will be one or two who do not raise a hand. The follow up is for them to think of 10 positive things about themself. When they get 10, they raise their hand. Rarely do we get everyone raising their hand. By the end of the second minute, usually there are about 1/3 with hands up and I call time. We discuss that many got stuck with 5 or 6 and coulnd think of any more. We discuss that it takes about 10 postitive experiences to counterbalance a negative one. Then we disucss where those positive experiences and comments can come from.

    That leads us into discussions of self worth, self concept and self esteem. We discuss inner dialogue and ways to strengthing how we feel about ourselves.

    It’s been my experience that there are many folks just waiting to say negative things to me.. some thinking they are being ‘helpful’. Some days I stand strong and ‘consider the source’. Other days, I let it in and wallow in it. Sigh. I’m a work in progress.

    1. It’s been my experience that there are many folks just waiting to say negative things to me.. some thinking they are being ‘helpful’. Some days I stand strong and ‘consider the source’. Other days, I let it in and wallow in it. Sigh. I’m a work in progress.

      I can relate to this. It’s hard to deal with the “helpful” people who think they are doing me a service by concern trolling me, especially since it tends to be my parents. Overall, I like my parents, but when they start with the concern trolling, I quickly start disliking their actions.

      I do love the exercises you mentioned. I might start doing that daily to help strengthen the fortress of self-worth and self-esteem.

    2. Those are fantastic exercises, Susan! I’m betting a lot of your students remember those lessons for the rest of their lives.

      If you ever need a quick pick-me-up, think about how many kids you have materially helped navigate the self-esteem minefield. You rock!

  5. Ragen, you are a great source of inspiration. Thank you for your thoughtful posts. I feel inspired to work on my intrinsic self-esteem today. Today’s mantra will be something like – “I am a smart, strong, powerful fat woman. The world is my oyster, and I will do what I choose with my amazing body. My underpants, my body, my choices.”

  6. We all want approval. It’s emotionally important to human beings. But somewhere along the line you have to realize that being yourself means not getting non-stop approval from the peanut gallery. I got a lot of practice at that early on, and I think it’s made me a better person.

    Even as a small child, my taste in clothes, music, reading material, and my idea of fun things to do was often ridiculed by my peers. It hurt, I won’t deny that. It left scars. I still deal with a few of them today. It got desperately lonely sometimes, and it was never the easy way.

    But in the end, I like me. And a few years later, some of the same people who had ridiculed me for not doing what was expected actually expressed grudging admiration at my ability to keep being me no matter what.

    Life might have been easier in some ways if I had walked to a more conventional drumbeat. But why choose that one snare drum everyone else is marching to when there’s a whole percussion section out there to dance to? I’m me. It’s that simple. The thing most people don’t tell you, though, is that simple is rarely easy, and easy can come with way too many compromises.

    I’m just glad that every single day my parents modeled responsible individualism to me, and encouraged the same verbally. They weren’t afraid to follow my lead by getting me books and taking me to activities based on how I interacted with the world and the subjects that interested me rather than what was simply expected. Yes, I did have ‘age and gender appropriate’ things like paper dolls and Barbie when I was seven… but that was my choice, as were my books on the Tudor monarchs, my experiments with paper airplanes, and the stuffed badger I chose instead of the Teddy bear they assumed I would pick at age two.

    Because I was allowed my own choices I learned to trust my own judgement. Because I could trust myself, I liked me enough that even when I’m bloodied, I’m unbowed. I’ve been through some dark times when I’ve needed reminding of what’s so great about me, but I’ve always found me again with a little nudge or two.

    Am I perfect? Hardly. Am I fan-bloody-tastic and amazing? Darn tootin’ I am! Are all of you amazing, too? Yes, yes you are.

    Oh, and if you ever need reminding of that fact, this column is a great place to start.

    1. Great post, Twistie! I used to, and still occasionally do, fall into the trap of worrying what others think and altering my behavior accordingly. Thankfully the older I get, the less that happens. Aging does have its benefits; I now mostly find that a waste of my time and energy. I agree that you, Ragen and the people commenting on this blog are amazing.

    2. I was always the weird kid who didn’t do what the other kids were doing, it was very lonely and often very hurtful. Until I was 12 I had my mom there to tell there was nothing wrong with me and I was allowed to be myself, she was always herself, right to the very end and I imagine it was lonely for her too and hurtful but she never wavered in being who she was.She died when I was 12 and the parental figures I was left with wanted me to “fit in,” I never wanted to fit in, I wanted to be me. There were lots of fights, lots of times I was in trouble for not marching to the same beat, but now at 26 years old I’m happy I stayed myself. I like me and what’s funny is my parents like me too and now say they’re glad I stayed true to myself. If I achieved anything by sticking to myself it’s that my younger brother is now allowed to be his weird little self too without the fights and punishments I went through.

  7. A little extrinsic input here even though you may not need it. You are awesome! Thank you for your blog and for being you.

  8. I enjoy all your posts, but this one was especially inspiring. I am still saddened everyday by the hate that is out there for you or anyone else for that matter simply because we are fat. I wonder constantly how skinny is their definition of skinny, thin, etc. I have a lovely nurse friend that I consider of “normal” weight that just ran a 5K, but she has a large rear end. Is she skinny enough? I have other women friends that have bellies that are not perfectly flat, but I would consider of a “normal” weight and wonder if they are considered skinny enough. What is the ideal that we are to aspire to? So, far I have figured out that my ideal is whatever I am at the time. My husband has adored me at 456 pounds and at 223 pounds and somewhere in between. My children don’t really discuss any issues with my weight. So, I think I am good enough right now!!

  9. This was an especially thoughtful piece and explains why some of us have learned to survive all of the negative feedback. It does start with that strong belief in ourselves. As best I can, I try to surround myself with people who give me the big extrinsic positives. That assists in preserving my ability to intrinsically value myself. I am truly fortunate to have a partner who really values me. That has not always been the case in my younger life. It took therapy to get past that. I would encourage you younger folks to think carefully about who you choose for a partner and friends. You don’t need critics.

  10. So well said, as always!! I’m a huge fan of your blog and thought it was about time that I wrote to tell you! You are such an inspiration to me. Your blog is a positive affirmation daily that it’s ok to be big and love myself!!! Thank you!!!!!!!

  11. This post explains so much about me.. I have a lot of extrinsic approval but my intrinsic self esteem sucks. So the next question is: how do I improve my intrinsic self esteem?

  12. I have a confession. And please don’t think less of me, it’s more of me needing to vent. I have extremely low self esteem about my weight. I’m in my mid 20’s and in my generation, young, hip, thin and pretty is all the rage, doesn’t matter culture background. I’ve been so obsessed with worrying about how people view my body and bodies like mine that I’ve contemplated suicide, this isn’t even me just looking for sympathy I’m being honest. I joined a suicide forum for help and to connect to other going through the same. Visiting blogs, and tumblr pages etc that supports people like me is the only thing that keeps me sane. Sites like these are the only time I feel like someone actually appreciates me, understands me and loves me.

    I don’t have anyone to turn to about these things, they shrug me off and say I’m worried about trivial things I need to get over. They tell me I’m too old to be behaving like this. I didn’t know needing comfort from harming yourself was being too old to behave a certain way, that hurts. Women are bombarded every day through the structures of sexism, misogyny and patriarchy about our bodies. Fat people, people like me are bombarded every day in general from the affects of discrimination. I’m human, and the human part of me struggles to accept reality. No one wants to feel alienated, hated and worthless, that’s how I feel.

    And the media constantly shaming fat people, every day reading an article on some former big person losing weight and it become all the rage, every day I’m reading some article bashing and belittling people of size it makes it harder each day to accept myself. It’s hard, I’m trying but sometimes you feel like the only raisin in a bowl of rice this day and age.

    1. ExtraOrdinaryone, you are far from alone. We are everywhere. And you know what? Silencing us, shaming us, MATTERS.

      But there are ways of reminding yourself of the fact that (a) fat people have ALWAYS been around, and (b) have always had worth as people.

      Get yourself a book of paintings by Rubens. There’s a reason we are called ‘Rubenesque’ and it’s freaking beautiful. Listen to Mama Cass Eliot, Ethel Waters, and Jessye Norman sing. Have a chuckle at a Fatty Arbuckle movie. Read a book about John Adams, a short, fat, fussy, hypocondriac who was one of the most profound voices in creating the United States and who did his best to add as much racial and sexual equality to the Constitution as possible. Take a couple days, turn off the TV and immerse yourself in what we as fat people have done and created over the centuries.

      You cannot escape all the toxic messages, nor should you accept your feelings about them being discounted and belittled. But you can change the tape, as it were, and beef up your selection of more positive messages. They’re harder to find, but they’re out there.

      And you know what? You’re worth it.

      You. Matter.

    2. Extraordinaryone, I love your screen name and I hope you can take it to heart. You ARE extraordinary, you are unique, you are the only you that will ever grace this planet. Like a snowflake, there will never be another you and just like the snowflake you are perfect.

      By perfect I don’t mean without faults or flaws-we all have those. I mean perfect in that no one else can contribute to the world the way you can, no one else can bring to the world what you do.

      I grew up with a physically, sexually and emotionally abusive alcoholic father, so I know all about crappy self esteem and feeling worthless. I’ve dealt with severe depression and suicidal thoughts/feelings on and off for most of my adult life. Finding a good therapist was literally a life saver for me. Antidepressant medication helped also, though I recommend it only be used for the shortest possible time needed. It took years of hard work, but I made it through and am now in a much happier place, with my self and my my body. For me, simple acceptance was the key. I am many things and fat is just one of them. I no longer beat myself up about it because that is not helpful in any way.

      You are not alone, though I know sometimes it feels that way. Find a good therapist, if you don’t have one already. Keep reading blogs that are positive and helpful. Do whatever you need to take care of yourself. You are worth it!

    3. Hi ExtraOrdinaryone! I hope you do not mind virtual hugs because here’s a HUGE SQUISHY HUG from me – ***HUGS***. I see I’m not the first, nor will I be the last, to reply to your comment. I agree with what Twistie and Mairi have said. You are unique, and no one can offer what you offer to the world because they are not YOU. Each of us is special and unique, and that’s what makes us amazing. There will never be anyone who can offer just exactly what you do, just as there will never be anyone who can offer just exactly what I do. Brava for us and for the world, which would be a sadder place without either of us. Society may try to marginalize us, but let’s use the fact that we take up more space to do exactly that. Let’s claim what is ours, and screw the people who try to make us feel worthless or alienated. We are valuable – YOU are valuable – to this world. You are worthy of all that you want to achieve in your life. Don’t let the asshats in the world deprive you of that.

      Keep coming to blogs like this one and other FA blogs. Gain inspiration and knowledge from these blogs. Internalize what you read here. Make a mantra you tell yourself multiple times a day. And know that you are not alone, that each of us here understand what you’re going through.

      1. Thank you all so much for your kind words. At one point I was close to losing my mind, but you know I’m slowly trying to get a better understanding of self love and embracing myself. It’s difficult with so much negativity around you, but it feels good to try and get to a positive place. I’m so thankful to have found this wonderful community. You guys are exactly the family I always wanted but never could get. You don’t turn people away, you listen and try to understand.Thank you so much ❤

  13. Building intrinsic self esteem takes time, and it is hard to do when all around us are messages telling us we’re not good enough. When I first had my son I joined a couple of online mommy discussion groups, they depressed the hell out of me. Everyday these women were posting about how they weren’t good enough mothers and how none of us were, how we were all screwing up and our children were doomed. A simple question about how best to deal with an infant’s reflux turned into a mean girl contest. I realized I had to get out of those groups if I wanted any sanity at all. Once I got away from those groups I was so much happier, sure, I’m not a perfect mother, but my son is happy and healthy and loved and in the end that’s what matters.

    I can’t stand the athlete/fitness police. There are a few people on my facebook who are constantly criticizing the movement choices of people they know or telling people what they should be doing as if their opinions were asked for. I posted a status the other day about being absolutely thrilled I was able to sit up (tube re-adjustment and re-stabilization…extremely painful, put me on my back for 2 days) and had someone tell me if I worked out more sitting up wouldn’t be such a challenge. Yeah, that person got a keyboard full and then was promptly unfriended.

    It’s taken a lot of years and a lot of work to block out those negative messages and remind myself I’m actually pretty awesome. It takes work, but it’s worth it.

  14. This was a beautifully written post. I plan on reading it and discussing it with my daughter. I will also point out that a “fall on your self esteem sword” would in no way help out negative, judgemental people. It might temporarily boost their extrinsic self esteem, but at the same time it would reinforce their belief that the extrinsic is all that matters. The kindest thing we can do for people like that, is to continue being ourselves, shining examples of how much your inner voice and light matters.

  15. Well, intrinsic value is definitely more useful an extrinsic value. Unfortunately, if, like me, you have had your self-worth trashed since childhood by your well-meaning parents, it is hard to find.

    I am not trying to trash on my (or anybody else’s) parents, but the cold hard facts are that you figure out who you are at a very young age, and parents have a lot to do with how you feel about yourself.

    Unfortunately, the way my parents handled me, I wound up a) trying to figure out why they bothered to have me, since they didn’t seem to like who I was and b) how I could become the person they wanted me to be (which had very little to do with how I was).

    I know some of my feelings have to do with I highly developed sense of how other people are feeling, but a lot of it has to do with my parents ‘advice’.

    When I told my mom I wanted to be a writer – “You’ll never make any money at it.”

    When I took a role in the school play (I was very shy) – “Why didn’t you get the lead?”

    When I said I’d like to be an astronaut – “You need to do better at math.”

    And on and on. Nothing from my appearance to my interests or my skills seemed to be acceptable and was occasionally the subject of ‘teasing.’ No actual help to get more knowledge was forthcoming.

    One time I complained and my dad said ‘Your mom just wants you to be a better person.’

    I understand the concept of self-worth, but it is damned hard to get when you’ve had the above your whole life. I still sometimes wonder why my friends like me. I haven’t dated in over a decade. The idea of doing things simply because I like them is still strange and feels wrong.

    I am in a better place than I was as a young adult, but it is still a struggle, and I am tired of it. I have to give myself regular peptalks and have at least learned to stop the negative thoughts.

    This is just hitting me hard right now because we just had mother’s day and I always feel so conflicted about it. On the one hand, my mother (both my parents) did the best with they could (I know my mother has depression/self-esteem/other issues) but on the other hand, I am just so hurt and angry about the stuff I went through I want to crawl into bed with my cats and stay there.

    Thanks for reading this, I know we all have our struggles. I just wanted to point out that sometimes damage from childhood is super hard to fix.

  16. I just love your response of ‘Who made them the ‘Athlete Decider’?’ As many of the things you write do, it just lifted my heart; relieved a pressure I wasn’t even totally aware I had been feeling about needing to prove something to others about my athleticism (and lots of other stuff, too!) before I can claim it for my self. OF COURSE I don’t … thank you for reminding me in a way that made me giggle.

  17. Because of what you’ve written in the last few days, I decided to toss out the Underpants Police and try yoga. I haven’t done this since I became paralyzed because I’d been told by the supposed experts it wasn’t possible.

    Guess what? It is and the immediate benefit of feeling better about myself because I can after all do something I liked was mazing. Even more amazing — after just one session, my stress levels, heart rate, and blood pressure went down. I had better movement of my upper torso and the pRts that aren’t paralyzed didn’t hurt as much.

    I might not look as graceful as those skinny yoga gurus but I don’t have to do so. It doesn’t matter if my eagle pose looks more like someone’s baf attempt at human origami; I did it.

  18. It’s hard sometimes not to want to listen or help fat hating trolls, because if they’re someplace where people can respond to each other fairly quickly, like a chat room or image board. They will play the sympathy card, and cry “I only was trying to help, why are you so mmeeeaaannaaann!” They also will claim it was an opinion, and everyone has a right to their opinion. There is no end to the way these trolls will try and justify their hatred of fat people. Our society fosters this by supporting the notion that concern trolling fat people is for their own good.

  19. Today this post has been perculating around in my head. Then I connected it to another thought…. How do I treat myself when no one is looking?…. And I realize that my internal chatter often seems to be a bunch of little trolls running amok and distracting me from the things I could be thinking or doing when I get blessedly rare alone time. Funny how I crave personal time, but when it comes upon me unexpectedly I immediately listen to my lil’ trolls who chant… ‘why weren’t you included?… what is wrong with you?…”too bay you are too sick/weak/fat/old to go hang out with everyone”… “you must be a looser since you don’t have anyone spending time with you:”… I often go watch t.v. or bury myself in a book or even just sleep to shut them up. I think I’m going to try to figure out a way to counter those trolls in my head and shut them down. Ah, how will that sound?

  20. Ragen, you’re seriously one of the most gorgeous and inspiring people I “know” on the internet. I’m still working at not letting other people pull me down – sometimes it works, sometimes not. I just used being a little sick as an excuse not to visit my family this weekend because at the moment I just can’t handle their constant picking at other people’s appearance, life, and generelly everything…

    So far I know the theory of what to do feel better about myself, and I think that compared to a year or two ago, I am already more confident (also thanks to your blog!), but there are phases like know when I feel down for another reason that I think I just don’t want to go to a family party. Perhaps “feedback” and judgement from people that are supposed to love and support you is especially hard. Well, I hope getting there one day.

  21. Reblogged this on The Cheese Whines and commented:
    I’ve pretty much had crap self-esteem from the get-go. I think I always knew I was different. I was very sensitive, and the external messages didn’t help and only got worse when I left elementary school and went to the ninth circle of hell, that is to say junior high.

  22. I like the concept of self-compassion for those (like me) who find self-esteem a difficult term.

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