In 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.
Like the blog? Here’s more of my stuff:
Become a member: Keep this blog ad-free, support the activism work I do, and get deals from cool businesses Click here for details
The Book: Fat: The Owner’s Manual The E-Book is Name Your Own Price! Click here for details
Dance Class DVDs: Buy the Dance Class DVDs – Every Body Dance Now! Click here for details