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  • Gonzalo Laje

Redefining Self-Esteem: From Self-Doubt to Self-Acceptance

Self-esteem is a very weighty and divisive term that I’ve changed my mind on over the years.  To me, it’s one of those things that I want to ‘put up on a shelf’, so to speak, so that people on social media don’t misuse it.  By definition, self-esteem is how one considers themselves, but I think many people see it as self-aggrandizement or a congratulatory nature.  I wouldn’t say they’re right, but I wouldn’t say they’re wrong, either.

Growing up as an ADHD’er with rejection sensitive dysphoria, I had what people would call ‘a thin skin’.  I’d take everything very personally - and how could I not?  I saw everything that I said and did as a representation of myself.  So anything from the gentlest teasing to the harshest critique felt, as I’ve described in a prior blog post, like a punch to the chest.  It hurt.  And the key lessons others tried to teach were to “let it slide off,” “just ignore it,” and “get thicker skin”.

I feel guilty every time I work with a client that is anxious or that feels similarly, when my first instinct is to tell them something like that.

The reality is, in some ways, you do have to get a ‘thicker skin’.  You do have to ignore what people say.  But, a lot of the work I do with people, regardless of age, is more involved than that.  A key fact I’ve learned in dealing with other people involves some words that my grandmother passed down. So here’s to you, Nana! Those words are: advice is worth what you paid for it, and you wouldn’t take it from someone you wouldn’t hear criticism from.

Now, Nana Elaine does have some good points, but what do they mean?  Putting them together, for me, means that if I wouldn’t listen to someone for good, solid advice, I also shouldn’t listen to their taunts.  If you or your child has to deal with a bully at work or in their class, or if someone is always ‘roasting’ them or you, remind them, or yourself, of these words.  

However, this is not enough. We also have to find ways to believe in ourselves. “Believing in yourself” is a common children’s trope that I do appreciate from time to time.  But getting to belief is tough as well.  It’s hard to move from a negative or non-existent self-image to a positive one, but it’s much easier, usually, to get to neutral.  Part of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy is about changing one’s own thoughts and behaviors through routines.  Something I had to do for a while was work on getting rid of self-deprecating comments and thoughts - shifting from facing difficulty with a sarcastic “I’m the worst and this is the worst and this is the end”  to a more mellow “This is a thing that exists”.  From there, I built to a more confident, “This is fine” and “This is something I get to deal with”.  

A lot of the self-esteem and self-image work that I do is with middle schoolers.  And to be honest, middle school is one of the worst things out there in America.  You have little agency, it can feel like everyone around you is an enemy, you’re probably going through puberty, it can feel like no one is listening to you, and you still have to ask to use the bathroom. This setup is terrible for self-esteem and self-image. Yet while it is hard to see in the moment, the thing is…it is fine.  Eventually you get to high school and beyond.

So, what’s the point of this blog post?  It’s not to build a hyperbolic self-aggrandizing overconfident self-image.  It’s to say that it’s normal not to feel great about yourself at points in your life, and it is imperative to keep working on it.  You’re worth feeling content and positive about, without anyone’s permission.  Your children and loved ones deserve to enjoy the lives they have.  You deserve - get to - support them in that.  Listen.  Be kind.  As I always have to say in these blog posts, practice self care and go touch grass.  You don’t need to beat yourself up by comparing yourself to others.  You’re a human being.  Allow yourself to BE as part of BEing.  

So…yeah.  This is why I write these blog posts. They are an opportunity to share a bit about myself, and how I work, or have worked, on things that might be similar to your, or someone you know’s, experiences.  I had to fake it till I made it.  I tell my middle school self that a bunch.  I applaud him for living and doing well when he could and forgive him for not doing so, when he couldn’t.  He deserves to be treated kindly, as do you and your loved ones.  So I encourage you…don’t be afraid of putting the work in for things to be better. Take Nana’s advice. Take it slow. Be gentle with yourself. Don’t give up if it takes time to shift from negative to neutral to positive, and back again, from time to time.


Licensed Master Social Work


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