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Building self-esteem isn’t just about feeling better. Although you will feel better once you build and maintain healthy self-esteem. And feeling better is a perfectly valid goal in itself.

No, self-esteem isn’t just about feeling better. It’s about doing better.

Our brains are not dumb (no matter what our early conditioning may have led us to believe). Our brains, in fact, work very hard to determine how much energy and focus to put into various tasks.

If our brains take a look at a task and come to the conclusion that the task probably can’t be mastered with the resources we have available, they’ll often respond by diminishing the amount of energy and focus we’re willing to devote to that task.

Psychologists call this sudden plunge in motivation “learned helplessness”— the emotionally-driven conclusion that we just can’t do something, so why even bother trying.

Likewise, if our brains take a look at a task and come to the conclusion that the payoff that might come from completing it just isn’t worth it, they’ll respond again by diminishing the amount of energy and focus we’re willing to dedicate to that task.

This phenomenon has been studied extensively by behavioral psychologists, who examine how the expectation of reinforcement influences our levels of motivation.

Then there’s that other thing our brains sometimes do: they’ll take a look at a task and come to the conclusion that we don’t deserve to succeed at it.

This is where the rubber meets the road, self-esteem wise. This is how a dearth of healthy self-esteem comes home to roost in a practical way. This is how damaged self-esteem ruins our lives, day by day.

Why might our brains decide we’re not “worthy” of successfully completing a task?

Maybe we’ve had experiences in the past that have convinced us we’re not strong.

Maybe we’ve received messages from important others in our lives that have convinced us we’re not fundamentally good or kind.

Maybe we’ve been acting on those negative messages about ourselves for so long, living out those early scripts and programming so thoroughly, that we’ve come to believe those things inside and out. Maybe we’ve let ourselves believe that we simply don’t deserve success.

It’s virtually impossible to motivate ourselves to do challenging things if we don’t fundamentally believe we are worthy and capable.

Think about it: if we don’t have a basic belief in our worthiness or our efficacy, why on earth would our brain fire us up to tackle tasks?

Maybe fear; maybe anger; maybe the prospect of short-term reward. Maybe.

But in the end, none of those work as consistent, reliable, long-term motivational strategies. In the end, damaged self-esteem will hamstring every attempt we make to motivate ourselves beyond the very short term.

Some people think of self-esteem as an abstraction, a psychological concept that often takes a back seat to more pressing emotional problems like depression, anxiety, or habit change. Which is a shame, because the reality is that it’s incredibly difficult to meaningfully heal depression, control anxiety, or wrangle habits without a basic conviction that we are worthy and capable.

Self-esteem is not an abstraction. It permeates our every decision, our every behavior, our every thought and feeling. Self-esteem is the rock upon which our very personhood is built.

Our self-esteem isn’t, actually, terribly fragile. When I encounter someone with wounded self-esteem, it’s usually not the case that they’ve been brought low by a single harsh comment by someone or an isolated life defeat.

Rather, deficits in self-esteem are usually the result of years of programming; years of conditioning; years of old tapes replaying old messages and old defeats and old opportunities lost, over and over and over again.

Given the way we often replay old tapes— tapes that, in many cases, were “recorded” year ago, and have absolutely nothing to do with who we are today— is it any wonder that our sense of worthiness and efficacy suffers?

Is it any wonder that our brains look at certain tasks and figure— even if we think we can do the task, even if we think the payoff will be worth it— “I don’t deserve to take a crack at this?”

Self-esteem is a practical, important, urgent need.

It’s also a need only we can fill.

The good news is: we can fill that need.

We can do better.

As well as feel better, as it turns out.

 

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