Like anything worth having, self-esteem must be earned

I appreciate all the email and calls I receive in response to Life’s A Beach! Not only is it nice to know that somebody’s out there reading these words, but I also get inspiration for future topics.

One of the themes that many of you bring up is the subject of self-esteem. Particularly, the question of whether self-esteem is a feeling to which we are automatically entitled, or if it must be earned.

Have you ever noticed how we tend to value something less if we didn’t work for it or earn it somehow? If you work hard for your car, your house, or success in your job, these things mean a lot more than if they were just handed to you, with no effort. Why? Because the significance of the car, house or job becomes, in part, the embodiment of your intelligence, competence and perseverance.

The best things in life are, indeed, NOT free, at least from a psychological standpoint—and self-esteem is no exception. It is the consequence of effort and commitment, not the cause. It’s not a reward for who you are; it’s the result of what you do. People who sit around and wait for self-esteem to “happen” before setting out on life’s adventures will be waiting for a long time, because self-esteem only develops as a result of persistent, relentless action.

If you watch or read biographies about individuals who are successful, you will see that these happy, confident people are those who take action. They take risks—some more reckless (and maybe ill-advised) than others, but risks nonetheless. In fact, productive people regularly experience failures and disappointments throughout their lives. So how do they end up with the success they finally achieve? Through repeated actions. They use their minds, they think things out carefully; and then, most importantly, they act.

A well-known example of this is the celebrated Colonel Harland Sanders. He actively began franchising his business at the age of 65! His now-famous recipe for cooking and marketing fried chicken was perfected only after numerous failures and false starts. Similar success stories apply to countless actors, performers and businesspeople—all entrepreneurs, each in his or her own, unique way.

People who enjoy self-esteem tend to set rational, stimulating goals, based on their own ideas and aspirations, yet grounded in reality. Whether it’s the car of their dreams, a beautiful garden, a fast-food franchise, an exercise program or whatever, they single-mindedly pursue those goals, no matter how big or small, without letting anyone else’s doubts or negativity get in their way.

Don’t fall for the popular cop-out that you can’t achieve self-esteem and happiness as an adult because you didn’t get all the nurturing (or whatever) you needed as a child. Very few people get all of the nurturing and reassurance they needed as children. Past is past. We should acknowledge the past for what it is, and learn from it—but move forward all the same. Television and Broadway actress Doris Roberts (Marie from ‘Everybody Loves Raymond’),says,’It’s OK to look back. Just don’t stare.’ Wise words indeed!

A lot of people misunderstand the notion of self-esteem as it applies to kids. Intelligent, thoughtful action, even in the simplest day-to-day endeavors, comes BEFORE self-esteem—not the other way around. Kids don’t develop genuine self-esteem by being told they’re great, even when they’re not. My experience has shown that children are actually quite perceptive and can see through the often unwarranted, positive muck that adults (especially in today’s society) sometimes inflict upon them.

A prime example of this is the flawed notion of self-esteem advanced by Lauren Murphy Payne, author of the book ‘Just Because I Am: A Child’s Book on Affirmation.’ On children and self-esteem, she states, “The value of each human individual is separate from their accomplishments, tasks, possessions. The value is intrinsic, and it’s a birthright.”

Sounds very sweet and nice—and I disagree entirely.

Think about it. Is it important to you that your car mechanic cares enough to really fix your brakes, or does it not really matter, since his pride in himself is supposedly unrelated to his skills and accomplishments? Do you want your surgeon to be capable and dedicated, or does it not really matter, since her values are, as Payne suggests, intrinsic to her only as a person, with nothing to do with what she does?

A person who has accomplished nothing cannot enjoy the same self-esteem as a hard worker. This may seem obvious, yet what doesn’t seem so obvious to many people is how to apply esteem and respect to’the self. Well, it’s deceptively simple: You will feel better about yourself when you accomplish what you seek to accomplish. You’ll feel worse about yourself when you don’t make an effort to accomplish want you want to get done. Self-esteem is like a barometer for your sense of self. Watching it closely can help you take action when needed.

It’s psychologically healthy to attach conditions to your self-worth. As you expend effort to carry out and fulfill these conditions, you will be rewarded by a genuine sense of happiness and increased respect for yourself.