**Disclaimer #1: Although these resources are helpful, I am NOT a mental health professional. This article DOES NOT constitute medical or professionally-vetted mental health advice. Please discuss this activity/crash course with a professional.**
**Disclaimer #2: This article is a curated set of sources. I may not have completely paraphrased the articles, but I cite the links where these sources are located as tribute to those who originally authored these ideas. No plagiarism is intended.**
Exercise: Before you start reading, list 10-15 things you admire about yourself.
1. Note: In this packet of exercises, the words “ego” and “sense of self” will be used interchangeably. In the psychological terminological sense, a healthy individual with high self-esteem has a strong ego (meaning, they have a very secure sense of self and personal identity). It does not mean that they are “egotistical.” Ironically, people who appear egotistical actually have very fragile egos, meaning that they do not feel very sure of themselves. This can lead to bullying, addiction, seeking constant affirmation from others, jealousy, possessiveness, anxiety, anger, manipulation, resentment, and depression, among other self-sabotaging manifestations.
2. Six Pillars of Self-Esteem
- The practice of living consciously – gratitude, mindfulness
- Self-acceptance: Improve what you can change, and learn to accept what you can’t
- The practice of self-responsibility (self-accountability)
- The practice of self-assertiveness – be your own best advocate in the context of any social situation
- The practice of living purposefully – mindfulness
- The practice of personal integrity – the inner voice has to agree with your wise mind values*
*In order to discern when your inner voice is agreeing or disagreeing with your wise mind values, you have to think about what those core values are. You intuit them, they are not likely to change much over time unless you actively decide to change them. I recommend using this guided planner/journal to keep track of your thought process, wise mind (core) values, and tangible mental health goals you’d like to see happen over the next year.
Exercise: What are your top five (5) wise mind values?
3. Mindfulness of Our Four Faces of Self Helps You Express Authentic Self
Early in her journey towards self-discovery, the speaker suffered from a behavioral pattern she termed “approval addiction”: she felt an extremely strong and persistent need to be liked, to be told that things are okay, and to be praised for success and progress externally. Looking outward for affirmation is extremely debilitating to being your authentic self.
Review the video for the four types of “I.”
Four faces of self:
- Perception – how others perceive and respond to you
- Persona – adaptive personality (Carl Jung)
- Ego – use this to help your Self; learn to stay out of your own way
- Self – innate (think Incarnation of God or the Oversoul, intuition connected to and a part of the Universe, etc)
4. Psychological Definition of Ego and Relationship to Well-Being
“So what does this have to do with ‘the ego’ or ‘ego-strength’?
Many of the major psychological theorists spoke of the intrinsic human strivings for personal power and autonomy, as a universal ego drive that is not only normal, but a healthy goal – and intrinsically connected to relationship goals. This and other core strivings, or emotion-drives, are universal motivators of human behavior.
What makes a healthy ego essential to your personal and relational happiness? In a nutshell a healthy ego is foremost an ability to regulate painful emotions rooted in anger and fear.
The distinctions between ego and ego-strength?
Though the term ‘ego’ is commonly used to describe one who boasts, is arrogant, treats others with scorn, lacks empathy, and the like, the concept of ego is neutral in itself.
The word ‘ego’ is a Greek word for ‘I,’ meaning the core sense of self, a distinct and unique expression of personhood, albeit one that paradoxically exists in connection or in relation to life and others.
Thus, the term ego may take on different meanings depending on where it falls on a continuum between a healthy ego, on the one end of the spectrum, and an unhealthy one on the other.
As an infant, a child is born without a sense of self, and thus without an ego. This served our development and survival at the time. Conceivably, it allowed us to experience a felt sense of oneness with our mother or other primary attachment figures. This was critical to our survival at the time and permitted us to gradually transition to separate uniqueness.
In contrast, “ego-strength’ refers to a cultivated resiliency or strength of our core sense of self, the extent to which we learn to face and grow from challenging events or persons in our lives in ways that strengthen our relationships with our self and others and enrich our lives with meaning.
Our ego-strength is an integral part of our psycho-social-emotional and cultural development and forms our sense of self, or self-concept, in relation to self and others around you.
In the first years of life, our interactions with primary caregivers shaped our ego and ego-strength in ways that can have a lifelong impact. A young child’s sense of self, particularly in response to stress, is subconsciously wired, or imprinted as ‘learned’ neural patterns, in relational exchanges with primary caregivers. The good news is that this does not have to be a limiting factor. Our brain is built to learn and integrate changes, and new healing ways of responding and relating to stress and stressors throughout our life.
The characteristics of low or undeveloped ego-strength?
A person with little or weak ego-strength lacks resiliency, sticks mostly to what “feels” comfortable to them, and avoids what does not. They tend to hold unrealistic expectations, which are held rigidly in place by emotionally charged core beliefs that activate the body’s stress response, as they are rooted in fear and anxiety.
Thinking patterns are out of balance.
What does this mean? It can mean the person holds limiting beliefs and toxic thinking patterns that, on the one extreme, cause them to “think” they lack resources, are too weak or fragile to handle certain triggering situations, such as conflict — or on the other extreme, rely on their anger and rage to get or “teach” others to recognize, appreciate or love them in the way they aspire.
In either case they hold unrealistic expectations that others or life should take their pain away, and seek others, activities or substances that can give them the constant source of comfort and assurance that they believe they need and ‘must’ have to feel okay about themselves and their life.
Such expectations are based on core beliefs that are limiting in that they unnecessarily activate the body’s stress response and reactivity. Recall from above that learning is impeded when the brain is in “protective” mode. The stress response activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which shuts off the brain’s learning mode. This means the reflective thinking parts of the brain are not operating, thus, it’s less likely if not impossible to consider healthy options and new possibilities.
In either case an underdeveloped ego-strength tends to live and act in defensive ways that are self-perpetuating. This further weakens their capacity to cope with day to day challenges. Characteristically they:
- Waste a lot of energy fighting and, or hating reality, and wishing it would go away.
- Reject or deny the necessity of facing what they most fear and are most challenged by.
- Confuse strength with the particular defense strategies they most rely on, i.e., angry outbursts, avoidance, denial, wishful thinking, and the like.
- Refuse to accept or deal with what is happening in their lives at present or what happened in the past, and think escaping (the pain of growing, developing, maturing etc) is a viable solution.
- Have unrealistic expectations for what ‘should’ or ‘must’ happen in order for them to feel strong or valued.
- Believe relationships and happiness in life means the absence of emotional pain, fear and anger.
Personal power and the characteristics of high ego-strength?
In contrast, a person with well-developed ego-strength is resilient, optimistic, and has a strong sense of self as capable in handling challenges. They more often:
- Take a learning approach to life that increasingly grows their strength and confidence in handling triggering situations.
- Have an ability to tolerate discomfort, enough to regulate their emotions as opposed to feeling overwhelmed by them.
- Approach life overall with a curiosity and readiness to explore and to master what strengthens them, thus, increasing their chances of finding new ways of coping with challenges.
- Treat self and others as having inner resources to deal with challenges.
- Do not personalize what others say or do, and regard self and other as human beings, thus, fallible.
- Give others ownership for exacerbating or solving their own problems, as necessary.
- Exude an overall confidence in self and others to use their resources to handle and resolve life issues.
The stronger the ego-strength, the more comfortable one feels in taking ownership of their problems, and giving ownership to others for theirs.”
n. personal ability to look at a situation and see beyond it, understand the difference between wants and needs, and practices acceptance to discern between what can and cannot be changed, to respond accordingly.
Health and Happiness: A healthy ego gives us the needed ego-strength to navigate challenging moments, and emotions of vulnerability rooted in fear and anxiety, with ease and resilience. It is an essential skill in the formation of healthy emotional intimacy in couple relationships.
**You need to tell yourself continually that you have a right to make mistakes to grow your own problem solving abilities in the process – by making and learning from mistakes. It’s very basic to how healthy human beings learn. This is how we learn as children before we learn to pay attention to external, societal cues.
To build ego-strength, focus on doing things with both present and future benefits – do this incrementally. Small changes in the present to incorporate more of these kinds of activities will make for a substantially happier life.
Exercise: Respond to the following:
- When you feel at your lowest self-worth, do you feel helpless?
- If yes, how does this helplessness make you feel or act in response to it?
- If no, what is it that you are feeling when you are at your lowest self-worth?
- How does asking for help when you feel helpless make you feel? Why?
- Think about a time when you felt confident giving someone else advice or help. What was the situation?
- Did you think very much about how you were feeling as you were actually giving the help or aid?
- How did you feel after you gave the help?
Optimistic, self-reliant people have strong enough ego (established sense of self) that they do not feel threatened by challenges, adversity, or opportunities. They do not feel helpless, and they do not feel ashamed for asking for help.
6. Techniques to become an optimistic, self-reliant person
- Explain your environment, situation, and self using optimistic explanatory styles. Think of yourself compassionately as you would think of your dearest lover or best friend.
- Balance optimism with realism
- Learn to identify when an interpretation is realistic versus pessimistic
- Practice Minimalism – Allow yourself fewer possible choices (stick to options that fall in line with your major goals or core values) when making a decision will eliminate the “paralysis of choice” that happens when you have too many options to choose from. Sarah Nourse is one of my very favorite YouTube minimalists. She’s chic, girly, passionate, and ambitious.
- See questions from an audience as an opportunity to really see what your audience is asking for; see it as an opportunity to learn from the audience (acknowledge concern/hostile emotions- but treat empathetically).
- Be verbal and upfront about what you need from others. Respectfully but firmly and directly mention these. You must reflect on your own time to first determine what you need and when you need it.
- When you are listening to others, “The paraphrase is like the Swiss Army Knife of communication.” This allows you to take in, reframe, and introspect before answering. Source: Tedx Stanford Graduate School of Business, Matt Abrahams, communications expert
- Reflect on your past and on your present habits. What habits contribute to you living in a state of learned helplessness in your daily life?
- What actions could you take to tell your inner story more optimistically?
8. Advice from Oprah Winfrey
“Everyone wants to fulfill the highest, truest expression of themselves as a human being.” –Oprah Winfrey
Are you fully here? – Humans continually seek validation.
“Did you hear me?
Did you see me?
And did what I say mean anything to you?” –Oprah Winfrey
9. Find Immediate Ego-Strength By Hammering Down Your Life Purpose
Note: “The unexamined life is not worth living.” –Socrates
What the happiest people knew about their life purpose:
- Who they are
- What they (know how to, want to) do
- Who they did it for
- What those people wanted or needed
- What they (self and others) got out of it/how they changed as a result – forces you to be outward facing
Exercise: Look at the following statement, then create your own by following Hannah’s model:
**In this format, Hannah describes her own life purpose as:
I create digital products that allow people to have greater access to information that can afford them a greater quality of life.
Now you try.
10. Identifying Ego-Protecting (i.e., Weak or Fragile Ego-Strength in Family Members and Other Intimate Relationships)
Exercise: Study this diagram and compare it to the following paragraphs.
Excerpt from Psychology Today Article on Resentment:
“Unlike anger, which is stimulated by discreet incidents or thoughts, chronic resentment is a general ego defense – the more fragile the ego, the more resentment required for defense. For those most in need, ego-defense is more important than learning, truth, and reason. Hence resentment greatly distorts thinking – through oversimplification,confirmation bias, inability to grasp other perspectives, and impaired reality-testing (inability to distinguish thoughts from reality). Over time, resentment becomes a world view or way of life. Because the resentful have to devalue others to protect their fragile egos, chronic resentment in intimate relationships inevitably leads to some form of verbal or emotional abuse and, eventually – if the couple hangs in there – to contempt and disgust.”
Exercise: See if you can identify any of the following ego-protecting, defensive behaviors in your family members or in your own words and actions when you interact with your family members. This will help you arrive at awareness as to what aspects of your parent-child or sibling-sibling relationships may have damaged your self-esteem early on in your childhood or may be still damaging your self-esteem.
List of Common Ego-Protecting Behaviors:
- High emotional reactivity – a negative feeling in one triggers chaos or shut down in the other
- External regulation of emotions – unpleasant emotions are regulated by attempts to control or devalue the other
- Automatic defense systems
- Power struggles – try to “win” or exert power rather than reconcile and connect
- Criticism, stonewalling, defensiveness, contempt
- Walking on eggshells – both parties feel this, but typically one will internalize, second-guess, and reangle the self in vain attempts to avoid the other’s resentment or abuse
- Narrow and rigid emotional range – the parties seesaw between resentment and depression, with little emotional experience in between.
- Self-talk such as, “It’s someone’s fault that I feel bad or powerless.” Negative emotions seem like punishments that require retaliation rather than motivations to heal and improve.
Write your response now, making a list or journal entry.
11. Method of treatment to deal with and resolve resentful family relationships
Develop healthier mechanisms of internal emotional regulation, whilst increasing alignment of actions, thoughts (read: self-talk and discussion), and priorities (read: time) with deepest core values. Do not sabotage those you value most (including yourself). This will reduce resentful mindset in world view and relationships. Other items in this document self-direct away from resentful mindset towards expansive (optimistic, self-reliant, loving) mindset.
The biggest challenge of living with a resentful or angry person is to keep from becoming one yourself. The high contagion and reactivity of resentment and anger are likely to make you into someone you are not.
The second biggest challenge, should you decide to stay in a relationship with a resentful or angry person, is getting him or her to change. Likely to obstruct any attempt are your partner’s:
- Victim identity
- Habit of blame
- Temporary narcissism
- Automatic negative attributions
12. Love Mirrors
Attachment relationships – those held together by strong emotional bonds – serve as mirrors of the inner self. We learn how lovable we are and how valuable our love is to others only by interacting with the people we love.
Young children never question the impressions of themselves they get from their parents. They do not think that their critical, stressed-out mothers or their raging fathers are just having a bad time or trying to recover from their own difficult childhoods. Young children are likely to attribute negative reflections of themselves from their parents to their own inadequacy and unworthiness.
When it comes to physical appearance, at least we have lots of other mirrors to compare to the distorted funhouse reflection; this gives us a good chance to overcome an internalized negative image of the body. But there are no reflections of love other than those we get from the people we love. If you judge how lovable you are based on reflections from someone who cannot love without hurt, you will have a distorted and inaccurate view of yourself as a loving and lovable person.
In verbally abusive relationships, the mirror of love reflects mostly flaws and defects, in the form of criticism, sarcasm, resentment, and anger. Everyone in the family begins to confuse “function” with value and “task-performance” with love. The pain is never about the facts or specific behavior — no matter how your partner puts it, you hear: “If you don’t do what I want, I can’t value you. And if I can’t value you, you are not worth loving.” This is the message the verbally abusive partner reflects back at you, no matter how much he or she claims to be talking “facts” or “logic” or “fairness” or “tasks.”
A raging or rejecting parent can make a child feel powerless, inadequate, and unlovable. A distracted, demanding, or hostile lover (or parent) can make us feel disregarded, devalued, and rejected.
The only way out of this hole is to stop viewing emotional pain as a punishment inflicted by someone else and learn to act on it as an internal motivation to heal, correct, and improve. This will lead to a deeper self-compassion and put us more in touch with our deepest values, which will, in turn, inspire more compassion for one another. You can love without hurt, but only if you use pain as a signal to heal and improve rather than punish.
13. Victim Identity Breeds Entitlement
“Resentful and angry people see themselves as merely reacting to an unfair world. They often feel offended by what they perceive as a general insensitivity to their “needs.” As a result, they’re likely to feel attacked by any attempt to point out ways in which they might be unfair. They show little concern for the negative effects of their behavior on others.
Driven by high standards of what they should receive from others and what other people should do for them, the angry and resentful frequently feel disappointed and offended, which, in turn, causes more entitlement. It seems only fair, from their perspectives, that they get compensation for their constant frustrations. Special consideration seems like so little to ask! Here’s the logic:
“It’s so hard being me, I shouldn’t have to do the dishes, too!”
“I’m the exploited man; you have to cook my dinner!”
“I’m the oppressed woman; you have to support me!”
Habit of Blame. Most problem anger – that which makes us act against our best interests – is powered by the habit of blaming uncomfortable emotional states on others. The resentful and angry have conditioned themselves to pin the cause of their emotional states on someone else, thereby becoming powerless to self-regulate. Instead, they rely on the adrenaline-driven energy and confidence that goes with resentment and anger, in the same way that many of us are conditioned to take a cup of coffee first thing in the morning.
Temporary Narcissism. Although it is unethical and foolhardy for professionals to diagnose someone they have not examined, misdiagnosing a loved one with Narcissistic Personality Disorder is an easy mistake to make with those who are chronically resentful or angry. Indeed, everyone is narcissistic while angry or resentful. In the adrenaline rush of even low-grade anger, everyone feels entitled and more important than those who have stimulated their anger. Everyone has a false sense of confidence (if not arrogance), is motivated to manipulate, and is incapable of empathy, while angry or resentful.
Automatic Negative Attributions. States of anger and resentment feature narrow and rigid thinking that amplify and magnify only the negative aspects of a behavior or situation. The tendency of the angry and resentful to attribute malevolence, incompetence, or inadequacy to those who disagree with them makes negotiation extremely difficult. We’re all likely to devalue those who incur our resentment or anger. Even if we do it in our heads, without expressing it, the negativity will almost certainly be communicated in a close relationship.”
14. Children of Verbally/Emotionally Abusive Parent(s)
“Children who witness chronic resentment, anger, emotional abuse, or verbal abuse in their homes often present with a host of symptoms. The usual ones are:
- Depression (looks like chronic boredom with little interest in things that usually interest kids)
- Anxiety (worry, especially about things kids don’t usually worry about, like safety and whether the bills will get paid)
- School problems
- Hyperactivity (can’t sit still)
- Low self-esteem (don’t feel as good as other kids)
- Over emotionality (anger, excitability or crying) that sometimes comes out of nowhere
- No emotions at all.
They may generally feel:
- Powerless, inadequate, or unlovable
- Like burdens to their parents
Children who experience this in childhood are at higher risk of:
- Drug abuse
- Mental health problems
When parents model healthful regulation of emotions, their children develop the Five Rs:
- Relationship skills
- Regulation of impulses and emotions
**Shutting off or stonewalling observation of emotional regulation inhibits this development
Even if one parent is abusive and unwilling to change this behavior, the other parent can still:
- Learn from her children
- Understand their experience of the world
- Understand her emotional responses to their accounts
- Enjoy them
- Value them
- Empower them to come up with solutions to their problems – don’t do everything for them
- Allow them to be themselves
The most insidious aspect of living with an angry or abusive partner is not the obvious nervous reactions to shouting, name-calling, criticism or other demeaning behavior. It’s the adaptations you make to try to prevent those painful episodes. → Anxiety, Depression
You walk on eggshells to keep the peace or a semblance of connection. Many brave women engage in constant self-editing and self-criticism to keep from “pushing his (their) buttons.” Emotionally abused women can second guess themselves so much that they feel as though they have lost themselves in a deep hole.
Exercise: Summarize the key takeaways you learned from this packet. Reflect on your responses to the previous exercises.
- Watch this video. Revisit your career goals and other pursuits and interests in your life. Do they still align with Todd’s advice? How? If not, why not?
- Do they still concretely and tangibly align with the core wise-mind values you specified at the top of this article? If not, why not? Are you satisfied with this? Why or why not?
Takeaway: Completing this packet may reveal some new insights into or eliminate possibilities for what may be the root of your low self-esteem in your life. You may begin to experience new emotions like anger, rage, resentment, and/or victimization. This is okay. And, try not to take it out verbally on others. Journal it out and give it time to take shape. Discuss it with your therapist at your next sessions.
You can find additional resources for this activity here.
Hannah Stringfellow is a freelance blogger and world traveler. She holds an M.S., Chemistry, from the University of California, Berkeley. Her interests include women’s empowerment, health and wellness, and cross-cultural competency.