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20 Steps to Better Self-Esteem--page 14
by Monica A. Frank, Ph.D.

Step 14. Internalize Positive Responses.

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Internalizing the positive responses you get from others is quite possibly the most important of these twenty steps to better self-esteem. To internalize means to make attitudes, opinions, or behaviors part of how you automatically think of yourself. If you are asked to describe yourself, your description is based upon this internal perspective. Unfortunately, for many people with low self-esteem, they have internalized negative attitudes and opinions about themselves. These need to be changed to a more positive internal representation. If you have been following the previous steps, you have already begun this process.

Many of the steps I have shared with you focus on increasing positive responses and interactions with others. However, if you depend on others' for your self-esteem you give power to them. For instance, if someone is negative towards you, it affects how you feel about yourself. Therefore, self-esteem can't stop with just improving your interactions with others and receiving positive responses. It is important to internalize positive reactions you receive as well. By doing so, it becomes a stable part of your self-concept and isn't dependent upon other people.

This step may seem to be in direct conflict with Step 11: Don't Evaluate Yourself Based On Others but it actually is a refinement of that step. To explain this, let's look at how normal self-esteem develops in children. When children are born they don't have a concept of self. Gradually they develop the sense of themselves as an independent being from others. As this occurs, they also begin to identify how they are different from others. Understanding these differences occurs in two primary ways: the first is others point out their strengths and weaknesses and the second is they compare themselves to others based upon their experiences. Some people may disagree that the self-concept is based upon differences but I propose that the concept of "I" is a distinguishing construct. In other words, using "I" separates the self from others which is based on differences. "We" is based on similarities. Initially, then, the self-concept comes from the external (others' comments and social comparison). However, children begin to internalize these external messages, comments, reactions, and comparisons into their sense of self: “Yes, I AM good at that!” or "That is true about me." Over time, a child internalizes many different aspects of the self, both good and bad.

As you may realize, this is also how low self-esteem develops. If a child has an over-abundance of negative reactions from others and begins to compare him or herself negatively, then the child internalizes a negative self-concept.

Yet, to confuse this issue even more, internalizing weaknesses is not necessarily harmful to the self-concept. The problem is when the child also believes that a weakness is bad and makes the child bad in some way. For instance, if I think “I'm not good at math” but I don't add a value judgment to that statement such as “That means I'm stupid” then it doesn't necessarily affect my self-esteem. Instead, it is just a description of who I am.

In fact, if we explore this concept further, the problem with the practice of giving every child a trophy to enhance self-esteem is that it doesn't allow the child to distinguish him or herself from others. As I have already described, the self-concept is based upon understanding and internalizing the differences from others. To do this, it is necessary to have specific information. For example, “throughout the game you stayed focused on the play which helped you to react quickly.” Such information is much better than “Great game!” When everyone gets a trophy (or the same non-specific praise), the child doesn't get specific information to incorporate into the self-concept. A trophy is "we" construct: "We all participated and received a trophy." I am not saying a "we" construct is never appropriate--it just doesn't distinguish the individual self-concept, but instead, is more of a collective self-esteem.

So, what does all this mean for your self-concept today? It means that to change low self-esteem you need to proceed through a similar process as the normal developmental process. It means that as you obtain positive responses from others, you need to internalize those responses. To do this, examine why the positive response occurred. “That person laughed at my joke because I'm witty” or “She smiled at me because I am friendly.” By doing so, you internalize a specific positive aspect of yourself. Obviously, sometimes others' behavior has nothing to do with you but it is better to err on the positive side than the negative.

Although I have already addressed negative responses from others in previous steps, the importance of not personalizing negative reactions can't be stressed enough. Instead of internalizing positive reactions, people with low self-esteem tend to internalize negative comments, responses, and criticisms from others. When others criticize or respond negatively, internally they agree with the person: “Yeah, I am stupid (or inept or ugly or fill in the blank).” Although it is necessary to internalize positive responses, it is critical to NOT internalize negative reactions from others (see Step 11).

Exercise: Pay attention to others' positive responses to you. Evaluate their response and how it was related to some positive aspect of yourself. Based on that evaluation, write a specific self-statement. Keep an ongoing list of these self-statements and review frequently. The repetition will aid with internalizing the positives into your self-concept.

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