Joyful Musings – March 2010

Joyful Musings

By Joy Birnbach Dunstan, MA, LPC, MAC

I’m OK.  Are You OK?


So what do you really think about yourself? Do you like you? Do you believe you are deserving of happiness and success? Are you confident and self-assured?

One of our most difficult yet essential tasks is developing healthy self-esteem. Considering the messages with which many of us were raised, we often start out with a couple strikes against us. How many of you remember being told things like “you should be ashamed of yourself,” “you can’t do anything right,” “if you had a brain, you’d be dangerous,” and so on. These messages program us to think there’s something wrong with us, that we’re not okay.

Without self-esteem, we’re doomed because, as Henry Ford once said, “Whether you think you can or whether you think you can’t, you’re right.” Learning to feel good about ourselves is everything. The outside world can be quite daunting enough. There’s no point doubting yourself as well.

Self-esteem can be divided into three components: competence, worthiness, and belongingness.

Competence is about doing and believing in our ability to get things done. We may feel this way about our job, our role as a parent or a student, or a hobby we enjoy. It is the confidence we are capable to handle whatever life throws our way and find solutions to whatever problems arise.

Worthiness is about being. It is the feeling we are valuable not for what we do but for our humanity. Worthiness is a birthright, an innate and universal human value. It is about self-respect and the belief we are deserving of happiness and goodness in our life.

Belongingness is about community and relationships. Humans are social beings, and we have a basic need to belong, feel part of a greater whole. We can have a sense of belonging through family, friends, church, or social groups.

A person is rarely equal in all areas, but strength in each of them is vital for healthy self-esteem. When one component is lacking, people often try to compensate through over-achievement in another. I bet you know someone who has been quite successful in business but underneath suffers from shame and self-doubt. They feel competent professionally, but like utter failures in their personal life. Or how about that person who seems like such a powerful go-getter with every charity program or action committee in town but in reality has joined all those groups as an attempt not to feel so disconnected and alone in the world.

Self-esteem is the reputation we acquire with ourselves,” says Nathaniel Branden, psychotherapist and author of numerous works on the subject. Having a good reputation with yourself reflects outward. Back in high school, I once broke up with a boyfriend, telling him, “If you don’t like yourself, why should I?”

While our parents can plant the seeds for healthy self-esteem, we are the ones who must water them. And if our parents planted only seeds of shame or incompetence, it is up to us to weed them out and re-plant. Feeling good about ourselves is an inside job. If you rely on praise and pats on the back from others, you make everyone else your judge and become dependent on them to feel good about yourself.

Sam Walton, founder of WalMart, understood this well. He told the managers of his original stores, “Outstanding leaders go out of their way to boost the self-esteem of their personnel. If people believe in themselves, it’s amazing what they can accomplish.” The WalMart of today may not be living up to those words, but his sage advice stands strong for the rest of us.

Editor’s Note: Joy is a practicing psychotherapist in Riberas. She can be contacted at or 765-4988.

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