Our self-esteem is a key aspect of overall wellbeing. It’s about how positively we perceive ourselves. This can affect our drive, self-respect, and how we react to events in our life. In turn, this can feedback on how we feel about ourselves. There are lots of ways to improve self-esteem, but what I want to focus on here is how self-discipline can improve our feelings of worthiness.
A big factor impacting my perception of myself is whether or not I am progressing a goal or acting in line with something I value. If I am letting something slide or being lazy, then I don’t feel as good about myself. In order to be in alignment with your values, you need to push yourself towards a relevant goal. This makes sense when you think about it because a goal is something to aim for that is better than what already is. There would be no need to push yourself if a goal didn’t move you out of what already was!
A Three-Step Process
There is a three-part process to work through here. Part one and two go like this:
1. Consider what is important to you
Define your values. What are the elements of your life that make you feel content and at peace when you nurture them?
For example, you might value protecting the natural environment. When you buy something second hand or recycle your household rubbish, how do you feel about yourself? You might also ask how you would feel if you didn’t do these things. What feels right or wrong following a certain action should help you figure out what you value in your life.
2. Set a goal
You could be very structured with this ie. SMART goals depending on the subject and your inclinations. At the very least, you should think about what you need to do to act in line with the defined value(s). It is important that this is realistic ie. Something you will actually do!
These first two are the (relatively) easy part.
Sometimes, even when we have a good idea about steps one and two, it’s easy to expect that we should only work on it when we feel like it. For example, perhaps we value a fulfilling career but find ourselves in a mundane job that makes us feel like we are not good enough to apply for something better. Perhaps we value our health but make no time to exercise or eat healthily because we are “too busy” or “too tired” to make the effort. So our inaction feels conveniently justified and shields us from taking responsibility.
This brings me to the third and most important part of improving our self-esteem:
3. Push yourself to act out your goal
This is where people fall down. We often know what is important to us and set a goal is fairly straightforward and doesn’t take too long. But pushing ourselves to achieve it takes sustained effort. Putting in effort sometimes means taking action in spite of how we feel at the time.
Exercising is a great example. I like to think of working out as one of life’s microcosms; a smaller arena where we can practice a useful life principle to test our resolve. I value my health and know exercise is good for me so my goal is to exercise three times per week, pushing myself a little bit more each week to make gradual gains in strength and fitness. I usually aim to follow a program and track my progress. So far, so good.
But what if I’m tired after work? What if my last workout didn’t go so well? I could decide not to go that evening, go home and take a nap instead. Perhaps I decide to miss the next workout too (what’s the harm?).
Maybe by the following week, I feel guilty for not holding myself to account over my own goals and go straight to the gym after work on Monday. Because I missed out the previous week I’m pretty much starting back where I was at the beginning of the last week. I don’t feel like I’m making any progress, so feel dejected and my self-esteem takes a knock.
At this point, it’s worth asking: is the benefit gained from putting in regular, short term effort worse than the long term cost to your self-esteem if you don’t?
Of course, life is a balancing act between conflicting priorities and values. There will be times when there are legitimate reasons for not following your goals that day. We must be mindful of this and be kind to ourselves when things get a bit tough!
A legitimate reason, however, is very different from a mere excuse not to do something simply because it is challenging. (If you are finding too many “legitimate reasons” not to follow through and your aims are really not being progressed at all, maybe you need to return to steps one and two).
Forever finding excuses not to work on your aims or behave in accordance with your values and dressing them up as legitimate reasons is damaging to your development. Doing so means rejecting responsibility for yourself. It implies you have no control over your response to internal resistance. It is also based on the premise that progress is supposed to be effortless and comfortable.
If you can recognise the difference between excuses and legitimate reasons, then you stand a much better chance of succeeding in your goals and behaving in accordance with your values. To do this, you have to be honest with yourself. Then, you must act with integrity following this honesty. You have to able to catch yourself and say “Ok, that was just a lazy excuse for not taking care of ABC, let’s just get on with XYZ”.
A great way to do this is to ask if taking a particular action (eg. Not going to the gym because you can’t be bothered) is a behaviour that is in line with your goals or values. If the answer is no, then you need to put that short term feeling aside and push yourself in favour of long term wellbeing.
To really explore this concept, I would highly recommend the book “The Happiness Trap” by Dr. Russ Harris.
The benefits of pushing yourself
Once you get a grip on the mindful mechanics of following your genuine desires, you will start to reap deep, life-affirming feelings of self-esteem. You will expand your world a little at a time.
As you surprise yourself at what you can achieve once you put aside pesky thoughts and excuses, they become less intrusive as you believe them less and less. The realisation grows that this contaminated thinking is not truth; truth is found through your action.
Pushing yourself – the act of self-discipline – is a personal experiment with your mind and your actions. The cultivation of this invaluable tool will teach you new skills, gain new experiences, and can be applied to any area of life you choose. You will become more competent and healthy as a result.
Need I say that this will enhance your confidence and self-esteem?