Even though my current primary role at work is as an evaluator, I still do a bit of therapy. More important, I enjoy therapy and the unique challenges it presents. One concept I’ve always found both challenging and interesting in my work as a therapist is self-esteem, which is an issue that does not play any significant role in the forensic work that I do. A simple way of thinking about self-esteem is this: A person forms a sense of identity about oneself, and decides whether they like it or not.
As a therapist, I’ve seen low self-esteem play a significant, if not primary, role in the poor choices people have made (often consistently). While on a cognitive level many individuals will grasp that their decision-making process hasn’t been logical, they will nevertheless continue down that same path; often it is an impaired sense of self-worth that is a driving force in this negative pattern.
On the flip side, I’ve seen people (including professionals) throw the phrase “low self-esteem” around like it’s going out of style - three simple words that explain (and excuse) just about anything. In most cases, the picture is more complicated than that, while in others the concept doesn’t even really apply. As an example, I’ve seen individuals who have displayed a fair amount of psychopathy described as having low self-esteem; the logic appears to state: “Poor guy, he doesn’t care enough about himself to hold a job, get married, etc.” In many cases like this, the problem is actually too much self-esteem, with the logic actually being: “Why should I hold a job like all those suckers? I’m better than that!”
One book I’ve found very helpful is titles, amazingly enough, Self-Esteem. Written by Matthew McKay and Patrick Fanning, it is a very hands-on book written for the lay person, with plenty of common sense descriptions of different aspects of self-esteem, as well as exercises designed to improve self-esteem in areas needing it. Regarding that last bit, one thing I like about this book is that it provides a useful conceptualization of low self-esteem in terms of a two-pronged issue: situational self-esteem versus characterological self-esteem. A person with low situational self-esteem will notice difficulties in only certain areas, while other areas are satisfactory. Characterologically low self-esteem is a more fundamental view of oneself in a global way, and therefore the impact is more pervasive.
An example of situational self-esteem might be a college student who accurately sees themselves as an adequate student, friend, and boyfriend. However, due to some sort of cognitive distortion that developed earlier, they inaccurately see themselves as much weaker/less talented athletically than they actually are (maybe the guy was a really late bloomer, and had significant negative athletic experiences prior to catching up?). Conversely, a person with characterologically low self-esteem sees themselves as “bad or “wrong” in virtually all areas of functioning: socially, academically, athletically, etc. This is a much bigger challenge, and requires significantly more work.
To wrap this post up, one mistake I’ve made as a therapist in the past is to work with a client on addressing an issue before we’ve established whether the client A) believes they are capable of improvement in that area, and/or B) believes they are worthy of improvement in that area. These points cannot be overemphasized. If an individual rationally grasps that improving their social skills will be helpful, but has a self-view that they cannot be any better than they already are, skill development will be a waste of time. The same applies to an individual who does not see themselves as deserving of a better social life. Facilitating change in either (or both) of these areas will be a necessary precursor to any increase in behavioral ability.