If you pick up a book on building self-esteem, you’d presumably like to feel better about yourself. Yet many of these guides simply cheer us on emptily, or provide us with anecdotes that just don’t fit. In Unlocking the Secrets of Self-Esteem: A Guide to Building Confidence and Connection One Step at a Time, psychologist Marie Hartwell-Walker takes a different approach.
In this new workbook — with a foreword by Psych Central’s own John Grohol — Walker doesn’t talk about cognitive techniques. She doesn’t tell us to talk back to our inner voice, and she doesn’t tell us to monitor our thoughts. What she does give us is a clear, effective guide, filled with tangible tools, all well-researched and user-friendly.
Early on in the book, Walker reframes the issue for us: It is the definition of self-esteem that’s the problem, she posits. She cements her assertion by presenting self-esteem as a combination of two things: “feeling good and doing good.” When we are too focused on doing good, we have an anxious self-esteem — one that requires a lot of external validation, she writes. Yet when we are too focused on simply feeling good, we have a self-centered type of self-esteem — one that disregards interests beyond the self.
To find the right balance — genuine self-esteem — Walker writes that we must have a “high positive self-regard that is earned by handling life ethically and connecting with others positively.”
The book then provides assessment tools to help us figure out where our values lie. Walker encourages us to look at our generational values, values derived from fictional heroes and celebrities, and the self-esteem dilemmas these may be causing.
The next section, self-care, might just be the most helpful, because Walker takes an approach that most self-help books avoid. Here, she encourages the reader to make sure that self-esteem is really the problem. To do this, she offers several useful tests and inventories to determine and rule out any medical conditions that could mimic low self-esteem.
That’s a smart, unique step to take when examining what one believes to be low self-esteem. For readers who do think this is the right issue to focus on, Walker then moves into the meat and bones of it. Looking first at courage, she helps us understand just what courage is — “putting values into action” — and just what keeps us from courageous behavior. It could, in Walker’s words, be fear of making mistakes, worrying what others think of you, saving face by giving up, making excuses, and what she refers to as substituting trying for doing.
Walker also teaches us how to learn from mistakes, how to practice making them, and how to take a stand. She also posits that gratitude is another powerful component of self-esteem, and discusses issues like ruminating, negativity biases, and learned helplessness. The idea is to use our character strengths, and to “engage with (and not avoid) problems.”
Relationships round out the discussion — an especially important area when it comes to self-esteem. As Walker acknowledges, there is a lot that can get in our way. We may lack social skills, we may isolate ourselves, we may forget to attend to our friends, we may mistake quantity for quality, be over-dependent, fear a loss of independence, or even stick with toxic people. The solution Walker offers is to first assess how connected we really are (she offers a test for this) and then make some adjustments, like practicing social graces, making time for friends, volunteering, helping others, and going on what she calls “gratitude visits.” She provides, too, three case histories, complete with assessments, monthly goals, and descriptive outcomes, to show us just what it looks like to work on self-esteem.
Walker is not the coach on the sidelines shouting tired “You can do it” slogans. She is the coach in the locker room who watches the replays in slow motion on a monitor, deftly uncovering where the plays are falling apart, which players need a little more coaching, and which ones need a little more freedom. And then she is the coach who gives us a concise, useable plan that leaves us informed, encouraged, and, yes, feeling a little better.
Unlocking the Secrets of Self-Esteem: A Guide to Building Confidence and Connection One Step at a Time
New Harbinger Publications, February 2015
Paperback, 200 pages