Healthy Self-Esteem: Seems Simple But It Is Radical
May 19, 2009 · Posted in Communication, K-5 Kids, Marriage, Mental Health, Parenting, Preschoolers · Permalink

41b06xfz60l_sl75_Two years ago, Lisa and I went to a clinical training with Terry Real, author of “The New Rules: 21st Century Marriage”. We had heard about Terry from colleagues and had read several books of his on male depression. His personal frankness and ability to challenge traditional ideas about psychotherapy fit with our style of counseling at Soho Parenting and we were excited to learn more. He was giving an intensive training in couples therapy, so we gave ourselves a big treat and flew to Scottsdale, Arizona for a four-day training. We were excited to get away, study, hike and relax a bit but had no idea we were about to have an experience that would dramatically change both of us.

Terry is a charismatic, irreverent, master therapist. He taught us the protocol for his particular brand of working with couples and introduced us to what he calls “Relational Living”. This world-view is based on his thirty years of practice as well as his own psychological journey. He was painfully and admirably honest about his own demons and falls from grace, his first marriage that ended in divorce and his important growth as a man and a healer.

So much of what Terry and his colleagues showed us was the necessity of practicing “Relational Living” every moment of every day. Not suggesting that we succeed all the time, mind you, but having clear goals and a set of rules in mind about behavior towards others and ourselves.

We came back from this training feeling inspired, challenged and excited by the work. Almost two years later having worked closely with Terry and his colleague Lisa Merlo-Booth, our respect and belief in this work has only grown.  It has enhanced our relationships with our own parents, children, partners and has enriched our work as therapists immeasurably.

In this post we would like to share one of the core concepts that we learned from Terry: Healthy Self-Esteem. A term bandied about so much we don’t even know what it means anymore.
Healthy self-esteem is the ability to hold one’s self in warm regard despite one’s failings. It means appreciating our gifts and talents without using them to inflate our importance. It means seeing all human beings as having the same intrinsic worth.

Healthy self-esteem is not based on performance–“I am good because I get high grades, have a “big” job, or because I am a great soccer player”.
Healthy self-esteem is not based on attributes–“I am good because I am thin or beautiful”.
Healthy self-esteem is not based on our possessions- “I am better because I have more money, a bigger apartment, or my kids go to a ‘better’ school.”  I am not worth more or less than anyone else.

As simple and obvious as this may sound, it actually turns all of our 21st century American thinking on its’ head. It is simple but it is radical. Let’s see how it looks when we start to put these ideas into practice.

With your children, focus on loving them for who they are and not what they do. “Watching you play soccer is so much fun. You obviously love it!” Not: “You are the best player out there by far. I am so proud of you.” Compliment their effort and the process not only the outcome. “ Tell me about your painting. I love the swirls and colors.” Not: “That is the most beautiful painting I have ever seen. It belongs in a museum!” It is not a mistake to praise our children but sometimes our underlying message to them is “I love you when you are the best.” Remember to love them equally when they struggle as well as when they excel. This will build healthy self-esteem.

We will continue to introduce Terry Real’s ideas on our blog and hope to give you new ways of thinking, new rules for behavior and ways to build healthy relationships.

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  1. Liz
    May 19th, 2009 | 12:40 pm

    This is spot on! It is crucial as a parent to differentiate between healthy encouragement and praising children for perfection – we should be rewarding effort and completion instead of outcome. The most important way to keep your child’s self-esteem intact is to be a loving, supportive, nonjudgmental parent that will be there to help them face anything that might come their way. Thank you for sharing such important insight!

  2. KCF
    May 20th, 2009 | 12:29 pm

    Just plug for Terry Real. My sister and her (soon-to-be ex) went to a couples counselor who was trained in the Terry Real method (as per Lisa’s recommendation). While all the wisdom in the world couldn’t put back together what seems to be finally broken, both parties thought the world of the counselor and the approach and, from the sidelines, I was wildly impressed. You hear so often of just “eh” counseling at a time when couples are desperate for real guidance. This was thankfully not the case for my sister.

  3. Veronica
    May 20th, 2009 | 3:15 pm

    I never thought of self-esteem in this way. Eye opening!

  4. teddy
    June 1st, 2009 | 10:49 pm

    i attended a terry real “relationship workshop;

    it was fascinating and felt like learning a new
    language, that i am trying to use in my daily life

  5. Alexandra D.
    October 22nd, 2009 | 1:56 pm

    Your post made me think about self esteem in a totally different way. It challenges what society values as self worth and really reminds me what I need to do as a parent to help build healthy self esteem in my child.

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