Self-esteem is a determining factor in all communication, as core personal beliefs can come into play with or without our conscious knowledge. When they do, we may feel like we’ve lost our ‘centre’ and be quick to react to what is happening. These beliefs are assumptions we have made about ourselves, others and life in general from an early age and into our formative years.
Examples of these are: “Others are better than me”, “People can’t be trusted”, “Life is a battle that I have to win” and so on. Over time these beliefs become like ‘magnets’ that will subconsciously attract situations to us and which will reconfirm these perceptions as being true. Believing these ‘magnets’ or by being subconsciously led astray by them, can pull the strings of our self esteem and place us in a place of perceived inequality to others and draw us into competition and comparison.
Our self-esteem levels can fluctuate many times a day based on:
- How we regard our abilities
- Our personal achievements, job situation, financial security and position
- Our physical appearance
- The feedback we receive from others
When our self-esteem is low, we may consciously or unconsciously engage in comparison, power games and approval-seeking in order to regain our equality, both for ourselves and in the eyes of the world.
If we feel ‘less than’ in any way, our deflated self-esteem may lead us to look to someone against whom we feel better than to give us a boost. But comparison is a false prophet. There will always be someone who is better or worse at something than us, thinner or fatter, richer or poorer and so on and depending next to whom we are standing our self-esteem either soars or nose-dives! Comparison also places us in a state of competition, and self-rejection, and eventually gives rise to envy and resentment.
The same can be said of approval. By seeking it outwardly we are enslaving ourselves to others for their judgement. Like comparison, approval-seeking can also give rise to resentment; either because we don’t get it and/or it doesn’t meet our expectations of what we wanted to hear, or because we suddenly realize that in wanting it, we have placed another as our superior and resent them for it.
To regain our self-esteem and our equality, we may enter into power games, we may gossip and stereotype. The language we use may become so angry and embittered that our mouths end up shooting passive-aggressive ‘arrows’, aimed at maiming those we have placed in a position of power by our expectation of approval and comparison.
Arrows escalate conflict and create a vicious cycle of tit-for-tat. An example of an arrow is: “Ha! Is that the best you can do?” Sarcasm, even if masked by humour, is an attack; and despite providing a temporary sense of superiority, it shows one’s insecurity.
But arrows are only one aspect of the language that can be used in conflict and much of what we say depends on our uniqueness and on how we feel about:
- Ourselves (in that moment)
- The other person – do we see ourselves as being stronger, weaker or as an equal?
- The strength of our argument and
- Speaking up (do we veer towards confronting or denying an issue and how do we tend to do this?)
Communication in conflict is both verbal and non-verbal and each can contribute to and escalate a disagreement in equal measure. It can be:
- Aggressive and/or arrogant and not allow another to have their say.
- Passive: avoiding, appeasing; we can say nothing or sulk, cry or tantrum. (Going into a ‘victim’ role is a powerful form of manipulation as we hold others to ransom with our silence and our tears in the hope that they will leave us alone or give in to our wants).
- Passive-aggressive; a mixture of the two and another form of manipulation. We may shoot arrows, deliver some previously unspoken ‘home truths’ or cut off relations with the other and refuse to talk.
All of these are power-games which result in no lasting resolution or sustainable gains; we may end up feeling that we ‘gave in too easily’ or even that we ‘stood up for ourselves’. But how assertive were we? And what does assertive actually mean?
Being assertive means:
- Taking responsibility for our actions and accepting our contribution (including our assumptions and behaviour – whether aggressive or withdrawing)
- Not seeking approval from others
- Allowing and acknowledging different perspectives without silencing the other
Once we have done our ‘homework’ we no longer feel the need to compete or blame and instead we set boundaries and still remain vigilant of our behaviour.
- We state our needs calmly, including how we wish to be treated
- We don’t engage in put downs or take them (including towards ourselves!)
- We handle criticism without tears or tantrums
- We speak up despite fear of conflict
- We are willing to take the consequences of expressing feelings and wants
- We treat ‘No’ as a complete sentence while acknowledging that it may be letting the other down (rather than making excuses for why not)
Being assertive is about ensuring that we look after ourselves while also taking responsibility for our part and being aware of others’ needs too.
In sum, clear communication and self-esteem go hand in hand. To engage in it, we need to move out of ‘either-or thinking’ about ourselves and move towards engaging in the ‘And- principle’. Doing so means that we see ourselves as a complete being, insofar as one temporary short-coming or mistake does not render us a ‘failure’ and those around us ‘better’.
Remembering that we all have an equal right and need to be who we are, to express our needs, be heard and be treated respectfully, may help change the way we behave and communicate when we argue. While power games are a vicious cycle, clear communication is a virtuous one!