You Don’t Need Self-Esteem to Break a Bad Habit

Do you know how many people have called my show over the last 3 1/2 decades to tell me they could do the right thing in their lives if they only had self-esteem? 

A LOT.

People use low self-esteem as an excuse all the time:

“What made you do this thing instead of another?”
“Low self-esteem.” 

“How come you stayed with a guy who pummeled you?”
 ”Low self-esteem.” 

“How come you quit X, Y or Z?” 
“Low self-esteem.” 

But that answer is wrong, wrong, wrong!  It’s backwards – it’s making bad decisions that creates low self-esteem, not the other way around. 

Healthy self-esteem is like a tennis racket: if you hit the ball too close to the edge, it’s bad, but if you make contact with the sweet spot, it’s perfect.  High self-esteem is “a sweet spot between an unhealthy level of narcissism and harmful self-criticism.”  It’s right in the middle.  However, you don’t need self-esteem to change your actions, habits, or temptations.  

A lot of you have very bad habits, like eating at 10 o’clock at night, not cleaning your teeth, speaking before your think, and succumbing to temptations like cookies, cigarettes, and booze.  But you absolutely do NOT need self-esteem to change any of them.   What you need is a thing that gets put down, dissed, and discounted all the time: good old-fashioned willpower

And where does willpower come from?  You have to pick a motivator.  Your motivators are the values and goals in life that are important to you.  Once you have them lined up, you can change a habit no matter how much self-esteem you have.  Whether it’s dying from continuing to smoke or drink, losing weight, wanting to be a good role model, or being religious, whatever you decide is your motivator has to come out of your head, not out of the universe.  It’s something you decide.  Just ask people who have quit smoking or drinking, and they will tell you it was willpower, not self-esteem that made them quit.  Certainly when they were drunk and had to smoke 135 cigarettes every five minutes, self-esteem wasn’t an issue.

So, it’s all about willpower.  It’s not a big deal if you don’t have self-esteem.  It is not correlated to success, willpower is.  People with willpower have self-control and self-discipline, which helps them build better relationships, take initiative, and sustain their efforts over time.  And when you use willpower to accomplish something, you can say to yourself, “I did that!”  When you can impress yourself by achieving a goal and cheer yourself on, you begin a virtuous cycle instead of a vicious one.  Because if you successfully change a habit, then you give yourself more self-esteem, and it just keeps on going in a circle. 

Here are some steps to activate your willpower:

  • Make the decision to change.
  • Set realistic goals.  Goals can be like inchworms: once you achieve one goal, you move the goalpost, and then, when you achieve the next goal, you move the goalpost again…
  • Activate your willpower by using the thought of your motivator to guide your behavior.
  • Make a specific plan for change or join a program to help you change.
  • Bounce back from setbacks.  Just getting on your own case about a hitch in the road is not useful progress.