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  • Writer's pictureDavid Khalili

The Three Columns to Self-Esteem (Part 1)

Updated: Apr 3

Whether you’re a provider or a client, there are “buzzwords” or terms in therapy that always

seem to pop up. Self-care is probably the most popular concept right now, seeming to reach a

world-wide audience in 2020 in-part due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Mindfulness is another, a

notion that has a variety of definitions in the field of mental health but could perhaps be best

summed up as a practice of being more present in the moment by being more aware of the

feelings in our body. Codependency, empathy, defense mechanisms... the list is surely


A concept that is almost guaranteed to come up at some point in therapy is self-esteem. Just

like it’s easier to get a burger at the drive-thru instead of buying all the ingredients and making it

oneself, it’s probably easier to think of the unhealthy ways of building self-esteem than it is to

describe how to build it in healthy ways. Merit-based and relationship-based self-esteem are two

ways that we almost instinctively try to build our self-esteem but are inherently flawed. When we

opened that report card in sixth grade and saw the good grades, we immediately felt great about

ourselves. On the flip side, we remember the lower-than-expected grades that made us feel

terrible. As adults we can liken this to the positions or titles we strive to reach in our professional

career or even the amount we see when we open our paychecks and bank statements. But

what happens if we don’t get the promotion we thought we earned? Or if we lose a job due to a

turbulent economy? Is it fair to judge ourselves and base our self-esteem on these things that

are not wholly under our control?

Basing our self-esteem on the relationships we have is also problematic. It’s easy to think of

ourselves highly when our friendships are plentiful and we feel loved by others. But what

happens when the inevitability of life strikes, taking away or fundamentally changing the very

relationships that made us feel so good? Relationships and friendships will come and go. There

are times in our lives that we will struggle in our job or finances. That is why it is important to

build ourselves and our self-esteem in ways that we can control.

Over the next several weeks we will explore a personally-developed concept referred to as the

“Three Columns” in building a healthy self-esteem. The first column involves identifying and

enforcing healthy boundaries across the various realms of one’s life. Boundaries are necessary

in just about all aspects of our lives, from personal relationships to the workplace. For example,

one might feel overwhelmed and stressed out with work because they are working well past

their expected time and not getting to complete necessary personal tasks at home as a result. A

boundary could be created by that individual to work only until a designated time and pick back

up where they left off the next day.

The second column in building a healthy self-esteem asks one to make time to engage in

healthy activities that one likes and is good at doing. For some, this might entail a certain

exercise practice like yoga or running. Others may like to knit or read. As long as one is doing

the thing they like, there is really no wrong activity to choose. The third and final column

involves partaking in actions related to reaching our personal goals. Both short and long term

goals are appropriate for this specific portion of the triad and they will almost always be

correlated. If a person has the long term goal of becoming an attorney, the short term goals of getting an undergraduate degree, preparing for the LSAT, getting into law school, and passing

the BAR exam serve as important markers and achievements that inform us we are getting

closer to meeting the ultimate goal.

In the next three related posts we will discuss each column (Boundaries, Likes, Goals) in more

detail, providing specific examples of how we can implement these actions in our lives to help

build and maintain a healthy self-esteem.


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