Overcome Racial Inequity Through Self-Esteem and Equality


Christopher Ebbe, Ph.D.   6-20

ABSTRACT:  The key to reducing racial inequity and prejudice is viewing all human beings as basic equals.  The principles of good self-esteem are used to illustrate how to view others as equals.

KEY WORDS:  racial prejudice, inequality, social justice, self-esteem

In this time of uproar and protest after another death of a Black person at the hands of police (Minneapolis, May 2020), society is searching for ways to reduce further the remaining racial prejudice against Blacks (and other minorities). 

While systemic changes, such as changing the rules of engagement for police and removing racial designations from almost all application processes in society, would no doubt help, the more deeply embedded problem is within the minds of many individual members of society (both those who are prejudiced and those who have been the objects of prejudice), and no solution will be complete until these inaccurate and harmful prejudices are ameliorated.  Some Black writers and educators have called for Black people themselves to change their views and attitudes toward themselves, since many view themselves as inferior just as the prejudice says they should.  The ideas presented here give specifics for how this must be done.  (They are just as applicable also to anyone who is discriminated against unfairly or viewed as an inferior by others for any reason.)

To be clear, the concern here is not primarily prejudice as inaccurate understandings due to ignorance or misinformation but rather attributions of inferiority, which follow from ignorance or misinformation and are per se harmful.  It is this harm that we primarily wish to eliminate.  Reducing misunderstandings through better information can help to reduce resultant harm, but it is the learned (often unconsciously) attributions of inferiority that are the hardest to change, because they are so often used (again, often unconsciously) to bolster the self-esteem of those who are prejudiced.

My 2003 book on improving self-esteem identified principles of thought and interaction that are needed if we are to have healthy emotional lives and better self-esteem.  These same principles can give us insights about reducing prejudice toward others, through radical insistence on equality.  Self-esteem is defined here as the feelings that you have about yourself whenever you are aware of yourself and your actions.  If you feel satisfied after drinking a glass of water that you obtained for yourself, then you have a positive self-esteem feeling at that moment, because you associate your self with that satisfaction.  The total of all these feelings that you have going through a day about how you have affected yourself, positively or negatively, is your overall self-esteem.  Thus, self-esteem does not mean or imply self-aggrandizement or a feeling of superiority.

I hope that this offering is not perceived as insensitive (since I have not experienced the same degree of prejudice as Black people in this country), but these are not just ideas.  I know that these principles are operating in all of our lives every day, Black or white, and I want every person to have tools of understanding that can be used to improve his or her feelings about self.  I also know that working on oneself rather than being mostly angry is a huge challenge.

These principles, couched in language about self-esteem are:

  • think independently
  • believe that you have fundamental worth and value just for being who you are
  • believe that you are not inferior
  • believe that you did not deserve bad treatment that you received
  • believe that you have the right to exist and to be yourself
  • respect yourself at all times and treat yourself in a respectful manner
  • accept yourself (let yourself be)
  • love yourself and treat yourself in a loving way
  • alter your standards and expectations of yourself so that they are humane and reasonable; determine your own standards and expectations for yourself
  • do what is truly best for yourself
  • ensure that you have good psychological health
  • treat yourself well
  • ensure that you are treated well by others

Think Independently

In order to improve your feelings about yourself, you must reject the self-serving negative views of you that others hold, since much of what others express about us is generated by desires of others to manipulate us and to define themselves as “better than” or superior to us (so that they can benefit from that superiority).

This principle clearly applies to anyone who is denigrated in our society, regardless of race, age, gender, sexual orientation, cultural background, competence, appearance, etc.  We all must reject those self-serving, negative views of others.  If some can be defined as “less than” others, then you, too, could be a victim of that kind of self-serving definition.  Those who have experienced prejudice and denigration must be absolutely clear that they are equals and not inferiors.  Human being are built to accept the group’s status hierarchy designations of them (similar to dogs in a pack), and this does help us to reduce violence within the group over the distribution of available resources, but it must not be used by anyone to push others down so he or she can be higher on the hierarchy. 

Prejudice against Blacks by viewing them as an inferior race (or not even human) was quite clearly constructed as a convenient justification for slavery, but it also was based on the assumption that a social order that seemed more “primitive” because it did not have the same power over nature in the 1600’s that European, post-Enlightenment societies aspired to, must be inferior.  Sociology later made clear that such societies (as in Africa) were just as organized and nuanced as Western ones and therefore might have been just as beneficial overall as forms of society to their members as were Western ones.  We must remember that having slaves did not arise because of the enslavement of Blacks but had been a common human practice (even within Africa) for eons before that.

This analysis should lead us to question any assertions that other societies are inferior to ours simply because their institutions are different.  This applies to all aspects of culture—religions, laws, languages, social customs, etc.  Customs and institutions should be judged on what impact they have on the lives of people in their societies, in terms of fairness, self-esteem, cooperativeness, etc.—in other words, the quality of life of the people.  Societies could be found to be more or less effective than other societies in providing quality of life for all of their people (relative to the standards and expectations of the person or persons making that judgment, of course).  No culture is sacred.

In order to change, those who are prejudiced must also think independently, for they have to reject what they were taught and reject what they see and hear around them, much of which reinforces the self-serving, negative view of Blacks which has traditionally been used to justify the supposed inferiority of Blacks.

Believe That You Have Fundamental Worth and Value Just For Being Who You Are

Any worldview that attempts to have universal equality as part of its value system must identify a source of that equality.  Christians (at least Christians today) say that all are equal in the sight of God and equally loved by God.  The United States posits that all citizens are equal in their right to life, liberty, and the opportunity to pursue happiness.  I believe and propose that every person has a fundamental worth and value just for being human and alive.  We are social creatures and depend for our cooperation with each other on having a sense of loyalty to those in our group, which can be extended to a fellow-feeling for all of our species.  We are all capable of loving other human beings.  This belongingness and ability to see each other as all being valuable simply for being members of the human group, illustrates that we all have a fundamental worth to each other.  Of course, this does not mean that everyone should have equal wealth, since we also value and reward individual circumstances and effort, which will produce different results in life for each individual.  We will also place more additional value on some others who are our heroes or who do more for the group, but everyone retains this fundamental value, which cannot be lost or taken away.

Every individual Black person is just as fundamentally valuable as a person as every white person and every other person on the planet.  If we wish to move beyond a society which views some people as worth more than others, some as superior to others, then we must allow all human beings to have this fundamental value.

In order for those who are prejudiced to acknowledge this fundamental value of Black people will involve a loss—a loss of the extra value they have clung to for supposedly being superior to all Blacks just by being white.  As recompense we can only offer the benefit of having more fellow-feeling with more of the human race, and not having any longer the burden of asserting or proving their superiority.

Believe That You Are Not Inferior

Equality cannot be completely conferred on you or given to you, because we each within ourselves adopt an attitude with respect to others that reveals what we think of ourselves.  Some view themselves as superior.  Some view themselves as equals.  Some unfortunately view themselves as inferiors.  If we are to move beyond that, then we each must act like equals.  This means that firstly, to be equals, we must believe that we are equals and not inferiors.

This is difficult to do if you have been discriminated against by your family or your society.  It is just as hard for non-preferred siblings to believe in their equality in the family as it is for Black people to believe they are basically equal to everyone else in society, buts it must be done.  Siblings must know (by firmness of belief) that they are just as (fundamentally, basically) good as the siblings that their parents favored, and Black people must know (by firmness of belief) that they are just as good as white people.  Others can help by treating Black people as true equals, but Black persons as individuals must assert their equality and really believe it for it to become a comfortable part of their lives.

It is difficult for anyone to give up status and find themselves more equal now with those they had considered inferior, but this is what those who are prejudiced against Black people must do.  Can they be persuaded to do this?  Some but probably not all can be persuaded by the promise of more comfortable, more relaxed relations with Black people and the advantage of having a clearer conscience about their (past) prejudice.  (Yes, people who put themselves above others have an awareness, even if dim or unconscious, of having done those others wrong.  This includes those of us who were happy to see ourselves preferred to another sibling, those of us who were happy about some status we got for something relatively meaningless like our race (White Privilege), our appearance, or having a nice car, and those of us who got into a prestigious college when it was really our parents’ financial contributions that got us there.)  All members of every group have the same feelings and motives in life as you do—to survive, to minimize their pain, to feel good at least part of the time, to feel good about themselves, to feel secure, to raise good children, and to have some gratifying relationships with others.

Believe That You Did Not Deserve Bad Treatment That You Received

Those who have received the bad treatment of prejudice and its results on their lives must come to know firmly that they did not deserve that prejudice and its attendant results.  Since everyone is basically equal, no one can deserve bad treatment just for being who he or she is.  Human beings have strong inbred tendencies to want things to make sense and to want to be in harmony with the social rules around them.  Slaves and children who have been abused often make sense of their disadvantaged positions by thinking that it must have been something about them that resulted in their mistreatment (similar to those who have been rejected by a love interest searching their minds day after day to figure out what it was about them that caused the other person to reject them).  In other words, they deserved what happened to them. 

Most people also have great difficulty resisting the pull to accept the social position assigned to them by others, since to accept it means that they don’t any longer have to fight against an unfair or incorrect assumption on the part of those around them.  We see this writ large in how poor people only very rarely rebel against their poorness but instead continue to suffer and struggle with the consequences of that poorness, just as we see it, too, in the Stockholm Syndrome where a kidnapped and brainwashed person becomes an ally of the kidnapper and in the disfavored child in a family who accepts that position instead of going all out to resist it, since it is just easier not to continue to struggle.  (This is not to deny that circumstances often play a role in this.  Children cannot just leave their families to find a situation that is better for their self-esteem, and the poor have few resources for a rebellion, but the key point here is that people tend to come to believe themselves that what they get is what they for some reason deserved.)

Even when an inappropriate status is removed, as when slavery was abolished, some of the attitudes of a lifetime will remain, particularly if the surrounding social structure works to pretend that you still are of lower status and deserve the treatment of someone in lower status (as with the lynchings and economic oppression of Blacks in the South for decades after the Civil War).

It is of course difficult to maintain that you are an equal and undeserving of bad treatment when everyone around you thinks that they are treating you normally for your status (the status you have in their eyes), but that is exactly what is called for.  Even if you do not openly rebel and claim that you don’t deserve the bad treatment, you must at least within yourself view yourself as truly an equal and undeserving of the bad treatment.  This is a bit like walking a tightrope, but it can be done.  You must change your self-concept to being a true equal and claim your new status.

It is both a relief and upsetting to fully accept later on that one has been so mistreated and that one has also gone along with the mistreatment. Anger may result, but we can choose whether and how to express that anger.

Those who are prejudiced must come to admit that Blacks did not “deserve” to be slaves or to receive the bad treatment that they received even after slavery was abolished in this country.

Believe That You Have the Right to Exist and to Be Yourself

All people have the right to exist on the planet.  No person or group has the moral right to exterminate other people or groups to benefit themselves.  Black people must believe this and assert this right, since they are just as good and deserving as people as any other people on the planet.

All individual people have the right to be themselves without interference, as long as they are not harming others in so doing.  Being oneself includes choosing and pursuing things and experiences that one enjoys in life, choosing one’s traits and character, and expressing oneself.

On the other hand, living in groups, people must establish rules and expectations for each other, which when agreed to by that group’s processes for determining such rules and expectations, individuals will then follow, even if for them it means giving up certain aspects of being oneself that they would prefer.

Those who are prejudiced must acknowledge the right of Black people to exist and to be themselves, just as white people have that right.

Respect Yourself

In order to be an equal, you must respect yourself and treat yourself in respectful ways.  People who accept inferior positions (low on the status hierarchy) tend to treat themselves according to that status assignment, even when they could treat themselves better.  This unfortunate acceptance keeps down violence against those higher in the status hierarchy, but it means that most in lower categories (race, income, etc.) will feel bad about themselves and treat themselves as if they did not deserve respect.

To respect yourself means to hold yourself in high or special regard, to set a high value on yourself, and to regard yourself as valuable.  We crave being respected and treated with respect, because being respected tells us that we are valued enough to be given basic recognition of our right to be alive, to be a part of the group, and to have at least some of our rights honored.

Respect is sometimes confused with admiration, but respecting someone is not looking up to the person but rather honoring the person’s rights and position.  Respect is also sometimes confused with deference and submission (as when parents insist that children “respect” or give in to them).  Respecting someone is not submitting or bowing to that person.

Everyone deserves basic respect at all times, since all of us are basic equals and have the same fundamental value in the group.  No one is more special or intrinsically valuable than anyone else.

To treat yourself with respect–

Honor yourself.  Just for existing and trying to take good care of yourself and others, you deserve to be honored.  Take note of your fundamental worth and value.  This does not mean that you are better than others but that you, like everyone else, deserve this honoring.

Assume that you are worthwhile and OK. You are worthwhile and valuable just for being who you are. 

Respect your rights.  Don’t demean and neglect yourself or allow yourself to be put in inferior or unequal positions.  You are equal to and not inferior to others and deserve the same basic rights as everyone else.

Act considerately toward yourself.  Be aware of your feelings and needs, and treat yourself with care and consideration.

Give yourself the same courtesy that you give to others.  Treat yourself with consideration and courtesy, just as you would others.  You deserve it.

Don’t cause yourself distress or discomfort.  Just as you would not knowingly cause pain or distress for someone you respected or cared about, be aware of how you are feeling and take good care of yourself, including avoiding putting yourself in situations where you could be hurt, disrespected, or have your self-esteem attacked.

You deserve basic respect from everyone (as well as from yourself), and it is important that you both treat yourself with respect and insist on getting that basic respect from others.

The important thing for people who want to move from inferior to equal status is to act as if they deserved respect, even if those around them are not treating them with that respect.  Do not accept the put-downs or status moves of others, but act as if you were just as worthy of respect as anyone else.  Every person deserves basic respect.  If others disrespect you, stay clear within yourself that it does not diminish your fundamental value—it only means that others do not at the moment recognize that value. Treat yourself with respect, maintain your dignity, and act as if you deserved respect, regardless of how others are treating you (which will tend to induce others to treat you that way, too).  (If you are with others and someone says something that is disrespectful about you, do not act embarrassed or offended, and do not leave the group, but act unaffected, as if what was said was nonsense and meaningless.)

Accept Yourself

Of all the attitudes and feelings you have about yourself, respecting yourself, accepting yourself, and loving yourself are the three that are most beneficial for your self-esteem and your overall welfare, and among these three, accepting yourself is the most effective.

Being accepted is basically “being allowed”—being allowed to be yourself without rejection or attack.  Self-acceptance is therefore “allowing yourself to be” instead of rejecting and attacking yourself.  Unfortunately most people attack and reject themselves with alarming frequency.  Every time you harm yourself, criticize yourself, put yourself down, call yourself names, put yourself in negative or inferior positions, or judgmentally compare yourself unfavorably to someone else, you are rejecting yourself.

To achieve acceptance, know yourself completely and intimately (so that you don’t pretend that certain things that you dislike about yourself don’t even exist), and don’t react to any parts of yourself that you dislike with attack and rejection.  Stop criticizing yourself and hurting your own feelings. Stop rejecting yourself. The peace and calm of accepting yourself is wonderful. 

The primary reason that we reject ourselves is that we have learned from those around us to reject and criticize ourselves, either because we believe that we do not meet expected standards, that we have done something wrong, or that it is simply “wrong” to be ourselves. Some people also reject themselves because they believe that constantly rejecting themselves is the only way to control their “bad” behavior. These reasons for rejecting ourselves are false and unnecessary.

If significant others view us and treat us as if we deserve criticism and demeanment, for our behavior or simply for being ourselves, then as we grow up we imitate this and begin to criticize and demean ourselves.  Those who have lived with significant prejudicial rejection have a special burden to overcome in this regard, since they may have parental rejections as well as prejudicial rejections to deal with.  Of course, knowing that you are OK regardless of how others are acting is very difficult, but it must be done.  The key to change is truly knowing deep down that you did not deserve this prejudicial rejection, just as you did not deserve rejections from your parents.

Use your independent mind to realize that you are OK even without the acceptance of those around you who are prejudiced.  Give up worrying about gaining their approval and acceptance first (which you actually already deserve), and focus on your own acceptance of yourself and on making your life a good life to live.  Mourn for what you have not had, and mourn for the hope that you are now giving up of getting it from those people, and then rejoice in your new freedom to be yourself and to do what is good for you!

Acceptance is often confused with approval and other positive responses from others.  Being approved of involves being measured by others against their standards for you and being preferred or rejected by them, while acceptance is “being allowed to be” just as you are.  Being accepted does not imply that everything about you is OK with others (or is even OK with yourself).  You can be accepted without being approved of by others.

You must recognize and accept that others have no legitimate authority to control who you are (with the exception of prohibiting certain harmful behaviors by all group members).   They have no authority to tell you that you are “right” or “wrong” or “good” or “bad,” since these are only their individual opinions and bear no relation to any higher authority or standard.  You must leave their views behind and redefine yourself as OK.  To change your mind about yourself—to see yourself as basically OK—requires questioning the standards and the attitudes of those who have rejected and criticized you.  By itself, the fact that you were rejected proves nothing about you. 

Some people hold onto patterns of self-rejection because they think (unconsciously) that it is easier to reject themselves than it would be to fully recognize how they are being rejected by others.  They make their rejection of themselves their own fault, and as long as they continue to try to force themselves to be who they are “supposed to be,” they don’t have to recognize and deal with the pain of the actual unfair rejection that they are getting.  If we stop rejecting ourselves, we will see more clearly the inappropriateness of how we are being rejected by others, and we will probably feel some sadness and anger about it.

If you treat others decently, you deserve to be accepted (allowed to be) as a member of your family and of society, regardless of the attitudes and reactions of anyone else to the contrary.  You have just as much basic worth and value as everyone else.

If you fully accept that you were OK and that you have not really deserved to feel bad about yourself all these years, you will feel much sadness, and you may feel anger toward those who convinced you that you were “bad” or inferior.  Both of these feelings are normal, and it is best that you let yourself feel them fully and wait for them to pass.  This sadness is both a release of a tremendous amount of stored up pain and a readjustment to a new identity.  For years you have been whipping yourself to be someone else, because you thought that you were not good enough or were not who you were supposed to be.  Now you are accepting that you may never please those whom you have been striving to please.  As to the anger, just because you feel anger does not mean that you must act on it.  If you do feel impelled to act, it will be enough to tell those who have not accepted you that in your opinion they were wrong about you and that they harmed you greatly.  Let yourself feel these feelings, take action if you need to, and wait for the feelings to pass, for they will pass.

People with racial prejudices, if they wish to be part of a better world, can work on basic acceptance of Blacks (and other minorities).  This acceptance need not mean that you love everyone instantly, but it must mean that you allow them to be (and to be equals in society).  Knowing more individuals in depth that you have had prejudicial feelings toward will help you to see that every group has good people and some not so good people, just like whites and any other group.  Surely allowing everyone to be, without rejecting their basic right to exist and to have a good life, is not too much to ask in our democracy.

Forgive Yourself

If you have harbored bad feelings about yourself because of your race, you will need to forgive yourself for these very human and understandable feelings.  Most of us cannot entirely escape having negative feelings toward the status that seems to be resulting in our negative treatment by others.  The celebration of one’s culture is one way to try to counteract these negative feelings, but you still must forgive yourself for having those race-based negative feelings toward yourself.  If you come to see clearly as an adult that nothing negative should attach to yourself because of your race, so that you are totally accepting of yourself in this regard, then you can forgive yourself and live more positively.

Those who have had racial prejudice also need to forgive themselves for the harm and pain they have caused.  To do this, fully recognize the pain that you have caused, work toward changing your prejudiced beliefs and feelings, and accept your equal status with all others, and you can then forgive yourself and move on.

Love Yourself

Love truly “makes the world go round,” and it provides most of us with our strongest emotional reason for experiencing life as worthwhile. Since love is so important, it is crucial for good mental health and good self-esteem that we learn to love others and ourselves.  For our purposes love will be defined as a positive, warm, affectionate feeling.  When we love someone we feel warmly toward him or her, and feel affection (tender attachment and fondness) toward him or her, and it feels good. Similarly when we love ourselves, we feel warmly and affectionate toward ourselves.  (Love is not painful or negative.)  (In our society “love” is usually assumed to include passion or desire, but that kind of love is not particularly relevant for self-esteem.)

Applying this to loving ourselves, we can enjoy being with ourselves, because we are interesting to ourselves and because we are a source of good feelings and pleasant experiences for ourselves.  We can want good things for ourselves and feel deserving in general.  We can want ourselves to be happy, to have things go well for us, and to prosper.  We feel great pain when we harm ourselves.

Unfortunately, people with poor self-esteem, including many who have experienced racial prejudice, don’t love themselves—a problem that must be corrected.  You are lovable right now, just the way you are!  You and everyone else deserve any love that is available in the world, regardless of any descriptors or criteria including race.  You don’t have to prove anything or meet any standard in order to receive unconditional love or to love yourself.  True love is not given for meeting standards.

Self-rejection, self-criticism, and non-acceptance of self are the primary barriers to loving yourself, often embodied in the belief that you are “not good enough to be loved.”  You must give up your familiar identity as unlovable, so that you can love yourself.  Continuing to reject any parts of yourself means continuing your hatred and rejection of yourself as a whole.

Don’t try to love yourself for being what someone else wants you to be, since what you do to please someone else is only a small part of you and not a fundamental or creative part.  You can be pleased with yourself for benefiting yourself by pleasing others, but you can only love yourself for being your own true self.

You may want someone else to prove that you are lovable by loving you, but insisting that someone else love you before you try to love yourself is self-defeating.  The best way to get love from others in the present is to treat yourself in loving ways.

Loving yourself is not conceit or selfishness but rather having the same compassionate and loving attitude toward yourself that you (hopefully) have toward others that you care about.  This means caring about your feelings and welfare and wanting the best for yourself.

Loving yourself enables you to love others as well.  This affectionate love is inherently giving rather than self-centered, so loving yourself cannot be separated from loving others.  Feeling love for yourself is the door to being truly giving to others.  Also, love is not self-sacrifice, and self-sacrifice is not automatically love.  Love for yourself must want what is truly good for you. 

Your own love can be the best love there is.  Others can leave you, but no one can take your love for yourself away from you.

You do not have to be perfect to love yourself. Just as you can love others and know their imperfections at the same time, you can love yourself just as you are and still know that there are things about yourself that you dislike or wish to change.

You may think that your own love for yourself is worthless, because you are worthless, but in fact you are worthwhile and valuable, and your love can feel good.  Whether your parents loved you or didn’t love you cannot be allowed to define whether you are lovable.  You are lovable, just the way you are.  There is a voice in you which believes that you are worthwhile and valuable–pay attention to it.

Ideally, our love for others (and ourselves) can generalize to become a loving attitude toward everyone and toward life itself.  You probably know certain people who seem to have this generally loving attitude, and they make the world a better place. This general attitude of love is rooted in love for oneself.   (See the essay on love in www.livewiselydeeply.com for a more complete discussion and for methods to improve your ability to love yourself and others.)

Allowing yourself to feel love for yourself may bring up some painful memories of other times when you were not loved.  Let yourself cry and grieve over those, accept that they were not your fault, and let the past go.  You have better things to do with the rest of your life than to hold onto an unhappy past.

Practice loving yourself by feeling the love you feel for someone else and then while you are feeling that love, turn its focus onto yourself so that you are the one you love.  Extend this practice by taking both the role of the one who loves and the one who is loved, alternating back and forth between these roles, so that you love yourself and in response to that you feel loved.

Solidify your love for yourself by actualizing it in everyday life.  Do one nice thing for yourself every day.  Affirm your love for yourself at least three times a day.  Tell yourself that you love yourself, in a mirror if possible (which may feel odd at first), and feel the warmth and good feeling that love gives.

You are lovable just as you are, and you do all sorts of wonderful things for yourself.  You can be your own best friend, lover, supporter, and advocate.  You are the person who should treat yourself better than anyone else treats you.  To be aware of such a wonderful and important person in your life would naturally bring up love and other positive feelings.  Allow yourself the gift of loving yourself well!

In order to move toward a better society, those who have prejudiced ideas and feelings must learn to love those whom they have despised.  This is no mean feat, of course, but getting to really know some good people you have despised will help a great deal to melt the prejudice.

Alter Your Standards and Expectations of Yourself So That They Are Humane and Reasonable

As finite human beings, we need standards, rules, and expectations to guide our behavior and help us make good decisions for our lives.  However, standards become a problem for self-esteem when people try to follow inappropriate standards or expect things of themselves that are inappropriate or impossible and then criticize themselves for not being able to do those things, or when they try to live up to appropriate standards or expectations but are inappropriately harsh and punitive with themselves when they fail.  

Standards are not automatically “right” or appropriate just because someone in authority (priests, judges, teachers, parents) says that they are.  Since standards are constructed or enunciated by fallible human beings, some standards are constructed in bad faith–that is, it is pretended that they are fair and appropriate, when in fact they are designed to benefit someone else inappropriately.  Since standards are not automatically right, it is more helpful to look at most standards as being either useful or not useful, rather than right or wrong.

In order to deal more adaptively with standards, we must (1) free ourselves from inappropriate standards we have held for ourselves; (2) determine our own standards for ourselves instead of accepting others’ standards for us; and (3) ensure that our standards for ourselves are fair, objective, reasonable, realistic, humane, and compassionate. 

In order to make your standards more humane and appropriate, first question all standards, so that you may determine whether you find them to be appropriate and useful for you or not.  A standard that says that Black persons should as a group not be respected or given basic respect because they are inferior is an illegitimate standard designed to give advantage others to the disadvantage of Black persons.

Two kinds of inappropriate standards to reject and/or revise are (a) standards that we learned (usually in childhood) but did not realize were inappropriate at the time (such as “you should always get less than your brother” and “be especially careful not to make white people angry”), and (b) standards that we appropriately adopted in childhood that are no longer appropriate for us as adults (such as “always defer to authority”).  Three specific, harmful but common standards to reject are–(1) “it is my responsibility to keep certain others from feeling bad even at the expense of my happiness and self-esteem;” (2) “in order to be acceptable I must be perfect;” and (3) “anyone can achieve anything they want to if they just work hard enough at it.”  Anyone who tries to live up to these standards is going to suffer.

If you find a standard to be inappropriate for you, then work to change it, or reject it and adopt a more appropriate standard for yourself–one that is fair, objective, reasonable, realistic, humane, and compassionate.

If you change your standards, it is likely that someone else will object because they liked how things were before (when they were benefiting from you trying to live up to inappropriate standards).  Be prepared to give up relationships which are bad for your self-esteem and in which the other party cannot accept you as an equal.  Work on accepting yourself as the rightful determiner of your new and more appropriate standards. 

If you sometimes fail to live up to your own chosen, appropriate standards, be humane and compassionate in your response to yourself.  Understand why you did what you did, decide whether to correct it and how to correct it, carry out your resolutions, and forgive yourself for doing what you did.  Using harmful guilt and excessive self-punishments when you fail to live up to standards damages your self-esteem and is not a helpful way to deal with this.

We are so dependent on being told when it is justified to feel good about ourselves that it may feel very difficult at first when you jettison all of what you have decided are inappropriate standards for you.  If you need the support of an externally determined standard in evaluating yourself (temporarily, while you are adjusting your standards to be what you want them to be), then use the following–you are entitled to feel good about yourself and satisfied with yourself if at least (1) you have made use of your abilities with reasonable effort and diligence in trying to support and take care of yourself (and those who are legitimately dependent on you, such as your children), and (2) you have treated yourself and others decently and fairly and not knowingly harmed yourself or others.  You are free to set higher and more specific standards for yourself, of course, but these two are sufficient for “justifying” a positive evaluation of yourself, and you should not harm your own self-esteem for failures to live up to standards that are any higher or more demanding than this.

Most of us learn as children to feel bad about ourselves and to assume that we must be wrong if significant others are unhappy with us.  As adults we can see this more objectively—that others are often inappropriately upset with us and that the upset of others is usually not our fault anyway.  You must take back your right to be the primary determiner of whether you think that your behavior has been wrong or inappropriate.  Don’t automatically feel bad about yourself for not meeting the standards, rules, or expectations of others.

Cultures differ in what they view as acceptable though undesirable.  In U. S. culture, for example, a car salesman lying about a car he is selling is viewed as acceptable even if it is wrong.  Take care that you don’t simply assume that whatever the standards were in your home growing up, they are acceptable to anyone outside your home.  They may have been enforced by parental power or racial group myth, but that does not make them acceptable.  The family standard that your older brother is favored over you in all things, or that your father’s orders are never to be questioned, are not acceptable standards.

Those who are still prejudiced against Black people must question whether the standards supported by prejudiced views can be justified.  This will lead to admitting that there have been tremendous negative consequences of their prejudice for Black people, which should lead to recognition that the prejudice should be reconsidered.

Do What Is Truly Best For Yourself

Many people try to control their behavior (and be “good”) by monitoring themselves constantly and by employing harsh self-punishments to try to “make” themselves be “good” and avoid doing anything “bad” or “wrong.”  Because they did not feel loved and accepted, many people with poor self-esteem have come to believe that they must have done something wrong or are “wrong” simply for being who they are, and they develop a habit of constantly looking for and trying to figure out what is wrong with them, so that they can punish themselves for it.  Many people are also ambivalent about doing what is “right”—a part of them wishes to “be good” and treat others appropriately, but another part of them wants to take whatever they want regardless of the consequences to others. 

A useful solution to all of these internal conflicts is to do what is truly best for yourself in all circumstances, as a means of controlling your own behavior, instead of doing it through harsh self-punishment!  Doing what is truly best for you does not mean doing whatever you want to do in the moment.  Instead, it means doing what will be best for you when all of the long-term as well as the short-term consequences of your behavior are added up, including how others react to you because of how you have treated them.  Since this type of “doing what is best for you” takes others’ feelings and needs into account, it is prosocial and not selfish, and since it promotes planning and sometimes delaying immediate gratification for longer term gains, it does not encourage impulsiveness or hedonism.

Doing what is truly best for you does not mean doing what authority figures want you to do.  This is not an appeal to you to “be a good boy or girl.”  You must decide what is going to be good for you as well as what is appropriate behavior and what is not, rather than relying on the rules and standards that others give you

Circumstances in the area of racial prejudice that deserve application of this concept by both white and Black persons include abandoning prejudice (in order to achieve a happier society), rejecting what we have been taught about the other side and now thinking for ourselves about them, and deciding whether to engage in violence as a means of protest.  Abandoning prejudice will mean a happier society but has a price of interacting with real persons instead of myths about the other side.  Rejecting what we have been taught can lead to a happier society for all but has a price of leaving some aspects of tradition and loyalty to elders behind.  Refraining from violence will speed reconciliation but at the price of containing aggressive expression of the rage one feels.  Consider what is truly best for yourself in these choices.

In order to make this system of self-control work well for everyone in society, we must believe that we will be better off if we treat others well, rather than trying to get all we can from them even if it harms them.  (Otherwise, “do what is best for yourself” will become “might makes right.”)  We must believe that by respecting others, being honest and trustworthy, and honoring others’ basic equality, we will improve our future rewards because of the kind of relationships we are creating.  We must also have strong capacities for self-control and for delaying gratification (giving up an immediate benefit in order to gain a greater benefit in the future).

It can often be best for yourself to refrain from acting, even when you feel like insulting your mother-in-law, and it may be best for yourself to study several hours every night so that you can earn your degree, when what you would really like to do is party.  It may be best for yourself to let others have their way sometimes and to share equally with others, when deep down you’d like to have your own way (and the biggest piece of pie) all the time. 

To give up these more immediate pleasures for the sake of the bigger picture and of future gains requires the ability to value and “feel” in anticipation those future rewards just as much as we value and “feel” current rewards.  Work on being able to imagine future rewards so that they seem just as real to you as your imagined image of current rewards.

If you do things against what you believe will be best for you, you will end up hating yourself (or becoming crazy), because in fact you are harming yourself.  If you violate your own chosen standards, then you violate your own conscience, and you create inner conflict, self-distrust, self-disrespect, and lowered self-esteem.

A special application of doing what is best for you is dealing with addiction.  The only way to truly manage an addiction is to truly and resoundingly know what is best for you–that refraining from the addictive behavior is in fact going to be best for you rather than doing the addictive behavior, and to know this even while you are tempted to engage in the addictive behavior.  You cannot have it both ways.  The overall outcome of engaging in the addictive behavior must be so real and negative in your mind when you decide whether to engage in the behavior that you strongly wish to avoid it.  This visualization of outcomes, together with the self-discipline to not give in to your own self-manipulations to fool yourself into giving yourself the immediate gratification of the addictive behavior, are what is needed to overcome an addiction.

Treat Yourself Well

Self-esteem is built and maintained by treating yourself well, doing what is truly best for yourself, and ensuring that others treat you reasonably well.  Every time you do something gratifying for yourself (getting yourself a glass of water, taking yourself to a movie, saying “no” to a request that could result in harm to you, standing up for yourself), you make your feelings about yourself (your self-esteem) just a little bit more positive and you respect yourself more.

Meet your needs acceptably (which affirms your worth and value).  Don’t confuse needs with wants, and don’t make your expectations unreasonably high.  Don’t rely on having most of your needs met by others.  Receiving from others may feel good, but it is not as dependable as your own caring for yourself.

Be responsible and trustworthy toward yourself, so you can trust yourself.  If you are not responsible and trustworthy toward yourself, work on your difficulty believing that you deserve good treatment, or on the split between your more responsible side and your more immature side which induces you to do things that are not always in your best interest.

Do what is best for you and what is in your best interest.  Take good care of yourself.  Pay attention to yourself and your needs and ensure your safety.  Use appropriate care and caution when making decisions for yourself and carrying out your actions.

Treat yourself with respect.  Make your needs just as important as the needs of others.

Accept yourself, and stop criticizing and blaming yourself.  You don’t deserve the criticism and blame, and you can control your behavior more positively by doing what is truly best for yourself, instead of relying on criticizing and blaming yourself in order to control your behavior. 

Love yourself.  Be affectionate and loving toward yourself.  Nourish yourself with self-love.  Do at least one nice thing for yourself each day.  At least three times every day, tell yourself that you love you (in a mirror, if possible).  As an insight exercise, every five minutes for a whole day, ask yourself what it would be like if you had a loving attitude toward yourself at that moment.       

Comfort yourself when you need it.  Be sympathetic toward yourself.  Feel bad for yourself when you are hurt.  Feel compassion for yourself and your pain.  “Be there” for yourself whenever you need comfort and support.  Give yourself reassurance.  Soothe yourself.  Calm yourself.  Do things for yourself that are comforting to you.  Seek support from others if necessary.

Contribute to your well-being, welfare, and happiness.  Pay attention to what will make you feel good and to what will be best for you.  Add meaning, satisfaction, and fulfillment to your life, in addition to pleasure.

Be nice to yourself.  Think actively of nice things to do for yourself.  Be kind to yourself.  Be sympathetic toward yourself.  Feel for yourself.  Be gentle with yourself.  Don’t upset yourself.  Be forbearing and tolerant with yourself.  Accept errors, mistakes, and frailties as an inevitable part of being human (while also sincerely planning to do better).  Accept how you really are with grace.  Be agreeable with yourself, and look for ways to minimize tension, conflict, and disagreement for yourself.  Be just as nice to yourself as you would like to be to others you love.

If you have experienced unfair discrimination, you may have to work extra hard to really believe that you deserve better, but you can convince yourself of your worthiness by treating yourself well.  Do good things for yourself.  Don’t just think about it. Every day, think of good things you could do for yourself.  Choose one, and plan it, and do it!

Ensure That You Are Treated Well By Others

If you are to maintain good self-esteem, you must do all you reasonably can to elicit good treatment from others.  It is particularly important for your self-esteem that you are treated with respect, that you are given equal treatment with others, and that others take care not to harm you.  Standing up for your equality and your right to basic respect is especially important if you are experiencing unfair discrimination such as racial prejudice.

Let others know that you will stand up for yourself, which communicates that you expect to be treated well.  Be assertive about your needs.  In order to be effortlessly assertive, you must believe in your right to exist, your right to be yourself, your basic equality with others, and your equal right to the good things available in life.  Asserting yourself will not always produce the results you want, but the fact that others do not respond to your requests does not imply that you have no right to have your needs fulfilled.  Note that asserting your needs and rights (to respect, etc.) need not escalate to violence.  You can stay calm and reassert yourself as if what you are asking is so reasonable and appropriate that it is unreasonable and inappropriate for anyone not to give you what you claim.

Since human beings feel a pull to reciprocate, if you treat others well, it will move them toward treating you well.  The important elements in treating others well have been outlined in the above.

  • understand others so you know what makes them feel good
  • develop and utilize your empathy abilities to understand others deeply
  • develop your social skills so you can interact easily and comfortably, particularly clearly communicating your needs and smoothing out conflicts
  • have a positive attitude toward others (approach others positively, expect and hope for the best, treat others in a way that invites them to reciprocate and treat you well, too)
  • treat others with respect at all times
  • treat others with compassion
  • be honest with others
  • be responsible with others
  • treat others as equals (don’t try to take advantage of them)
  • treat others fairly (hold yourself to the same standards that you expect of others)
  • cooperate readily and competently (treat everyone as a team member, choose goals that will benefit everyone, contribute specific skills to the joint venture, make your contributions toward the goal meld easily with those of others, dependably and responsibly carry out what you have agreed to, stick to the initial agreement fairly)
  • when plans and decisions are made, find ways that everyone can benefit
  • have self-control so you can avoid hurting others and can inhibit your own behavior as needed in order not to act impulsively
  • manage your emotions well, to avoid upsetting others while still standing up for yourself

Those who have grown up in or who live in environments where everyone lies frequently may find it hard to comprehend what it would be like if everyone told the truth most of the time, but truthfulness creates a much more relaxed and comfortable social environment, and knowing reality accurately enables us to get what we want more of the time.

You can practice compassion in the same manner advised above for developing your love for yourself.  Identify some other person or persons to focus on.  Contact a place within yourself where you feel warm and positive, and focus on the other person while feeling that warm, positive feeling, including them in that warm, positive space.  Attend carefully to that person, with interest, in order to empathically understand his situation and feelings, including feelings of distress or suffering.  Take time to see the whole person and understand him comprehensively.  Relate to that person through your memory of having had similar feelings yourself.  Let concern for the other person arise in your feelings, and be aware of your desire for his distress to be alleviated.  In order to make compassion a central part of your personality, try to maintain this concern and warm, positive stance toward everyone you interact with, as well the other people in the world.

If you are experiencing prejudice, you are almost certainly angry and probably feel like hurting others to even up the score, but you will advance your personal cause more by treating others well and proving to them that they can trust you and be comfortable around you.  This puts more burden on you than on them, of course, but you have to choose whether you want to advance or get revenge.  (Perhaps success is the best revenge?) Treating others well is the compassionate and loving approach to relationships, and it will also maximize your success and happiness to treat others in ways that they like, which will motivate them to help you to get more of what you want. 

Alter any punishing relationships you are in so that you are treated decently.  In order to maintain your self-respect and the respect of others, it is important that you not accept mistreatment, including behavior by others toward you that damages your self-esteem.  If you cannot change the harmful behavior of another person (through communicating clearly and inviting better relating), then it is advisable for you to leave the relationship, even if that means reducing or severing ties with the other person or persons, even if they are family members.

If there are those who will not treat you well, no matter what you try, then consider looking elsewhere to find new, more supportive, affirming, and gratifying relationships.  There are many people in the world who can appreciate you and treat you well, and you deserve this kind of treatment in your relationships.

Assert your worth and value in response to cultural and societal attitudes that act against self-esteem and equality.  Oppose all attitudes which seek to elevate some at the expense of others, and speak out against them when you can.  Don’t accept demeaning and wrong attitudes, no matter who holds them, and work within yourself to stay clear on your fundamental value and worth.

(For more on how to achieve these principles, see my book “How To Feel Good About Yourself:  Twelve Key Steps To Positive Self-Esteem,” 2003,  ISBN 978-0-615-24647-5, e-book ISBN 978-1-7923-3677-5.)