By Jody Kerzman

If there’s one thing I remember my mom drilling into my head like only a mom can, it’s the importance of having a high self esteem. I think I was probably the only 11-year-old in the state that actually knew what “self esteem” even was. Her lectures continued through high school, college, and even into my adult life. They used to completely annoy me, but as I get older, and raise my own daughters, I finally get it. Selfesteem is important, especially for women and young girls.

As women, we are hard on ourselves. We never think we are smart enough, thin enough, crafty enough, and so on. It’s easy to get wrapped up in the comparison game – how does the woman down the street work full time, raise five kids, volunteer at her kids’ school, and still find time to run marathons and make a healthy homemade meal every night? In comparison, those three loads of laundry you washed, dried, and folded, but still haven’t managed to put away, make you feel like a complete slacker.

Dr. Marie Schaaf Gallagher is a psychologist at Sanford Health in Bismarck. She defines self-esteem as the value we place on ourselves. If you have a high selfesteem, you feel pretty good about yourself. If your selfesteem is low, you may think you can’t do anything right (Remember those piles of laundry?). Comparing yourself to the mom down the street is a dangerous habit, because often, you only see one side of the story. You may see a woman who appears to have the perfect life, but you might not see that she’s actually struggling to keep it all together.

Dr. Marie Schaaf Gallagher

Dr. Marie Schaaf Gallagher

“Balance is so important. None of us are going to be the best at everything, but we’re not going to be the worst at everything either.”

She says figuring out what you’re good at and what you like about yourself does wonders for that balance and for your selfesteem, which improves your overall health.

“If we don’t value ourselves we’re not going to do things to take care of ourselves. Eventually we get run down and run into all sorts of problems physically and mentally,” Dr. Schaaf Gallagher explains. “It spirals, and it can spiral very quickly. Low selfesteem is very much a part of depression, anxiety, can lead to physical problems, and health issues. Taking care of ourselves physically – getting proper rest, eating a healthy diet, making time for exercise and things we enjoy – is important. There are lots of people who don’t even take five minutes in the day to just take a moment, take a break. The more time we can dedicate to selfcare the more we show that we are valuable.”

Because feeling like you’re not valuable can lead to depression. Schaaf Gallagher warns that it is important to know the difference between low selfesteem and depression and to realize when you need to seek additional help. There are some signs to look for that often signal a low self esteem has sunk into a depression. They include:

  • missing a lot of work or school,
  • not keeping up on hygiene,
  • quitting activities, you enjoy,
  • a drop in grades or work performance, and
  • crying for no reason.

“If anyone ever says life is not worth living that is a huge red flag that we need to get them help,” she adds. “Low selfesteem can be part of depression and just because you have low self esteem doesn’t mean you have depression, but we need to know the difference so we can get people the help that they need.”

She says depression is usually very treatable. Addressing low self esteem before it becomes depression is ideal, though. Dr. Schaaf Gallagher says the first step is lowering our external expectations of ourselves.

“Our external selfesteem is based on how we look, our weight, or how other people respond to us. Anytime we don’t get that external positive feedback, our self esteem suffers,” she explains.

While the world is very focused on what’s on the outside, she recommends shifting your focus to what’s on the inside, because when we focus more on internal selfesteem and what we say to ourselves, we become more resistant to how the world might see us. Remember, it really is what’s on the inside that matters most.

That’s an important message for all women to remember, and especially for moms. Schaaf Gallagher says moms play a crucial role in their children’s self esteem. Her advice: practice what you preach.

“You have to model for them, show them how to have a high self esteem,” she explains. “Kids are very good at seeing what we do, and knowing the difference between what we say and what we do. We need to be really careful about the messages we give our daughters. If say ‘I’m fat,’ she will hear that and think if she doesn’t look a certain way you won’t love her. Instead, comment on how good she looks, or on the effort they put into an assignment.”

Finally, while my mom was right about the importance of having a high self esteem, Schaaf Gallagher cautions against bringing others down to make yourself feel better. Words hurt, so it’s important to be careful what you say, to others as well as to yourself.