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There are a few things we know about self-esteem – first up it is an opinion not a fact.

How we live our lives is profoundly effected by the way we view and feel about ourselves. These thoughts and opinions come from the experiences we have with our family, at school, from friendships and in wider society. Self-esteem involves our ability to think, to deal with life and to be happy.

From a young age we look for encouragement and approval. Yet our culture does not readily give this. Parents can be tough taskmasters in seeking the best for their children, as many of you may know. Young people have a tendency to be intolerant of difference and often mock their peers who are clever or hard working. There is a constant bombardment of messages telling us we should be young, slim, beautiful, fashionably dressed, have a lover and money to spend. Personal acknowledgement of ability and pride in oneself can be regarded as being arrogant, boastful, or conceited.

Rejection or loss at any age is likely to undermine self-esteem. Events like parents separating, a boy or girlfriend being unfaithful, being ostracised by friends or picked on by peers, dealing with an unsuccessful application, having an accident, a burglary, or coping with a death are likely to provoke feelings of loss and threat. For some this is temporary, while for others the effects are long-lasting.

Conversely, success is a great ego booster, and academic achievement can be an obvious signal of success. However, the wealth of talent and competitive environment of Cambridge can easily lead to self-doubt and insecurity. There is a lot of pressure on students to do well for the sake of family, College, and the University. You may even feel that other people over-estimate your ability and this burden of expectation can lead to a sense of failure and impossibility.

However, what we feel about ourselves is not based solely on what we do. It usually involves our relationships with others and whether we feel worthwhile as people. We have a basic human need to be wanted, noticed, and included. We want to contribute, to be of value, and make a difference – in other words to matter.

Our self-esteem will continually fluctuate and is affected by events and encounters with other people. We are also constantly judging and evaluating ourselves, often in comparison with others. Observing ourselves in relation to other people can be a helpful source of learning and feedback. Yet all too often comparison slips into competition and others become a yardstick by which we evaluate ourselves as good or bad, competent or inadequate.

The reality is we are all different. Each of us has strengths and limitations which we need to learn about and learn to live with. There are aspects of our behaviour and appearance we may seek to change or develop, but a sense of self is also based on self-awareness and self-acceptance.

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