This is the last in a series of eight articles on Productive Thinking. The series aims to address the challenges that Muslims face on many levels when it comes to productivity — namely the mental, the emotional and the physical. It aims to tackle thinking and mindset on the mental level, negative emotions like anxiety, stress, low self-esteem and fear on the emotional level, and habits on the physical level. Earlier instalments: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7
This article covers one of the most crucial aspects in leading a productive life. It ties in with your fears and affects your relationship with your Creator. It also affects your health, relationships and success in this life and in the hereafter.
Aspects of Self-esteem
Understanding self-esteem requires an understanding two of its constituent parts: Being enough and being worthy.
This means having a certain confidence and trust in ourselves that we are indeed enough to not only face and overcome any challenges, but also to succeed and thrive in any given situation or opportunity that comes our way.
This is not a trust in one’s self alone. A major part of it is trust in Allah . Indeed it is His promise that He will not test us with anything that we cannot handle or overcome.
“Allah does not charge a soul except [with that within] its capacity. It will have [the consequence of] what [good] it has gained, and it will bear [the consequence of] what [evil] it has earned. “Our Lord, do not impose blame upon us if we have forgotten or erred. Our Lord, and lay not upon us a burden like that which You laid upon those before us. Our Lord, and burden us not with that which we have no ability to bear. And pardon us; and forgive us; and have mercy upon us. You are our protector, so give us victory over the disbelieving people.”” [Qur’an: Chapter 2, Verse 286]
Having a sense of self-worth and gratitude with respect to the Blessings Allah has bestowed upon us is a healthy state of mind. That we are worthy of a great life — of a healthy and prosperous life, of a happy and productive life — is a state quite different from maintaining a sense of entitlement.
Our self-worth must be based on our iman and our connection with Allah and in recognising that we are the best of His creation. We walk tall on two feet and have our hands so we can perform useful acts.
Verily, We created man of the best stature (mould), (Qur’an: Chapter 95, Verse 4)
Every single one of us is created with a purpose.
“Did you think that We had created you in play (without any purpose), and that you would not be brought back to Us?” (Qur’an: Chapter 23, Verse 115)
Allah honours the face of human beings.
Abu Huraira reported Allah’s Messenger as saying: When any one of you fights with his brother he should avoid striking at the face. (Sahih Muslim)
Allah gave us eyes and ears to see and hear with. He gave us the ability to communicate and express ourselves. He gave us intellect and free will so we can think, learn and decide for ourselves. He guided us to the straight path and made us a part of the ummah of Prophet Muhammad . What could be more honourable than that?
It is Allah who created the heavens and the earth and sent down rain from the sky and produced thereby some fruits as provision for you and subjected for you the ships to sail through the sea by His command and subjected for you the rivers. (Qur’an: Chapter 14, Verse 32)
Every human being is significant and needs to be honoured. And it starts with honouring and accepting ourselves. Allah is the All-seeing, All-knowing One who Owns our hearts and Sustains us. He is the One who has Power over all things. He does not ask and does not need permission from anyone to put us here on earth. He is the One who knows our mistakes, our shortcomings, our plans, and our secret desires and ambitions. Every passing second is a second chance to turn back, to start over with a clean slate. We do not need anyone else’s permission or approval to be here, to be great or to do great things.
If we are being tested with the same tests repeatedly, then there is something we ought to learn from them. That is a sign that He cares about us; a sign that He wants to raise our station. He guides us like a good teacher who loves and cares about his students, wishing for them to master important lessons before moving on to newer ones.
Importance of Healthy Self-Esteem
Healthy self-esteem is the basis of confidence. Looking at the Be–Do–Have model, we see that confidence is at the Doing level. We do not need confidence if we are not going to do anything or take any action. We do not need confidence to sit and veg out in front of the TV.
At the Being level, we need to have a healthy self-esteem. If we do not have healthy self-esteem, we do not believe we can have great visionary ideas nor think that we are worthy enough to go on to do great things in life. So we tend to set small goals, act mediocre and play small.
Signs of Low Self-Esteem
Listed below are a few telltale signs of a person with low self-esteem:
- Being judgemental
- Cannot say ‘No’
- Cannot forgive people
- Hold grudges
- Always putting others ahead of you
- Always putting yourself ahead of others
- Finding fault and being critical
- Always comparing yourself with others
- Takes things too personally
- Always putting others down
- Always putting yourself down
- Constantly worry about what others think about you
- People pleasing
- Guilt tripping people
- Having a lot of fears — fear of failure, rejection etc
- Always saying not having time to exercise or do things that make you happy or inspire you
- Being overweight or cannot keep it off (in most cases)
- You cannot stop working or doing things
Effects of Not Having Healthy Self-Esteem
It affects our relationship with Allah if we are not happy with what He Blesses us with. It affects our health, as we tend not to care for our own well being. Not having a healthy self-esteem forces one to put the needs of others above one’s own. It affects our family, relationships and marriage as we are unable to maintain a healthy boundary. We are often overly critical and generally judgemental. Our professional lives are affected too as we constantly feel stressed out. We do not go for promotions nor reach out and seize opportunities.
And most important of all, we end up conditioning our children or influencing those under our care to have the same self-esteem–related problems that we face!
Self-Confidence is Not Arrogance
Arrogance is assuming that we are the only one who can do something and not recognising that it is Allah who enables us and Blesses us with the ability.
Self-confidence comes when we are aware of our strengths and abilities. It comes when we acknowledge our blessings and gifts, and do our best to utilise them. It comes from knowing that we can do anything with the guidance of Allah . And if we happen not to have the skills and abilities in the areas of our interests, self-confidence comes from knowing that we can work towards acquiring them.
Importance of Self-image
Self-image is how we see ourselves — our perception of ourselves.
Low self-esteem is a state when the regard and consideration for our self-image is distorted due to past decisions about certain events, what they meant and the conditioning of our environments in terms of how we should look, be or behave.
On a physical level, our self-image is that of our body-image, i.e. how we look or appear physically. This is what most people focus on when it comes to self-image and self-esteem. When we do not like the way we look, we tend not to like ourselves and do not accept ourselves for who we really are.
Focusing solely on improving the body image and being obsessed with it is dangerous because it is superficial. That was the arrogance of shaytan who judged Adam as being inferior to himself, since Allah created shaytan from fire and Adam from clay.
[Iblis (shaytan)] said: “I am better than he, You created me from fire, and You created him from clay.” (Qur’an: Chapter 38, Verse 76)
On a psychological, emotional and spiritual level, there could be statements like, “I’m not good enough. I’m not smart enough”, “I don’t deserve to be happy because I’m not perfect”, “I don’t deserve the blessings. I’m not pious enough. I don’t deserve a great life,” so on and so forth …
But the key is not to compare yourself with others. Be your true self — you are unique. What you cannot change physically, accept and own it. Allah Made you the way you are. Focus on being productive, not on being perfect. Focus on changing what warrants change and stop being judgemental about those that cannot be changed.
Focus on being healthy.
Causes of Low Self-esteem
Most self-esteem–related issues go back to the events that occurred during childhood and teenage years. The first stage of childhood, ages between 0–7, is called the imprinting period.
During this phase, children are very curious. They absorb and learn from everything around them. They believe anything because their critical faculties have not developed yet. They take everything personally. Based on what they are experiencing around them, they learn to believe how the world works.
Children want to be like their parents, so they look up to them. They want to please their parents and so they seek attention and validation from them. Being abandoned, put down, ridiculed or being made wrong at these early stages of a child’s development causes significant emotional impact.
Those experiences and their memories tend to become lasting beliefs, albeit essentially flawed. Children will tend to generalise every similar event that occurs in the future and store it as evidence to reaffirm those beliefs.
On the other hand, unconditional love for children is very important. If parents withdraw their love, using that as a tactic to discipline children, they learn that they are being loved only when they perform or behave in a certain way. Separate the person from the behaviour — the person is loved and accepted no matter what, but not the behaviour.
Make the distinction between “YOU MADE a mistake” and “YOU ARE a mistake”. Distinguish “WHAT YOU DID was bad and unacceptable” from “YOU ARE bad and unacceptable”.
Repeated use of harsh criticisms, domineering behaviour, name calling, degrading nicknames, negative comments and criticisms, and abuse from people who have significant impact add to the emotional wounds inflicted in early childhood.
These derogatory nicknames, comments and bad treatment meted out to them become their identity and core beliefs in many cases. They begin to act according to their beliefs. These subconscious, limiting beliefs act as possibility-filters and everything they do becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. They perpetuate the cycle confirming and reaffirming the self-limiting beliefs. No wonder it is “hard to change” if we do not change at the core.
Rigid self-limiting beliefs result in outcomes such as studying only to get just enough marks to confirm our limiting belief that we are “not smart enough” or looking for jobs that pay just enough confirming our limiting belief that we are “not good enough”. We will keep on finding the same people who will push the same emotional buttons confirming our limiting beliefs about “how people are”.
Self-esteem is like a thermostat. We will only be as healthy, happy, productive and successful as our level of self-esteem allows us to be. That is our comfort zone. That is our self-imposed limit — the limit of who we think we can be, of what we think we can do, of what we think we can have.
Tips to Build And Boost Self-esteem
- Tawbah, first and always. Know that once we make a sincere repentance, we have to believe that Allah has already forgiven us. After that, it is about us forgiving and being gentle with ourselves.
- Work on your iman and your relationship with Allah . It starts with your knowledge of Allah . Do your best with the time that you have.
- Consciously work on expanding your comfort zone. Our level of self-esteem is directly proportional to the size of our comfort zone. The bigger it is, the more self-esteem we will have, In sha Allah.
- Focus on serving people and not on pleasing them. Make people feel good about themselves. That is how our Prophet treated people. He made them feel that they were the most important people. He turned his whole body and paid full attention to people when they asked him a question. He never made anyone feel small — he was always smiling, generous and forgiving with his people.
- It is important to be selective about the company you keep.
Narrated Abu Huraira: The Prophet said: “A man follows the religion of his friend; so each one should consider whom he makes his friend.” (Sunan Abi Dawud)
Be mindful of how our friends are influencing us? Do they support our positive change and growth? Or are they always being negative and putting us down? Be aware of what we let into our hearts via our senses of seeing and hearing.
- Do not seek approval from people. We need to be real and truthful about ourselves. Always consider who it is that are we trying to please? Do we yearn or seek acceptance from people? Memorise the dua below for protection from riya-’a as taught to us by our Prophet :
“Allahumma innaa na’udhu bika an-nushrika bika shay’an na’lamuhu, wa nastagfiruka limaa laa na’lamuh.
O Allah, we seek refuge in you from committing shirk knowingly, and ask your forgiveness for (the shirk that we may commit unknowingly.
We have to accept ourselves wholeheartedly. We cannot expect to change what we do not accept, or are in denial of. Our parents will love us no matter what. Our real friends will accept us for who we are. Our siblings really do not care how we look… But do we accept ourselves? It comes down to self acceptance.
Allah has given us each a free mind; to decide, to explore… If we made a mistake we must acknowledge it, learn from it, apologise for it, cry about it if we have to and do whatever else we need to do… Then move on! Allah has promised us that He will forgive us.
Anas ibn Malik reported: The Messenger of Allah said: Allah says: O son of Adam, however much you call upon Me and place your hopes in Me, I will forgive you without any reservation. O son of Adam, if you have sins piling up to the clouds and then ask My forgiveness, I will forgive you without any reservation. O son of Adam, if you come to me with enough sins to fill the earth, and meet Me without associating anything as a partner with Me, I will come to you with enough forgiveness to fill the earth. (Sunan At-Tirmidhi, Hadith Qudsi 34)
If we trust in Allah’s promise that He does not test us with more than what we can handle, then we can rest assured that we are enough to handle all our challenges. We can be certain we have enough resources within us to take action and achieve the goals that we are after.
- Take decisions and follow through. Learn to take more decisions. Be OK with getting things wrong. Learn from the mistakes, accept yourself and move on. Most of us wait to be perfect and not take action. In any endeavour, we have to take the first step.
- Build success reference points. It is important to have goals. Start taking actions once you have broken them down into plans and projects. Take small, steady steps everyday. Celebrate and journal your successes.
- Set healthy boundaries. We are always teaching people how to treat us. Empower yourself by stop giving your power away. Nobody can make you feel inferior without your permission. So learn to say “No” when necessary.
Do not let people degrade you. And most importantly, do not do it to yourself by talking to yourself in a degrading way. Be very careful about the adjectives you use after “I am …”
- Separate your behaviour from your identity. Become aware of how you talk to yourself in your mind. Start becoming aware of the voice in your head that criticises you when you mess things up. Usually it is the voice of your parents, family members, teachers or peers.
- Attitude towards body image: can we change it? If the answer is ‘no’, then we need to accept it. If we can do something to change it, then we must start by taking relevant actions. Focus on what we have control over! If one is overweight and unhappy about it, then one must educate oneself about exercise and nutrition. Then start taking action and start moving. If we do not move physically and flex our muscles, we do not lose weight!
It is also important to understand that based on certain limiting beliefs and emotional traumas, we unconsciously put on weight to protect ourselves and keep ourselves away from people. This escape response ties in with our self-esteem issues and our innate nature to keep ourselves safe.
Start an exercise programme. Programmes like Six-Pack Shortcuts, Body for Life, or P90X are excellent ones that include detailed workout plans, meal plans and everything else that you need to get fit. Intensive exercise regimes help regulate your brain chemicals and boost mental health. Physical transformation is a foundation for building solid self-esteem.
- If you have been physically or sexually abused, it is imperative you seek help and ultimately heal from these traumas. Talk to qualified practitioners or psychologists. You need to heal because these emotional traumas are at the root of your self-esteem problems.
Of all the things you may have gained from this article, I would like you to focus on forgiveness, love and mercy.
Forgive yourself and forgive the people who have inflicted injustices on you. They behaved the way they did because that is probably all they know from the way they were raised or conditioned. But you are the one with the awareness now and you will have to be the one to break the cycle. Stop passing it forward onto the next generation.
We have examined the importance of having a healthy self-esteem and how it affects every part of our life. With this we conclude the 8-part Productive Thinking Series. If you have enjoyed the article and the series please share your thoughts and questions in comments below. I look forward to hearing from you.
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