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  • Writer's pictureH. Paul Putman III, MD

Character Sketches: Living Our Values, Building Self-Esteem

Updated: Apr 27, 2022

Character is a vibrant word, referring to mental and moral qualities, a distinctive nature, strength, originality, and reputation. It can be synonymous with personality, disposition, or eccentricity. Overall, it implies a mentality: a characteristic way of thinking.[1]

Values are a person’s principles or standards of behavior, one’s judgement of what is important in life.[1] Values are not only attributable to an individual, however, but are also claimed by societies, in any form: civic, religious, cultural - any possible type of community. These standards can be imparted to us by education and example, but are not always consciously examined or chosen by the individual. Sometimes, a person goes through life attempting to emulate values adopted but not fully embraced. At other times, someone might be aware of his values, yet frequently behave contrary to them, consciously or unconsciously.

Rectitude, “correct” moral behavior, is an external measurement of how well one lives according to the community’s values. What interests us here, though, is how well a person lives according to his or her own values, chosen by that individual following honest and conscious examination from among those presented by society. We often refer to that as integrity or character, and it is what creates and maintains self-esteem.

William Bennett, in 1993, compiled The Book of Virtues: A Treasury Great Moral Stories,[2] a collection of hundreds of stories, to illustrate character and help adults learn to teach it to children. He identified responsibility, courage, compassion, honesty, friendship, persistence and faith axiomatically as essentials of good character. He followed this effort with more stories in more books, including The Moral Compass: Stories for a Life’s Journey,[3] The Children’s Book of Virtues,[4]and The Children’s Book of Heroes.[5] I continue to applaud Dr. Bennett’s prolific efforts to emphasize the important role character needs to play in our lives, and of the priority of helping the next generation identify and adopt values. The “virtues” he attempts to share are broadly considered desirable for society and, he illustrates, for the average individual. What must not be lost, however, is the important role choice has to play. Values adopted rotely, without examination and self-determination, can only contribute weakly to society and, as we will see, play havoc with our self-esteem.

This series will share information on understanding values and developing self-esteem. Self-esteem is a valuation of one’s self, and is bult and maintained by observing that our behavior is in concert with our values. As we link them, it will be profitable to also examine remarkable examples of contemporaries independently choosing often surprising behavior, based on their closely held personal values (as John F. Kennedy did in Profiles in Courage).[6] Even when these values align with society’s, the application may nevertheless be unconventional and unexpected.

In future posts, we will also discuss steps to build self-esteem: techniques helpful to a large number of my patients in psychotherapy over the last 30+ years, many of whom have encouraged me to share this information more broadly. We will discuss how to identify your values, how to make sure these are the ones you really want to choose, and how to use them to behave in ways that create good self-images, and therefore self-esteem. We will review mental exercises you can practice that will help develop a positive view of yourself, based on the values you consciously embrace and your corresponding behavior. We will also discuss what you can do with self-esteem once you have it.

Values, once clarified and chosen, can serve as the foundation for character, integrity and a positive view of ourselves; self-esteem is not a state, not just a description, but a tool we each need to negotiate life as effectively as we can, while enjoying it. To many it is a mystery, but actually it is mechanical; we can all learn steps for understanding and creating it.

[1] Oxford Languages, Oxford University Press,, accessed March 26, 2022. [2] William J. Bennett, ed. The Book of Virtues: A Treasury Great Moral Stories (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1993) [3] William J. Bennett, ed. The Moral Compass: Stories for a Lie’s Journey (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995) [4] William J. Bennett, ed., Michael Hague, illus. The Children’s Book of Virtues (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995) [5] William J. Bennett, , ed., Michael Hague, illus. The Children’s Book of Heroes (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997) [6] John F. Kennedy, Profiles in Courage (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., 2003)

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