Doubt Yourself Proudly: Tips on the Psychology of Self-Esteem
Why Self-Esteem isn't as Simple as it Seems (for Super-Awesome Folks)
“Self-Esteem” isn’t a simple matter.
It’s actually surprisingly complex.
Folks often think it’s straightforward and easy. Which is understandable, given the kind of environment we’re living in today.
But that can also lead to big problems. And in some cases, it has.
The basic idea behind “self-esteem” seems simple.
Let’s adopt the classic definition of self-esteem as simply “confidence, or a belief in one’s worth or abilities, or self-respect.”
Seems simple enough.
After all, we all want self-respect. We all want to be appreciated, to see ourselves – and be seen by others – as valuable, lovable, someone with dignity, someone able to look themselves in the mirror and be, on a deep level, all right with it. We all want to be comfortable in our own skin.
And we all want to avoid the opposite: looking foolish to ourselves or others, losing our self-respect, being shamed, or unappreciated, or seen as worthless or merely a victim, being treated as someone without dignity or respect. Nobody wants self-loathing or self-hatred or to be uncomfortable in their own skin. We all have inherent value, and should be treated that way, both by others and ourselves.
So we’re all in agreement on this.
We should be kind, caring, supportive, constructive, loving instead of critical, to others and ourselves.
So then, what’s the problem?
Well, as we’ll soon see, there are several.
It’s typically less about the ideas themselves, and more about us humans doing what we often do, which is 1) take something good, and then 2) taking it way too far.
Let’s rewind back to the beginning and go one step at a time.
Let’s start with one basic scenario.
Imagine a parent being mean to a young child.
Parent: “You’re bad, you’re worthless, and you’ll never amount to anything!”
This is the classic scenario that, in some ways, is an archetypal narrative at the origin of the self-esteem movement. Basically, this is generally understood as a jerk of a bad parent instilling “low self-esteem” in the child.
The child in this scenario, the theory goes, will have a more difficult life as a result of this.
The idea is that interactions like this will result in lower self-esteem, which will result in more misery, less success, greater emotional pain, the child being more likely to drop out of school, get addicted to something, have sex at a younger ages, commit acts of violence, wind up in jail, and so on.
Let’s set this as “Reference Point A.”
And that’s the basic theory in a nutshell: Jerk Parent degrades child which results in low self-esteem, which leads to all kinds of bad outcomes, and is basically a bad thing.1
The better solution, then, must lie in doing the opposite.
If one extreme is bad, then the other extreme must be good.
(That’s how the thinking often goes, anyway.)
The root of all evil in the situation above, according to this perspective, is low self-esteem.
The antidote to that poison, then, is high self-esteem.
Low self-esteem is caused by criticism and people being mean to each other. So the opposite – praise, and unconditional, blind, gratuitous support for everything, no matter what, will cause high self-esteem. And high self-esteem will solve all problems.
After all, who could be against kindness? After all, everybody likes praise.
It’s a win-win. Problem solved. Case closed.
This is where things start getting a little hairy.
This new scenario – low self-esteem is bad, high self-esteem is good (we can call it “Reference Point B”) – is understandable. (And in some ways, it’s a clear improvement on the jerk of a bad parent scenario.)
But it also lays the groundwork for a whole new slew of problems.
Let’s paint a picture of what this can look like.
A few pictures, actually.
Reference Point B: Little Johnny brings home a test from school.
It looks like this.
“Spell the word ‘cat’:
Q: Who was the first American president?
A+++ Great job! Brilliant!
Reference Point C: Little Susie sings a song.
She gets every word wrong, doesn’t hit a single note, and sounds like a bullfrog that smoked a pack a day for fifty years, on a bullhorn, but louder. Windows crack, stomachs turn, tires hiss, hairs stand on end.
Her parents, of course, insist that her singing is positively angelic. And not angelic in a “beautiful to me,” eye-of-the-beholder, I-love-my-daughter kind of way. No – they mean it an objectively, scientifically factual, “your voice makes Celine Dion sound like a rusty bulldozer sliding down a cliff” kind of way.
Susie eventually goes on to appear on American Idol, where the judges just won’t understand her.
(If this scenario seems too preposterous, check out the movie “Florence Foster Jenkins.” Something like this actually happened, but to an adult.)
Reference Point D: Little Timmy forms some habits.
Timmy has been spending his summer vacation burning up ants with a microscope, tying cats’ tails together, and drop-kicking puppies for fun.
Timmy’s father tells Timmy not to do that.
Timmy responds with this: “You’re damaging my self-esteem! Why don’t you ever support me? You’re evil! What do you have against fun? You care about ants more than me!” Etc.
Timmy’s father, we’ll imagine, doesn’t want to damage Timmy’s self-esteem, doesn’t want to be evil, does disbelieve in fun, and so on. Yet he also cares about the welfare of puppies, cats, and ants.
Quite the moral dilemma for Pops. What to do?
And so on. (You see where we’re going with this.)
Moral of the story: this road leads to problems.
When self-esteem becomes your sole model of human nature, it’s like trying to navigate the jungles of Peru with a map of Disneyland.
And nowadays, at least for some folks, this seems to be exactly the situation.
The “self-esteem” model has apparently become the sole and central model of human nature.
Why is this?
By our read, there are many reasons for it.
It’s a big topic, and we can’t dive too deeply here. But in a nutshell: we’re living through “The Death of God.” Science has replaced religion as “The Authority” in many circles. The branch of science that deals with human beings is “psychology.” Psychology had some big shoes to fill, and it isn’t quite up to the task just yet.2 And with the (well-deserved) declines of Freudian psychoanalysis and Behaviorism, psychology offers no dominant model of human nature that we can use to guide us in our everyday lives. Which generally left things in the hands of media and marketing departments.
(Evolutionary psychology seems to be the closest candidate these days, maybe, as far as generally accepted theory goes. But the idea that animals as our new role models isn’t exactly the making of a “triumph of the human spirit” story.)
This state of affairs created a vacuum.
The vacuum lies in how we understand and explain human behavior and ourselves. What makes us tick? Why we do what we do? How can we explain and understand ourselves?
These are existential riddles we can’t not answer.
We can’t not move through life without some kind of model of human nature. Whether it’s conscious or not.
That vacuum provided fertile ground for something – anything – to step in. And that’s when the Self-Esteem as Theory Of Everything rose to prominence. (It started roughly in the 1970’s, and seems to have been growing since then.)
The forces behind its rise aren’t mysterious. After all, the core message behind all this is an easy-to-digest, inoffensive, non-controversial, guilt-free, highly-marketable model and explanation of human behavior.
Sure, it might not be that “accurate” or “robust,” strictly speaking.
But it sells.
After all, it’s telling people things they want to hear, by definition. Literally. And there’s usually a pretty good market for that.
Which is why, despite having little actual scientific research backing it up and a decent amount of research contradicting it, it seems to have gradually become our default explanation for a lot of what we do.
That’s our nutshell version. This story paints with a broad brush, of course, and ignores plenty of nuance.
But if even some of that is anywhere close to the mark, it means something like this:
“Self-esteem” is often our primary model of human nature these days.
And when that’s the case, self-esteem is seen as the sole cause and solution to every problem.
And this is when things can get weird.
To a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail. And to someone with one model of human nature, all of human behavior looks like whatever that model has mapped out. Self-esteem, therefore, is the sole explanation for everything.
The crown-jewel of psychological health is having a high opinion of yourself.
Someone commits crimes, is abusive, becomes violent? They must not have enough self-esteem. So, how do we fix them? Well, they just need more self-esteem.
Someone isn’t doing well in school? They think 2+2=9? It must be because they have low self-esteem. We don’t want to correct them, because, after all, that might hurt their self-esteem. Which would make their math skills worse. So, your math skills are great!
The sole key to mental, emotional, psychological, and spiritual health, therefore, is simple: complement each other.
And if someone is having problems in any of these areas, well, compliment them more. And if they’re really having some serious issues, compliment them even harder.
“You aren’t just awesome. You’re super-awesome.”
It’s the road to heaven by way of flattery.
How do you become awesome? By declaring it.
“I hereby anoint myself: awesome.” Reality, after all, conforms to what I declare. So there’s no need to actually do anything, accomplish anything, learn anything, help anyone, treat other people well, do good deeds, become useful, etc, in any kind of real-world, old-fashioned objective-reality kind of way. It’s works by magic. You simply declare it, and it is so.
And of course, this isn’t “awesome” in a kind of “a human being has inherent value” kind of way. It translates into literal social superiority over others. Someone moves higher in the hierarchy based solely on their opinion of themselves.
The secret to life, then, is simple: all we have to do is flatter and praise each other and ourselves, and silence anyone who isn’t gushy and fawning enough, and then everything will be awesome. The road to utopia can be achieved via a worldwide-wide mutual-admiration-society.
(And don’t tell me that isn’t a great idea. That would hurt my self-esteem. Therefore, it’s a great idea.)
The idea, then, seems to be that if we could all just affirm each other enough, we’ll all be superior to each other. If we can all just become more alpha, soon everyone can be alpha. We'll be homo silverbackus.
Sounds great! At least to me! Therefore, it is great!
And here’s where things can start getting really weird.
We’re all philosophers, after all.
(We might philosophize consciously or unconsciously – plenty of marketing departments these days are more than happy to relieve us of that burden – but either way, we do it.)
We all have a life philosophy, whether we’re conscious of it or not.
This means we all have our personal system of metaphysics (what is real?) and ethics (how should I act?)
And if we drink the Kool-Aid and go full-on mainstream postmodernist these days, where life is a relentless onslaught of attention-drain and attention–deficit, the only thing that seems really real, in many ways – the only thing that stays constant in the blur – is me. Ever-changing jobs, single-serving friends, disposable relationships, etc – all ephemeral. It fades like morning mist. I am the one common denominator throughout the haze of change, I am the one thing that stays constant.
I think, therefore I am, therefore that’s all I’m really sure about, therefore I’m the center of my own little world. Or, so I think. Which means it’s true.
And that’s my metaphysics.
“I am real. Everything else is up for grabs.”
And when I’m the only thing that’s really real, then how do I figure out my system of ethics, how I should act, or decide what’s right and wrong?
Well, I ask myself, that’s how.
After all, I’m my own authority on myself, right? We’re all moral philosophers, and we all make up our own philosophies, therefore we all get to make up our own moral codes. Cogito, ergo awesomo.
And things naturally roll on from there.
The moral code: anything flattering is morally good. And anything unflattering is morally evil.
Why? Because my self is the measure of all things.
This is how our normal, healthy, natural self-respect gradually mutates into self-love which gradually mutates yet again into self-worship.
And so, naturally, if anyone offends us, well, they’re damaging our self-esteem, which means we should start looking around for some kind of stake to burn them at. You tell me my math is “wrong,” I shouldn’t kick puppies, I don’t sing better than Beyonce? Heresy! Off with their heads!
And of course, all of this quickly dissolves into a psychological quagmire: a sea of kings and subjects, gods and heretics, all offending each other, all at war with each other.
And to think: it all started with folks just wanting to be kind to each other.
So, how did it come to this?
As it turns out, this state of affairs wasn’t entirely unpredictable.
Christopher Lasch wrote a book called The Culture of Narcissism, which described narcissism as a deep and extensive culture-wide problem.
The Culture of Narcissism came out in 1979.
That, of course, was a time before selfie culture, before Instagram, before Facebook. It was a few years after “The Death of God” took a major turn as a cultural force, but still several years before the internet, media and smart phones allowed us to walk around in self-created, self-imposed bubbles.
The Matrix came out in 1999.
Even back then, most folks still thought of The Matrix as, well, kind of a bad thing. The idea, after all, was of a life lived in a state of illusion that kept you sealed in a bubble for your entire life while it drained away your vitality. That was seen as a condition you’d want to escape from, not as something we’d want to voluntarily impose on ourselves.
All to say, if Lasch was around today, he would probably say that things have gotten much, much worse.
The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas are Setting Up a Generation for Failure by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt is a more recent perspective on all this. Another is Selfie: How We Became So Self-Obsessed and What It’s Doing To Us by Will Storr.
Yet another is The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement by Jean Twenge. And still another is Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled—and More Miserable Than Ever Before, also by Twenge.
Those titles hit the high notes pretty well.
These books point in some ways toward the unintended consequences of the self-esteem movement.
And these consequences are crucial. Because there’s something about life in a cocoon that just doesn’t sit right with us. Even if that cocoon perches us up on a throne and flatters us relentlessly. Even if we custom-design our illusions to match our own preferences perfectly – our own, homemade Matrixes – there’s something in us that just isn’t satisfied with living in a state of illusion.
And it doesn’t even work on its own merits. Because there’s a way that all this often backfires: instead of making us more confident, it makes us more fragile.
We might think that shielding ourselves from anything unflattering or disagreeable might make us supremely confident, strong, and tough. But the opposite seems to be the case. Muscles don't grow by lifting fewer weights, but more. Avoiding real challenges, like the Eloi in The Time Machine, can make us not stronger, but more delicate.
After all, Nassim Taleb described in Antifragile in regards to things like economies and markets: they need bumps, shocks, and corrections to keep them on course and healthy. And when we don’t get those, they don’t correct. And that can make the difference between a relatively minor correction in a market and a cataclysmic economic collapse.
The same thing can happen on a psychological level.
It can mean the difference between a humbling-yet-educational episode and a whole-hog existential crisis.
We shouldn’t shy away from bumps and bruises, scrapes and skinned knees of life. Those can help us learn. It’s better to learn when the stakes are small than to grow up believing the entire world is a big padded playground, and eventually discovering concrete the hard way.
“We should strive to welcome change and challenges, because they are what help us grow. Without them we grow weak like the Eloi in comfort and security. We need to constantly be challenging ourselves in order to strengthen our character and increase our intelligence.”
- H. G. Wells
“You are looking for a rich husband. At your age I looked for hardship, danger, horror and death, that I might feel the life in me more intensely.”
- George Bernard Shaw, Heartbreak House
Ideas have consequences, as the saying goes. And when it comes to tinkering around with core ideas about who we are and what defines us, the consequences – including unintended ones – can be gigantic. Much of what we call “common sense” often consists of half-baked ideas some philosopher scribbled down years ago, even though we imagine we originated them ourselves one day in a blast of insight. And our fresh new modern attitude toward ourselves is no different.
Of course, most of us don’t want to live based on half-baked ideas.
But this leads us to the billion-dollar question:
How do we know which ideas are half-baked?
And which ones are fully baked?
Let’s take a different tack here.
(It’s a tack we imagine we originated ourselves one day in a blast of insight. Although, it isn’t.)
Let’s stop the presses, take a breath for a minute, widen our view, and adopt a long-term approach to try to see the bigger picture. (We also did this with another gem: “Follow Your Heart.”)
This involves looking to see if there’s any consensus on what we can call “traditional wisdom” that might shed light on the matter. Which means looking to see if there are any ideas that have worked well enough to survive over hundreds – and even thousands – of years.
And as it turns out, there are.
And much of it directly contradicts the self-esteem movement.
The ancient Greeks, for example, spoke quite a bit about “hubris.” Hubris, in a nutshell, meant having an excessive or overly-high opinion of oneself.
It wasn’t considered a good thing to have.
(Heretics! Grab the pitchforks! Where are these “Ancient Greeks”?)
The Greek myth of Narcissus, after all, was a story of a guy who literally fell in love with himself. There are several versions of the story, but none of them end well for Narcissus.
That’s the approximate origin of the word “narcissism.” To make it easier, we can just define “narcissism” as “masturbation of the self-image.”
Narcissism runs parallel with another word – “vanity” – which also, in other times throughout history, wasn’t seen a virtue.
(“Honey, really - have you seen my pitchfork anywhere?”)
Hinduism describes part of the core problem of human life as a condition where we’ve forgotten who we are. The answer, in brief, lies in remembering ourselves. Nowhere does it state that the solution is to “esteem” ourselves.
“Be humble, be harmless, have no pretension, be upright, forbearing…”
- Bhagavad Gita, 13.7-8
“Whenever the soul has thoughts of ‘I’ and “mine’ it binds itself with its lower self, as a bird with the net of a snare.”
- Maitri Upanishad, 3.2
“The man who surrenders his human will leaves sorrows behind…”
- Katha Upanishad, Part 2
Buddhism echoes this di some degree, but also states that who we think we are might not even exist at all in the way we think it does.
“The body is impure, bad-smelling, and replete with various kinds of stench which trickle here and there. If one, possessed of such a body, thinks highly of himself and despises others – that is due to nothing other than his lack of insight.”
- Sutta Nipata 205-206
“The view I have a self arises in him as true and established, or the view ‘I have no self”…this is called a thicket of views, a wilderness of views, a contortion of views, a writhing of views, a fetter of views…”
- The Sabbasava Sutta
Christianity and Judaism speak about “pride” as something that “goes before a fall,” and as part of “the life that leads to death,” and – generally speaking – as kind of a bad thing. It even offers an antidote – “humility” – which was seen as a good thing. The general message there seemed pretty clear: glorifying ourselves isn’t what makes the mile markers whizz by on the road to heaven.
“For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
- Luke 14:11
“Pride brings a person low, but the lowly in spirit gain honor.”
- Proverbs 29:23
Taoism isn’t one to declare “thou shalt not strut around,” but it still gets the essential idea across in its own Taoey way:
“The sage puts himself last and becomes the first.”
- Tao Te Ching, Chapter 7
And Confucius say:
“Humility is the solid foundation of all virtues.”
And all this seems to bear itself out in our everyday, commonsense experience.
If we stop and take an honest look, “high self-esteem” or someone thinking very highly of themselves often comes across like eating ice cream, making out, or cleaning our ears: we like it just fine when we’re doing it, but it’s not quite so nice to see other folks do it.
A character with a high opinion of themselves – especially one that isn’t entirely warranted – is a staple of comedy.
There seems to be a general consensus here, even if it swims against the stream of what most of culture is drumming into us these days: a high opinion of yourself actually isn’t the greatest achievement in life. It isn’t even the right direction we should be aiming for.
Human nature is more complex than the Disney maps popular culture – and even some professionals – seem to be pushing these days. There’s a lot more to life than hanging around and trying to be esteemed all the time.
But where does that leave us?
Is there a sane, rational, commonsense approach to all this?
One side of the coin: a lack of self-respect, timidity, shame, a low opinion of oneself, and more intense versions of disliking oneself, etc. This doesn’t really seem to be a good thing.
The other side of the coin: narcissism, pride, hubris, being spoiled, being entitled, having an overly high opinion of yourself, etc. This isn’t exactly a fun frolic through the daisies either.
These seem to be two sides of a counterfeit coin. Neither side seems to have much value, or do anybody much good. In fact, it can even mess people up.
So, what’s the alternative?
Let’s back up and re-examine our assumptions.
The first side of the coin, let’s describe as “ego-deflation.”
The other side of the coin, then, we can describe as “ego-inflation.”
There seems to be a hidden assumption in all this that’s causing a lot of the trouble.
Maybe it’s this:
All of this assumes that we know who we are.
And maybe we actually don’t really know who we are.
Let’s take a careful look at this.
Let’s define the word “ego” as our ideas about ourselves.
“Ego,” then, is who we think we are.
And here, we can make another observation:
We usually dislike being “objectified” by others.
We don’t like being treated like an “object” instead of a person.
Nobody wants to be an “it” instead of an “I.”
When anyone “objectifies us” – treats us as less than human – we generally get offended and mad.
But we can also make an object out of ourselves.
We can objectify ourselves.
And when this happens, we don’t usually get all offended and mad. We sometimes don’t even notice it. It’s OK when “I” do it; it’s just not OK when somebody else does it.
The process looks something like this: you form an idea about yourself. You decide, “that (idea) is who I am.” This, is an idea, a concept, an image of yourself, a representation.
So we get an idea about ourselves, and define ourselves by it, and then seize onto it as if it’s the answer, comprehensively. And this, in a way, turns ourselves into an object.
This can happen accidentally and unconsciously, without us even realizing it.
Let’s imagine someone defines themselves entirely by how much money they have.
Let’s imagine they’re richer than most other folks. This makes them feel special. Their identity, then, is an extension of their bank account.
When this kind of setup is in place, there’s a degree of anxiety, fear, and insecurity baked directly into that equation. After all, money can be fickle. All it takes to bring some of this insecurity to the surface is for someone with more money to appear on the scene. Even the richest person in the world rarely stays that way for long.
Someone might define themselves as the prettiest girl in the room, or the smartest guy in the room, or the one-with-the-most-Instagram-followers in the room, or highest-status/holiest/funniest/bossiest/whateverest in the room. It’s all the same.
It all plants the seeds for what will eventually become an existential crisis.
It’s all based on how we define ourselves, and it happens in predictable ways. When we try to feel special and unique, and we do that by defining ourselves in ways that are ultimately petty or insignificant in the larger scheme of things, we often wind up selling ourselves short.
This usually means we’re reducing (objectifying, dehumanizing) ourselves in some way. We’re transforming our selves from a person into an idea. Measuring ourselves like this dehumanizes everyone – including the “winner” of these secret and invisible contests, despite the efforts to do exactly the opposite.
How do we do this? Through adopting bad ideas about who we think we are. We take our inherent value as a human being and confuse it with some specific quality. And then we think that specific quality defines our value as a human being.
The problem isn’t being rich, or pretty or funny, or smart, or being a good soccer player. The problem is taking whatever that quality is and having that define who you are. When that happens, someone imagines that their value as a human being is identical with their ability to play a great game of soccer.
The result, then, is that everyone needs to get a gold medal for being a great soccer player. Because everyone should has value as a human being, and your value as a human being is apparently identical to your ability to play soccer, and therefore, everyone is equally wonderful at soccer.
It’s how The Death of God is showing up in the form of soccer trophies.
The mistake underlying all this lies in our philosophy, or lack thereof.
Parsing this stuff out is a thankless task, especially when everybody is falling all over themselves, congratulating and glad-handing each other all over the place. The guy trying to pluck the gold medal from the small hands of some 3rd-grade benchwarmer while spouting some kind of nonsense about ancient Greeks probably isn’t going to win any Congeniality Awards.
But the intention here is to find a better answer to human misery.
If declaring ourselves awesome was all it took, we’d be all for it.
But things seem to be a little more complicated than that.
We seem to be more complicated than that.
We seem to be more complex than we even understand.
Which is to say, when we try to understand and explain ourselves, we often lack the tools required to make sense of ourselves in a way that serves us well. We’re all aiming for happiness. And if our roadmap to happiness is really off, we’re setting ourselves up for a lot of unnecessary suffering.
This includes our road maps to our “selves.”
Our ego often doesn’t match reality.
Let’s clarify all this with another example.
Let’s imagine a character who thinks he’s “God’s gift to women.”
He thinks he’s James Bond, only better looking, more capable, and more charming.
In reality, he smells like stinky cheese, wears a Batman mask everywhere he goes, and drives a rusty Pinto covered with bumper stickers that all say “I like farting.” The only interest he takes in other people is when they complement him on his Cheetos-only diet or on his ability to sweat profusely at all times.
And he thinks he’s God’s gift to women. He has high self-esteem. Therefore, according to some folks, at least, he has arrived.
Maybe we’re exaggerating a little, but it’s to illustrate a point.
What’s the point?
Our ideas about ourselves can be entirely out of whack with reality. (Despite what postmodernists might claim: the idea is that there is such a thing as reality, and we can be out of whack with it.)
“Reality is the leading cause of stress
among those in touch with it.”
- Lily Tomlin
This can work in lots of different ways.
This can happen in the opposite direction: say, a beautiful and intelligent woman who thinks she’s unattractive and unintelligent. An unfunny guy who thinks he’s hilarious. A criminal can think he’s a saint, and a saint can think he’s a criminal.
All of which points toward this:
“Know Thyself” isn’t just lofty advice for potbellied toga jockeys.
It’s often a matter of psychological survival.
Our ideas about ourselves and who we actually are can be miles apart.
And all too often, they actually are.
This can throw a big wrench in conventional self-esteem theory.
When we flatter someone, it might be that we’re just inflating their ego.
And that is entirely different from affirming their real self.
When we flatter ourselves, it might be that we’re just inflating our own ego. Which is to say, we might just be slapping concrete and duct tape on who we think we are. And if our ideas about ourselves are off, then we’re just building higher on a bad foundation.
And all this can sometimes bring about the opposite of what we’re intending. Because we might be feeding false ideas about ourselves and others, and these ideas might contradict other, more accurate ideas.
The trick here lies in a person’s actual self, not just their ego. And in our own real self, not just our ego.
Which might sound simple, and great in theory. But yet again, it isn’t easy.
After all, what is the “real self”?
That, of course, is the billion-dollar question.
While defining “the real you” might not be easy, we’re pretty clear on what “the real you” isn’t. And what it isn’t is merely an idea or concept. “You” are a subject, behind the scenes, often the one imagining or thinking up or pretending to be that concept.
But one thing we can say: someone’s “real self” isn’t merely an isolated “part” of them.
It’s connected up to the rest.
Which is to say:
Self-esteem isn’t like a carburetor.
We often seem to treat self-esteem as if it’s an isolated, discrete element.
We can think of it as if it’s a detachable piece that can be unplugged from the rest of the machine and treated in isolation, separately from everything else.
We often see it like it’s a carburetor in our car. If our carburetor stops working, we take it out and either fix it or replace it.
And if our self-esteem stops working, as our Disney maps tell us, we often want to just take it out, dose up on a few affirmations, polish it up with a few good deeds, gobble down a few pounds of flattery, and then we’re off again. That’s supposed to fix it. If life’s got you down, well, you just need a self-esteem tune-up at Selfie-Lube. Instead of Hail Marys, just do fifty affirmations. If your conscience is starting to glow with “check engine” lights, just smear them all over with a nice, thick layer of chocolate icing in the form of flattering statements. Then try to believe them, and keep driving.
That’s the theory.
And of course, it doesn’t really work. Slathering check-engine lights with chocolate icing isn’t a good solution. Because it’s more complicated than that.
The human being is a complex system.
Our parts are interconnected.
Our self-esteem, for example, is connected to our relationships. It’s also connected to our life philosophy – our ideas about what the world is, how it’s supposed to work, and how we’re supposed to work within it. It’s also connected to our moral code. It’s also connected to our behavior – what we actually do, and how we think. It's also connected to our spirituality, or lack thereof. It’s also connected with our habits, our views of life, our deepest hopes, dreams, fears and ideals. And so on.
It’s all connected.
So to see the entire picture of self-esteem, we need to take more than our self-esteem into account: our relationships, our behavior, our emotions, our take on spirituality, our life philosophy, our worldview, our conscience.
And everything else.
If someone is in a relationship with a partner who is emotionally, verbally and physically abusive, there are limits on how effective affirmations are going to be.
Affirmations, in this example, represent the Selfie-Lube approach: treating self-esteem as if it’s an isolated element.
But what could have a much greater impact, though, might be something like ending the relationship, or standing up to the bully, or insisting on being treated with respect. Without these actions, affirmations might not make a difference. But after those actions, affirmations might not be necessary.
Self-esteem often follows behavior. And in this case, self-esteem isn’t treated directly. It’s treated as part of a larger, and more complex, system.
If someone is doing heroin, or running a crime ring, or spending all morning and afternoon watching bad television, all of this counts. Some of these activities just aren’t compatible with genuine self-respect. Self-respect can’t be separated from the rest of life. It’s all connected, in a highly complex system.
And here’s where it can get ironic.
Our efforts in all this can easily backfire.3
Supporting someone’s ego in the popular and conventional way can sometimes undermine genuine self-esteem.
Imagine that someone enjoys doing heroin. What’s the truly compassionate, loving, considerate thing to do? Maybe it’s not necessarily to “support” their habit unconditionally. Maybe, in so many words, it’s actually to undermine that aspect of their ego. Which might even involve challenging them, or saying unflattering things.
This can be dangerous, difficult, risky, thankless territory, especially these days. It’s easy to get wrong. Because next thing you know, it’s just two folks pointing out flaws in each other, and we wind up right back in Reference Point A.
But if it goes well, it helps them, in a genuine – not merely in an ego-inflating – way.
A great coach, parent, or teacher doesn’t merely flatter your ego.
As in boot camp, they’ll often challenge you in order to build you up stronger. They focus on something much bigger – on what’s genuinely best for you. And if the person they’re trying to help feels insulted, or offended, or even bad about themselves a little, if things go as planned, they’ll get over it, and come out the other side, stronger.
And maybe that’s how we should treat ourselves.
We don’t get stronger by avoiding challenges, but by taking on tougher ones.
Blind and gratuitous affirmation can lead to endless inflation. Endless inflation can lead to ego expansion. Ego expansion can sometimes beef up tiny pieces of our selves at the cost of the greater integrity of our actual selves. All of which can make us less happy instead of more.
So, to bring this all back around:
What do we do if we want real, genuine, healthy self-respect?
We’ve covered a few shortcuts and pitfalls that are probably better to avoid.
But a little story should help here.
It’s a story about some animals.
A group of animals in a forest get together and decide to start a school.
There’s a rabbit, a bird, a squirrel, a fish, and an eel. The rabbit insists that hopping needs to be in the curriculum. The bird insists that flying has to be in there. The fish declares that swimming must be in there. The squirrel argues that tree climbing has to be in there. And so on.
They insist that all animals must do all of the topics in the curriculum.
We can guess how all this plays out.
The bird gets an A in flying but an F in swimming. The fish gets and A in swimming and an F in flying. The squirrel gets an A in tree climbing and a D in flying. And so on.
The valedictorian was a half-conscious, deeply confused eel who managed to do everything at least a little
- story adapted from Love by Leo Buscaglia
This might sound a little hokey. And if we use this as our sole reference point, it might lead us right back where we started, where every animals’ answer to 2+2 is different, everyone is right about everything, and everybody is superior to everybody else. Postmodernism, or the “reality-is-whatever-I-say, and I-say-I’m-right-and-therefore-you’re-wrong” kind of thing. Or in other words, modern times.
But this points back to one of the key points that gets raised in all this.
It’s one moral of the story.
The basic message seems to be yet another clichéd, oversimplified, much-abused piece of advice: “be yourself.”
It’s hokey, overused, and prone to its own misadventure of taking something good and ruining it by taking it too far.
There’s something critical there.
But hopefully we’ve seen here, that isn’t nearly as easy as it sounds. Which, after all this, makes this the beginning of a new adventure-slash-inquiry, not an ending. There's plenty more that we could explore on this topic.
What, after all, is “yourself”? Am I a bird, a squirrel, a rabbit, a fish, a dim-witted eel, a platypus, or something completely different from all these, something completely undiscovered, some species that is yet unmapped?
That’s a big question.
It’s not one we can easily answer, even if almost everybody is busy pretending otherwise.
But even if we can’t answer it easily directly, we can at least avoid bad answers. (Like the kinds mentioned above.)
And we can avoid just declaring stuff, out of the blue, based on nothing more than our own whims and wishes and windpuffs.
Which points toward something we need to know.
Which points toward the “self” as something we should know.
After all, natural, healthy self-respect usually takes care of itself, unless we’re tinkering around with it too much.
So long as we aren’t messing with peoples’ identities and generally making a mess of things in the process, we tend to naturally take a healthy pride in our skills and accomplishments (without getting too worked up about it), and we stay humble about lack of skills and accomplishments (without making too big of a deal about it.)
That might not be enough to win us a gold medal for sainthood in itself (gold medals for everybody!) but at least it’s a solid starting point that’s grounded in reality. Or at least something not too far from it.
Because it’s when we start screwing around and trying to find easy shortcuts to glory that we usually wind up making things worse. And in this case, we wind up blowing our view of ourselves way out of proportion. And this apparently leads to a lot of unnecessary suffering.
So, here’s a different solution.
A better route lies in avoiding what doesn’t work.
If we just focus on our task at hand, and work to improve that, the rest usually takes care of itself. We often become less self-absorbed and more selfless. Which can be way better.
So, don’t deflate the self. That’s not the answer.
And don’t inflate the self. That’s not the way, either.
After that, we can do all the esteeming we want.
“The more deeply we are our true selves,
the less self is in us.”
1. To be fair: none of this is set in stone, in a predictable, deterministic, formulaic way. For example, there’s always a chance that the child will interpret the adult’s behavior as a kind of challenge, and will work harder to overcome that challenge, and might wind up better off as a result. None of which justifies the adult jerks’ behavior, of course. But worth mentioning.
2. Yes, we’re being nice here.
3. Efforts in these areas can sometimes backfire. For example, the below comes from someone who has actually bothered to look into this scientifically:
“Well, we need to be careful how we do it, in order to avoid being like Stuart Smalley, who simply recites positive statement to himself…Unfortunately, it’s not so simple, and in fact the Stuart Smalley approach can backfire among people who have low opinions of themselves – the very people who most need a boost. In one study, people with high or low self-esteem were randomly assigned to either the Stuart Smalley condition, in which they repeated the phrase “I am a lovable person’ every fifteen seconds, or to a control condition, in which they did not repeat any phrases. People who already felt good about themselves showed a small benefit from repeating the phrase compared to those in the control condition, their moods went up slightly. But those with low self-esteem became even more dispirited. For people with a low opinion of themselves, saying ‘I am a lovable person’ reminds them of all the ways in which they are not lovable, pushing them further into the doldrums.”
(Timothy Wilson, Redirect, pp 67-68)
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