I have writers block, whatever that is. I knew it would happen, that one week I would be lost for something to write but that I would simultaneously feel the need to keep going anyway. Gazing out of the window I wonder why that man always parks his black Mercedes outside my house, and I marvel at the red braiding on his trouser turn ups. Drinking a third coffee I watch a women pulling her black labrador away from his urgent snuffling through a pile of orange and yellow leaves and then disappear around the corner by the church. Self esteem comes most easily under attack when we are not achieving what we think we should.
A client describes the intoxicating experience of making people laugh. In terms of measurable and tangible affirmation it’s hard to beat. When people show us they value us in such a direct manner we can forget any need to ask “am I worth anything?” and consider the matter decided. Self esteem is a gratefully received gift.
Struggling in a relationship with a woman much younger I hear telltale evidence of fragile self worth. “Of course she’s only interested in my money, why would a girl like that take a second look at me otherwise?” Self esteem doesn’t always bear up well to comparison.
Different types of self esteem
Self esteem comes in different flavours, but one is infinitely more delicious than the others. In trying hard to gain the favour of others we are craving reflected self esteem, allowing ourselves a feeling of value because someone else has given their permission. In wondering why our partners would bother staying with us when they could quite obviously choose someone better looking, more intelligent, richer, funnier we establish that feeling good is directly related to a favourable comparison with everyone else. This is comparative self esteem. Both of these are natural but neither hold a candle to the self worth we feel when we look in the mirror and see someone we genuinely care for, someone we respect and love, someone who makes mistakes but is precious regardless. This is intrinsic self esteem and it’s golden.
Why thinking of yourself as “better” or “worse” is inaccurate and dangerous.
Self esteem is not a scale or a ladder, it is a constant. There is nothing mysterious about self esteem and no calculation that either can or needs to be made. We cannot add to our self esteem and we cannot subtract from it. In being human and being here we have an intrinsic value which leaves us no better or worse than anyone. It is through the mistaken belief that we can make ourselves more valuable or decline in value that we drift into treacherous waters. Thinking we are less than others means we treat ourselves as such. We feel a contempt for ourselves and it creates feelings of shame, which reduce our ability to show effective and healthy self care. Thinking we are more than others leads to contempt for them and creates a feeling of grandiosity which puts us out of touch, makes us disconnected and leads us to an illusion of superiority founded in deep loneliness.
The way we were treated is often the way we treat ourselves.
We learn about our value from the way we are valued in early life. If you feel that you were closed down and ignored you will likely close down and ignore yourself. If you were starved of healthy emotion you will starve yourself. If you were treated as a disappointment you will easily disappoint yourself. Recognising this pattern is challenging, and changing it takes time, but it can be done.
How lacking self esteem is a self fulfilling prophecy.
We get confused about the implications of low self esteem. When we see it as a truth we set about doing no more than managing its destruction. “I’ve always been like this” or “I can’t change it” is effectively being taken hostage by our own psychology. When we make observations about ourself we have a miraculous ability to make them true. So we have a way of embedding the truth as we see it by acting as if it is so. If we would only question the validity of such damaging belief each day, consistently, rather than surrendering, we would find that change is more than possible.
In truth it hasn’t been my most productive day ever but I am reminded that being here in the moment, however it looks, is far more valuable than just achieving things. Annie Dillard wrote “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives”. The ability to feel valuable regardless, to enjoy the moments as they are rather than as we think they should be is almost certainly a conduit for greater levels of achievement anyway, and it’s infinitely more enjoyable. A young boy glides past on a scooter, and another dog trots happily alongside his owner who sports a fetching grey woollen hat.