The Secret of Self-Esteem
Where does self-esteem really come from?
Posted Nov 20, 2014
‘Confidence’ derives from the Latin fidere, ‘to trust’. Self-confidence essentially means to trust and have faith in oneself. It is our certainty as to our judgement, ability, and so on—in short, our certainty as to our aptitude to engage with the world. A self-confident person is able to act on opportunities, rise to new challenges, take control of difficult situations, and accept responsibility and criticism if things go wrong.
Just as the foundation of successful experience is self-confidence, so the foundation of self-confidence is successful experience. Although any successful experience contributes to our general self-confidence, it is, of course, possible to be highly confident in one area, such as cooking or dancing, but very unsure in another, such as public speaking.
In the absence of confidence, courage takes over. Confidence operates in the realm of the known; courage, on the other hand, operates in the realm of the unknown, the uncertain, and the fearsome: you cannot be a confident swimmer unless you once had the courage to lose your footing in deep water. Courage is more noble than confidence, because it requires more strength, and because a courageous person is one with limitless capabilities and possibilities. In the lonely hearts, ladies often specify that they are looking for a confident man, but who they are truly looking for is a courageous man.
While self-confidence and self-esteem often go hand in hand, it is possible to have high self-confidence and yet low self-esteem, as is, for example, the case with many celebrities. Esteem derives from the Latin aestimare, ‘to appraise, value, rate, weigh, estimate’, and self-esteem is the cognitive and, above all, emotional appraisal of our own worth. Our self-esteem is the matrix through which we think, feel, and act. It reflects, and also in large part determines, our relation to ourself, to others, and to the world.
It is possible that self-esteem evolved as a barometer of status or acceptance in the social group, or else to lend us the strength to act in the face of fear and anxiety. Psychologist Abraham Maslow included it as a deficiency need in his hierarchy of needs, and argued that a person could not meet his growth needs unless he had already met his deficiency needs. To me, it seems that we are each born with a healthy self-esteem (and a small smattering of self-confidence), which is then either sustained or undermined by our life experiences.
In the West, self-esteem is primarily based on achievement, whereas in the East it is primarily based on 'worthiness', that is, on being seen and accepted as a good member of the family, community, and other in-groups. In the West, you can get away with being a bad in-group member so long as you are successful; in the East, you can get away with being unsuccessful so long as you are a good in-group member.
One problem with achievement-based self-esteem is that it promotes the fear of failure and the pursuit of success at all costs. Moreover, because achievement is not wholly within our control, and because its effects are transient, it cannot offer a secure foundation for our self-esteem. Worthiness-based self-esteem also has its limitations. First, it relies heavily on the acceptance or rejection of others, and so, like achievement-based self-esteem, is not wholly within our control. Second, because acceptance is contingent upon conformity with the in-group, it severely restricts our range of possibilities.
People with healthy self-esteem are able to take risks and to give their all to a project or ambition, because, although failure may hurt or upset them, it is not going to damage or diminish them. They do not rely on externals such as status or income, or on crutches such as alcohol, drugs, or sex. To the contrary, they treat themselves with respect and take good care of their health, development, and environment. They are open to growth experiences and meaningful relationships, tolerant of risk, quick to joy and delight, and accepting and forgiving of themselves and others.
It is instructive to compare healthy self-esteem with pride and also with arrogance. If self-confidence is “I can” and self-esteem is “I am”, then pride is “I did”. To feel proud is to take pleasure from the goodness of our past actions and achievements.
Pride could not be more different from arrogance in that, if pride stems from satisfaction, arrogance stems from hunger and emptiness. Arrogance derives from the Latin rogare (ask, propose), and means ‘to claim for oneself or assume’. Arrogance does not amount to excessive self-esteem, for just as there can be no such thing as excessive physical health or excessive moral virtue, so there can be no such thing as excessive self-esteem. Instead, it betrays all the opposite.
Arrogant people require constant reassuring and bolstering both from themselves and from others, which accounts for their boastfulness, entitlement, anger, and reluctance to learn from mistakes and failures. In contrast, people with healthy self-esteem do not seek to pull themselves up by pushing others down. Instead, they are happy simply to revel in the miracle of existence, with cheerfulness, humility, and quiet action.
Just as high self-esteem does not amount to arrogance, so low self-esteem does not amount to humility. Humble people understand that there is more to life than just themselves, but that need not mean that they do not have a healthy self-regard.
Needless to say, only a minority of people with low or insecure self-esteem are arrogant: most simply suffer silently. People with low or insecure self-esteem tend to see the world as a hostile place and themselves as its victim. As a result, they are reluctant to express and assert themselves, miss out on experiences and opportunities, and feel powerless to change things. All this lowers their self-esteem still further, sucking them into a downward spiral.
Low self-esteem can be deeply rooted, with origins in traumatic childhood experiences such as prolonged separation from parent figures, neglect, or emotional, physical, or sexual abuse. In later life, self-esteem can be undermined by ill health, negative life events such as losing a job or getting divorced, deficient or frustrating relationships, and a general sense of lack of control. This sense of lack of control may be especially marked in victims of emotional, physical, or sexual abuse, or victims of discrimination on the grounds of religion, culture, race, sex, or sexual orientation.
The relationship between low self-esteem and mental disorder and mental distress is very complex. Low self-esteem predisposes to mental disorder, which in turn knocks self-esteem. In some cases, low self-esteem is in itself a cardinal feature of mental disorder, as, for example, in depression or borderline personality disorder.
The Buddhist take on poor self-regard is that it is akin to a negative emotion or delusion because, if a person is not secure in himself, he is left to frantically pursue everything except what is truly important: his own growth and that of others. Moreover, his agitation is vain: it does not change the past, it does not change the future, but only makes the present miserable.
The Buddhist notion of diligence is to delight in positive deeds, and the person who does not engage in such virtuous activity is a victim of kausidya, that is, ‘laziness’ or ‘spiritual sloth’. Kausidya has three aspects: not doing something out of indolence (laziness), not doing something out of faintheartedness (poor self-regard), and seeming busy but in reality wasting time and energy on meaningless activities that will not accomplish anything in the long run (manic defence). Only when we refrain from these three aspects of kausidya are we truly diligent.
Tagore, the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, seems to perfectly encapsulate the Buddhist attitude in this poem-prayer.
Let me not pray to be sheltered from dangers but to be fearless in facing them.
Let me not beg for the stilling of my pain but for the heart to conquer it.
Let me not crave in anxious fear to be saved but hope for the patience to win my freedom.
Grant me that I may not be a coward, feeling your mercy in my success alone; but let me find the grasp of your hand in my failure.
Aside from prayer, is there any way in which we might increase our self-esteem?
Many people find it simpler to work on their self-confidence than on their self-esteem, and end up with a long list of abilities and achievements to show for themselves. As they also depend on this list for their self-esteem, they cannot afford to look upon themselves as they truly are, with all their imperfections and failures. And so they are unable to recognize, let alone address, their real problems and limitations, and, more tragically still, to accept and love themselves as the less-than-perfect human beings that they truly are.
As anyone who has been to university knows, a long list of abilities and achievements is neither sufficient nor necessary for healthy self-esteem. While people keep on working at their list in the hope that it might one day be long enough, they try to fill the void with status, income, possessions, relationships, sex, and so on. Attack their status, criticize their car, and observe in their reaction that it is them that you attack and criticize.
Similarly, it is no good trying to pump up the self-esteem of children (and, increasingly, adults) with empty and condescending praise. No one will be fooled, least of all the children, who will feel confused if not exasperated, and be held back from the sort of endeavour from which real self-esteem may grow. And what sort of endeavour is that?
Whenever we live up to our dreams and promises, we can feel ourself growing. Whenever we fail but know that we have given our best, we can feel ourself growing. Whenever we stand up for our values and face the consequences, we can feel ourself growing. Whenever we come to terms with a difficult truth, we can feel ourself growing. Whenever we bravely live up to our ideals, we can feel ourself growing. That is what growth depends on. Growth depends on bravely living up to our ideals, not on the ideals of the bank that we work for, or our parents’ praise, or our children’s successes, or anything else that is not truly our own but, instead, a betrayal of ourself.
Socrates is a shining example of a man who bravely lived up to his ideals, and, in the end, bravely died for them. Throughout his life, he never lost faith in the mind’s ability to discern and decide, and so to apprehend and master reality. Nor did he ever betray truth and integrity for a pitiable life of self-deception and semi-consciousness. In seeking relentlessly to align mind with matter and thought with fact, he remained faithful both to himself and to the world, with the result that he is still alive in this sentence and millions of others that have been written about him. More than a great philosopher, Socrates was the living embodiment of the dream that philosophy might one day set us free.
Neel Burton is author of Heaven and Hell: The Psychology of the Emotions and other books.