Self-Esteem is an awareness of self as an existent or entity that is whole, complete, valuable, one who fits in with the reality he/she occupies.
Because there is not any initial self-awareness when a person is born, every child starts life without self-esteem. A child, and subsequently a youth, builds a personal vision of self that is based on attributes that appear to define and present them as the independent and respectable or acceptable individual. Therefore Self-Esteem is low when the attributes that the child can reach to define a value of self are unfavorable, disordered, or fragile. Think about it.
Let us now examine this carefully so we can understand the individual with low or fragile Self-Esteem and also see how to fix it. Perhaps no other self-help topic has spawned so much advice and so many (often conflicting) theories. They falter because they focus on building or replacing those visible attributes, not on the science of a deeper definition of self. So please allow me to walk you through an abstract examination of this dilemma.
Who Am I?
I don’t know who I am. I really don’t know what I am. I see my body. I see two legs, two arms, a torso and a head. Is this me? This is what I present to the world, or is it what defines me? Yes, at first, that is what defines me. It is what I see of me and therefore what defines me. Until I see deeper into it, I see it as the wholeness of me. I don’t have to look deeper until I am forced to do so. One of the first things a parent does to a child is to teach the child that the body is not him (her). We do it unconsciously, unintentionally. We toilet train the child. What we do is not to establish and impose a physical routine. Rather, we teach the child to toilet train him/herself. We actually teach the child that he/she is not the body but has and must continue to take authority over the body’s functions. We teach the child to color within the lines, that is, to take control over the fine motor movements of the body. The mind is master of the body.
We proceed, however, to affix the definition of self on the ability of the body to respond to that management. Okay, this may seem a bit confusing, but let me explain a little. The child who seems to get it, to respond more quickly or effectively is actually developing the power of the mind over the body, but we compliment them on the perfection of the body. We emphasize beauty, shape, stamina, color, size, speech, and even skill as attributes of the body. Or we don’t suggest anything, and leave it undefined. So the child develops an appreciation for what they see – the same attributes that appear to give or should give power. It is easy to compare self with others when what is evaluated is what is visible. And that is what the child naturally sees. What the child learns, either from being taught or from observing what is visible naturally, is that the body, its appearance, its performance, or the things that enhance its presentation are essential for the definition of self and the disposition of self-esteem.
Where Do I Fit In?
Youth is that period of transition between the sheltered impulsiveness of childhood and the responsible authority of adulthood. The youth wants the authority of the adult while also hanging onto the sheltered impulsiveness of the child, usually because the definition of self, the self-image, is still defined by attributes that are strong only within a sheltered context. They “fit in” within the sheltered context.
So some youth exert their efforts, not at being responsible, but at securing or boosting the sheltered context that respects, accepts, or enhances the attributes they have used to define self. They are afraid to go through the transition because they cannot visualize life outside of that sheltered context. And they continue to explore reckless and unproductive experiences, postponing the transition into adulthood and so continuing to behave like a child far into physical adulthood.
What Are My Attributes?
Just as it is hard in this article for the reader to visualize the abstract line of thought, so also it is for the child as he/she grows into the adult. In fact, it is even more difficult to accept something that can neither be seen nor touched and to fall back to that which seems to be readily identifiable. If I am cut, do I not bleed? If I am hurt, do I not feel pain in my body? Thus, unless the child is shown how to see self beneath or beyond the limits of the visible body and to see purpose as more than survival or the feeling of comfort, this is what the child learns or naturally falls back to – the attributes that make the body more presentable, more sustainable, and more comfortable. And as the child grows into the youth and the youth into the adult, the attributes that have been established as defining the personal identity or giving it value become the focus of their attention. To fail in sustaining them is to lose or fail to have self-esteem.
Can you see this? Please read on. It is abstract but it attempts to examine what cannot be brought out of the abstract. So, if beauty is the main attribute that defines the individual, its preservation or enhancement becomes paramount. If skill is the attribute, it becomes necessary to reach for the sky and push the body to extremes of endeavour. If the attribute is the display of intelligence, or possessions, or social position, can you see that it becomes necessary to grasp as much of it as possible and see the relative distance from the pinnacle as a failure and inadequacy of self? As the child grows into the youth and the youth into the adult, these definitions become more specifically related to them as the individual. And the fragility or weakness or inaccessibility of these attributes causes fragility or weakness or condemnation of the value of self.
This can happen to the child as well as to the youth or adult. The youth, however, is at the most precarious period of life – at the cusp between childhood and adulthood. It is the time when it seems most urgent to have a definition of self. And when this is not yet established or secure, self-esteem becomes quite uncertain or downright trampled. They may give up and use chemicals to distract themselves from having to see their own insufficiency. They may seek or embrace a reality of similarly lost souls whose limitations or confusion espouse an attenuated normalcy that makes their limited attributes acceptable. We see this in the definition of a sexual identity, or the social grouping of people with similar likes or fetishes. This is an attempt to make normal an attribute that does not fit into the more common reality. But it speaks more deeply about the person. It is not the unacceptability of that attribute or definition of self that must be addressed but the fact that it is the identity. The identity of the human being is more than the fragile perfection or the acceptable limitations of the body or some part of it. It is the discovery of the self as more than the body and distinct from it.
A Metaphysical Attribute
Of course not all children are either given a definition of self that relates to the tangible and visible attributes of body or its enhancements or are left to their own devices to embrace it by default. Many are given a definition of self that is more deeply associated with the metaphysical energy that is the mind or soul. Often, however, this can be confused as being an aspect of the body albeit an invisible attribute. Thus, it can be associated with genetic predisposition, brain function, discipline, or the special relationship with God or some other supreme being. Thus, it can be interpreted as, “I am valuable because I am intelligent or have shown specific skill and prodigy”; or “I am valuable because I have inherited traits of supremacy (familial or racial)”; or “I am worthy because God has chosen me”.
The flaw in providing this way of self-assessment or encouraging it is that the first one, that of having special skill or prodigy, is still reliant on the stability of something that, by definition, cannot be stable. This is the body or some part of it. We have no control over the function of the body. We can have direction over its presentation as in toilet training or fine motor movement. We depend blindly, however, on the fact that it is there for us to direct.
The flaw in the second argument, that of having inherited traits of supremacy, is that it is only a figment in the imagination of the proposer, not a real attribute. As an example, the daughter of one of the top Nazi officials who was condemned in the Nuremberg trials had changed her last name out of embarrassment. Then she changed it back. Her explanation was that, by changing it, she gave tacit acknowledgement to her father’s belief of the superiority of the Aryan race. By taking back her name, she felt that she can show that, even with his genes, she can be a good person.
The flaw in the third argument, that of being special to God or some supreme being, is that it fosters a feeling of significance based on an event that cannot be proved and is not accepted easily in the majority of modern society. The youth may feel an obligation to belong to a sub-stratum of society in order to embrace that identity or question its validity in order to belong to a different or more immediately relevant group. The end result is that self-esteem can be shattered when it is put to the test and when it is needed the most.
How Do We Build Self-Esteem?
The human being is an intelligent life form. As Rene Descartes put it, “Cogito Ergo Sum”, or “I think, therefore I am”. Though this has been rejected in the twentieth century, it remains indisputable today. Yet, we go about fixing the world so that the attributes a person uses to define and build self-esteem remains inviolate. We protect our children from having their egos bruised when someone violates the attributes that are vulnerable in the first place. Instead, we should be showing them the vulnerability of these attributes and helping them build a deeper understanding of the one attribute that cannot be violated. This is not knowledge as knowledge is always relative to the condition to which it is applied. It is not goodness as goodness is also relative to the needs of one person versus another. It can only be the intelligence, that is, the ability to think and create understanding because when understanding is there, that ability has put it there; when understanding is not there, that ability can put it there. With that as the attribute that defines self, it will always be sufficient to allow a true, powerful and inviolate self-esteem.
Where Do We Start?
Yet, Self-Esteem remains perhaps the most elusive and yet the most necessary quality the human being can seek to have. It seems, however, to be a quality that is unique to the human being. Lower life forms do not seem to have it or need it. Courage? Yes. Determination? Yes. Instinct? Yes. But Self-Esteem? Perhaps it is so invisible and unlike those other qualities just mentioned, it cannot be displayed. So we cannot determine if they have it. What we do know is that when it is strong, it can drive a display of courage, determination, and even consideration or intelligence, but still not a display of itself. Then we display ourselves because we feel comfortable with who and what we are.
Some people end up having little Self-Esteem and they show fear, self-doubt, and a hesitancy to display themselves as they do not feel comfortable revealing the insignificance of what they see as themselves.
Some people build a fragile Self-Esteem. They use any external attachment to display a bigger picture of themselves and so feel comfortable because what they reveal shows them to be useful, attractive, even powerful. Instead of displaying themselves because they feel comfortable with what they are, they can only feel comfortable because of what they have displayed. Because their Self-Esteem depends on these external attachments, it is as fragile as these are vulnerable. Beauty, physical strength and stamina, or skill can fail taking Self-Esteem with them. Friends are not always there. Relationships can fail. Money, position, property can go up in smoke. And even when these are available, there is always the fear of losing them or them losing their value.
Some people have a fabricated, synthetic, or pretentious Self-Esteem, one that is built on platitudes but has no depth. It can go far, but only as far as these platitudes can take them or can be dredged up. They are empty when these platitudes have failed or are not available.
Very few people have a balanced or secure Self-Esteem that can withstand the “noises” of today’s reality. Check yourself. What do you do when you are challenged out of your comfort zone? With an unkind word? With a negative judgment? By a demanding or oppressive boss? What about physical discomfort? Unusual pain or the discovery of a hidden illness? Or if things just happen to thwart your best efforts or make your best laid plans useless? Does your Self-Esteem go out the window and leave you in panic? Insecurity? Anxiety? Feeling of abandonment, rejection, unfair treatment? Does it evoke a need to lash out? Get into a rage (at the fool who cut you off at the lights)? Do you react with an unkind word? A Planned revenge? Legal action? There are more calls to police for family disagreements than can be imagined. Does it cause you to try to get away from it all? Going to some artificial distraction like a bar, a party, a couch, or a bedroom (for any of a variety of reasons)? Or some more noxious stuff?
Or can you ignore the slight and go on feeling confident that you are focused and capable? Really? How do you do it? It can be done. So I do believe that some people have discovered how. Yet, it is so easy to see only the display, the reactions when a person tries to face life with a low, fragile, or spurious Self-Esteem. Let’s be honest. Isn’t it easier to seek help or advise a person to seek help for anger, addiction, depression, or any of the reactive behaviors rather than seek to build something that seems so ethereal and so elusive that, when it seems unstable, you can excuse it as a natural condition everybody has?
What Must We Do
But it is possible to make it secure and forestall all of those other displays that are unproductive and potentially dangerous. You just have to make it your focus. Just imagine that you notice your car tire is losing its tread quickly. You are advised to buy more and more costly tires and replace them often. Wouldn’t it be preferable to have someone tell you that the cause of the problem lies in the imbalance on the wheels? Fix that and you won’t need to replace your tires, at least not as often?
So, fix your Self-Esteem. It is private and hidden. So your focus on fixing it will also be private and hidden. You just focus on that.
First, examine your own Self-Esteem, check how secure it is, how dependent that security is on where you are, what you do, and who you are with.
Next, examine what you use to build or preserve it. Are these value systems internal or external? In other words, are they vulnerable to outside interference or evaluations?
Next, honestly determine what you do when something goes wrong or you are struck by an unkind word, a criticism, rejection. And how often it happens or how easily you fall.
Finally, think of what you would do to solidify that most precious aspect of your existence.
When you have done this, look at the people you are responsible to lead. Is it possible that you can help them to, not just display themselves better, but focus on securing that most precious attribute and so be naturally better workers, compatible colleagues, satisfied patients, cooperative friends, satisfied spouses, or progressive children?