Self-esteem has always been a prominent concept throughout our lives. We were taught that we needed it to be happy, and that it was achievable by anyone who wanted it, meaning those who were willing to work hard for it. In our perpetual rat-race, our parents, and their parents, believed that competition was healthy and that striving to be better than your neighbor created meaning; it seemed like a well-thought-out and well-intentioned program: we would build our society through the efforts of those individuals who motivated themselves by way of their desire to best all of their peers. It seemed so logical and perfect; yet, the consequences have been horrifying. Social isolation and perfectionist behavior have risen exponentially over the past several decades; the need to be better has evolved into the necessity for perfection, which in turned fueled our paranoia and distrust of our friends, whom we reduced to competitors in a turbulent and volatile labor market.
In this blog post, I’m going to put economics aside, which isn’t to say that employment opportunities aren’t significant to our well-being, but I want to particularly focus on the notion of self-esteem; the idea that I have to feel good about myself because of my adaptive and wonderful traits. It seems like such a reasonable concept, and so achievable for most; yet, there seemingly aren’t many who’ve attained it. And the question is why? I believe that the answer is simple: In a world of constant competition, self-esteem and self-regard fluctuate. One day you’re a genius, and the next you’re a loser. One day you’re beautiful, and the next you’re old. How can it be any different when self-esteem, correctly phrased ‘conditional self-acceptance’, is based on the idea of your exceptional qualities being perceived as such in terms of how you compare with others, being based on external factors? In that respect, self-esteem is flimsy and weak, destined to crash, while taking your sanity with it.
The idea that we can pin down certain character traits and call that cluster Mike, or Bill, or Bob is absurd. Due to recent advances in neuroscience, we know that personalities are continually fluctuating, changing over time, and reshaping into different combinations of traits, or patterned behaviors, to be more precise. To characterize oneself in that regard, as a stable set of characteristics, seems to be kind of ridiculous in that light. If we’re ever-evolving creatures, how can we ever really be any of those particular traits? If we were to truly consider our lives, we’d realize that, in fact, we are one thing in one and moment and its opposite in another; sometimes we speak and act in ways that cause us to be perceived as intelligent and of sound judgment, and other times, we speak and act in ways that make us appear foolish. To call oneself smart is to say that one has been, is, and always will be smart; that is their inherent trait. However, the evidence bears witness to the fact that seemingly intelligent people are capable of doing incredibly foolish things. The consideration of oneself as intelligent is rigid, with the power to hold one back from learning and taking risks; it engenders the fear of devaluation, which can only occur after one ascribes the label of intelligence to oneself, desiring to continually hold onto it at any cost, even that of growth.
In our culture, some people would sacrifice any of their relationships for perfection. They would, and do, go to great lengths to perceive themselves as special; to be better than the rest. Learning, which invariably involves failure and making mistakes, has been replaced with safety and self-esteem. The idea is, in order to have self-esteem, conditional self-acceptance, in order to be mentally healthy, I have to maintain my perception of my competence, and I can’t do that if I fail and make mistakes. Our shaky egos are solidified through our fear and avoidance of learning. It is only through our stagnation that we’re able to maintain our illusions of competence, failing to realize that intelligence, genius, and competence are in themselves nothing but mirages; concocted images that fail to correspond to reality. If you were to ask the DaVincis and the Einsteins of the world if they considered themselves to be geniuses, they would have likely laughed, and we would, in turn, simply consider them to be modest, unaware of their wisdom. Einstein knew what most didn’t; he knew that the more he learned about the universe, the more he knew how little he actually knew. Although an expert in several disciplines, Einstein was aware of the fact that he wasn’t able to be an expert in all, or even most, of them, essentially cracking the foundations of the notions of competence and genius, all encompassing terms which describe an individual’s abilities in all areas, excluding the evidence that while one can be highly knowledgeable in some fields of thought, they can’t be highly knowledgable in all.
So, this begs the question: if not self-esteem, conditional self-regard, then what? How can we feel good about ourselves if we can’t assign all encompassing labels to ourselves? If we consider beauty, which is ever-changing and perceived in comparison to others, and competence, which is limited and ever-evolving, to be subjectively valuable, we accept that all traits of value are subjectively valuable; therefore, if all of our positively perceived traits are valuable simply because we say they are, we have the power to create value and esteem for ourselves in whichever ways we choose. We have the power to choose to love and accept ourselves (knowing that labels, whether positive or negative, are inadequate representations of reality) simply because we are who we are, like anyone else, creatures who are learning to love and grow and to make sense of their lives and the world around them. What we weren’t taught when we were children was that we had the power and the ability to unconditionally love and accept ourselves; that our self-worth didn’t have to be based on externally validated qualities, which we technically couldn’t even have. We could have chosen something different and something better, and we still can. When we choose to love and accept ourselves, we choose to disavow the unreasonable expectations we set for ourselves; we discard our desires to always be beautiful, smart, and perfect. And when we make that choice, we’re choosing growth; we’re choosing to disallow our perceptions of our aptitude to preclude us from reaching our full potentials. We, then, begin to love ourselves in the way self-love was meant to be; it becomes an awakening of sorts. And, when there isn’t an exuberant self-image to maintain and the subsequent failure to do so, depression and anxiety seem more much more manageable.
The other day, I read an article about resilience, and the aspect of it that struck me was a story about an army veteran who simply decided to reject the insults of his childhood bullies; his resilience, he stated, stemmed from his unwillingness to accept their perceptions of him. I recall thinking, my god, that is the most powerful thing that any individual can do: to remain internally unmoved by their tormentors. In essence, this person learned one of life’s great truths: the fact that all of us have the ability to create our own self-perceptions. And it is this insight which can unlock the doors to unperceived opportunities and unimagined experiences. We don’t have to continue to base our self-worth on external factors; we have the power to turn inwardly. Sartre once remarked that man is condemned to freedom, to create himself and his life out of virtually nothing; what we now know is that man is also given the ability to create his own perception of himself, and what can be more liberating?