The idea of self-esteem gained prominence in the 80’s; it was this great need to get children to feel good about themselves because depression was rampant among them. Self-esteem, it was believed, was the key to resolving their emotional difficulties. “If only they could feel good about themselves, they could be happy,” it was thought. But, there was a catch: feeling good was intertwined with labeling. Telling kids that they were smart, attractive, funny, and special, and could do anything they wanted to with their lives, essentially, fostering a world of positive thinking for them, creating their world of illusion, became common. The message was: if you possess those particular qualities, you could feel good about yourself, but you already do, so don’t worry. And, they misguidedly believed that their children would never catch on, that they would fall for the hoax, clearly believing them to be far less intelligent than they led on.
And then, their manufactured world of positivity became a nightmare, as they began to see through the parental and cultural veils which told them that all of them were beautiful, and all of them were smart, and that all of them were perfect exactly as they were; they realized that each quality existed in comparison, and that everyone couldn’t possess all of them all of the time: specialness is only special when compared to something which isn’t so. And, subsequently, the self-esteem movement came crashing down, with some parents re-directing their praise toward achievements rather than inheritance, teaching their children that they could feel good about themselves if they were high achievers, which was possible through dedicated and sustained effort. And, eventually, competition resumed and low self-worth predominated once again; for when there’s success, there’s failure, and when there’s failure, there’s self-loathing, at least when failure is linked to self-worth.
As discussed in a prior article, the concept of self-esteem is toxic due to its existence being based on and maintained though factors outside of one’s full control, whether they be achievement based or inherent qualities such as beauty or intellect. The bursting of the positivity bubble precipitated the movement’s downfall. Positive thinking, much like self-esteem, is unsustainable, but for another reason. Whereas self-esteem falls apart when one’s intrinsic qualities can’t compare to those of others or when one fails, positive thinking falls apart when the veil is lifted and the world is seen as it really is, and more importantly, one is seen as she or he truly is, as a human being. Although hurtful at first, the truth, ironically, has the power to liberate us, to free us from the oppression of labels and exuberant expectations, and to afford us the gift of being ourselves.
One of the most difficult aspects of my work is dealing with patients who set high bars for themselves, their actions, and their achievements, those who expect the impossible, while denying the actual: their circumstances. Beauty, intellect, success, and respect are qualities desired by a great many but only achieved by too few; they’re traits that can be, and often are, even denied when possessed. So, the question we should be asking ourselves isn’t, “How do I attain this or that standard? But, “How can I renounce it?” And, although antithetical to our ingrained values, antithesis is what’s needed, as only antithesis could save us.
Despite the difficulty involved, there is a way out, and the light-bearer’s name is self-compassion. For to love oneself is to accept oneself, and to accept oneself is to accept one’s flaws. I often tell others that trying to attain excellence is healthy, being a sign of high character, but that expecting it is not. Striving, trying, being, doing, progressing, developing: these are all wonderful and life-affirming actions; they’re what make us who we are, and they’re what help us reach heights which were unimaginable by our ancestors. In contrast, the lust and the expectation for perfection can only engender self-loathing, self-doubt, and distrust: the antitheses of growth. To love oneself is to love one’s flaws, and to love oneself is to love one’s potential. Loving is wishing, wishing to see and be the best version of yourself, while accepting that you’ll always be human, and knowing that that will always be okay.