Reducing human complexity to any one particular source is usually fruitless and misleading; the most that we can do is discover a theme, or themes, in dissimilar environments and endeavors and articulate the thread(s) running through them. Actions and outcomes tend to have multiple motivators, because we tend to need several reasons to expend our energy and act. If our energies are best spent on survival, then it makes sense that most of us, most of the time, would rather just be lazy.
So, in writing this, I want to be clear in noting that I don’t believe that self-esteem is the sole driver of the forthcoming activities and beliefs that I’ll explore, but that it’s one of the important components of them.
I spent a good portion of my life attempting to create and maintain a positive self-image. Sometimes, I achieved it through some external accomplishment, like the perfect grade or an award; and, at others, through the validation of a highly regarded individual. There was a point when I was searching for the right religion or spiritual philosophy to prove my divine nature to me. If there was a perfect god who created me in his perfect image and perfectly loved me, then I could shower myself in the radiance of his all-encompassing love, finally feeling perfect and whole.
Religion and spirituality, my search for self-love in that respect, led me to a dead-end, and I eventually became an atheist; the reasoning for atheism was too powerful to resist. Thus, I went back to searching for my value through the usual meritocratic achievements. My goal shifted from attaining self-worth through an acceptance of god’s love for me to achieving it through status and property.
When focusing on religion, romance, success, popularity, status, and wealth, one of the underlying threads that runs through them emerges: self-esteem. Whether it’s god, a romantic partner, achievement, or fame, each scenario can be interpreted through the lens of our innate desire to feel whole, to believe that we’re lovable. And when people, like me, become obsessive, they place too much stock in one particular area of success, believing either that it’s the only one that matters or that self-love is all or nothing, meaning that either I can feel good about myself because all of these boxes are checked or not because at least one is missing. Obsessive types, again like me, need all of them to be checked. (Our secret is that we’re never happy, so there’s not much reason for envy here.)
Our values can become skewed when self-love is interpreted through solitary lenses. If I focus my desire too much on wealth and status, I’ll miss out on the love stemming from my friends and family. If I focus too much on them, I lose my identity in the collective, living to serve them instead of balancing service with individuality. Fundamentally, we’re the ones who choose how to define ourselves; that’s the real, buried, secret. And that can be terrifying! Hence, why it’s left unacknowledged. So, we plod on through our usual ways of creating and maintaining self-worth, grasping onto them as though our survival depends on them.
Despite overwhelming evidence against the notion of the self-made individual, conservatives and some liberals find it daunting to examine and challenge their belief in meritocracy. In childhood, we’re granted a blueprint on how to feel good about ourselves: success = self-esteem. And, success, is the result of character. Is character purely your own, forged through grit resulting from pure free-will, or granted, in part, to you by genetic and environmental factors? Never-mind that. Success results from effort! Put your head down, shut up, and work!
Challenging the meritocratic ideology becomes difficult, according to author Clifton Mark, because our self-image is tied in with our belief that we’re worthy because we deserve to be: I deserve X (my status, and thus my self-worth) because Y (I worked my ass off for it.). In altering our conception of being self-made, again according to Mark, we downplay merit, thereby reducing self-esteem.
Similarly, religion becomes difficult to abandon, not only because notions of god’s perpetual care and concern and the existence of an afterlife are comforting, but also due to god’s love providing us with a major source of self-acceptance. The main driver behind religion as a treatment for Narcissistic Personality Disorder is that a toxic coping mechanism (i.e. grandiosity and self-deception) is replaced with a healthier one (i.e. god loves me as the imperfect person that I am). And psychology teaches us that we have to be really careful when trying to eliminate successful coping mechanisms, because all of us need them.
There is no right way to feel good about yourself, but it’s important to have an accurate assessment of the positives and negatives of our various options, what we’d be missing and gaining with each. To me, it seems, the healthiest route is one where we value each of the above-noted concepts equally, as placing too much emphasis on one causes us to miss the gifts of others, and devastation if we were to ever lose it.