On an episode of our podcast (linked below), philosopher Mark White spoke with us about the superhero Thor, and the comic’s perspectives of morality and character. Mark argued that self-esteem constitutes an unstable structure, which has to be rebuilt every day. The question of worthiness is qualified by the day in which it’s asked. So, worthiness isn’t an end-point; it’s more like a well that has to constantly be replenished. Once you start resting on your laurels, you merely fall into it.
One would argue, and Mark does, that we need to be on alert, taking stock of our actions, daily. That argument resonates with me, deeply, since I frequently grapple with black and white thinking, hoping instead to reach the pinnacle of self-esteem. But, I would take it one step further. Most of my clients, like me, struggle with cultivating a stable sense of self. Despite my accomplishments over the past several years, their luster fades too quickly. Most of my prior beliefs about self-esteem centered on cultivating it on one’s own, utilizing the exploration of critical thinking. I implored my readers to look at all of the evidence! But now, I no longer believe that that was the right method, or at least the best one. Ultimately, it can engender two bad outcomes. On the one hand, your self-image will eventually fade, leading you to want to accomplish more and constantly seek out further validation. On the other, you’ll likely alienate those around you. Over the past few years of treating clients with severely low self-esteem, I realized that they’ve actually resolved the great mystery of relationship success. While they couldn’t perceive themselves as others did, they were often the most popular and loved in their friend groups. Their humility was charming and disarming!
Rather than fostering envy, their friends felt sympathy, desperately wanting to help them. If, instead, those clients were prideful, they would’ve missed out on having deep connections, not only due to jealousy but also because there wouldn’t have been a need to soothe them. I mean, what do you give the individual who seemingly has it all? But, now the question of living with low self-esteem comes into play. While it may be nice that others think well of you, how can you manage your own emotional troubles if you can’t see that in yourself? The answer, I believe, is perspective.
My clients couldn’t understand why and how others could think well of them. Rooted in mistrust and stubbornness, they were certain of their own realities. People were either lying to them, or suffering from some version of psychosis. So, the work we did together revolved around holding two contradictory ideas together: that they were lovable while feeling worthless. Essentially, they began to open themselves up to the possibility of others being honest, while still maintaining their distorted self-image. This seems counter-productive, but acknowledging that people whom you love and admire actually believe what they say about you can be a balm, if not a remedy. There’s a world where you can feel some degree of pride, so I wouldn’t abandon all of my past ideas; I would just focus on them less.
Fortunately or unfortunately, we’re highly dependent on each other to know ourselves and to manage our chaotic moods. We can certainly take pride in what we’ve done and how far we’ve come, but need to accept the inherent instability of that method; our goal posts inevitably move up. But, if we dwell too much on how amazing we are, we’ll lose everyone and everything around us; that was Mark’s message. Fundamentally, it’s better to have a less realistic assessment of who you are, while holding that perspective with those of your loved ones. The misconception is that you’ll seem too needy, but neediness actually stems from an inability, or unwillingness, to seriously consider and/or believe the alternative views about you. But, again, I don’t think you have to. You just have to learn how to believe that they believe them.
Check out our episode with Mark below: