written by John Niland
Thousands of books have been written about relationships. From How to Win Friends and Influence People to finding love to impacting others: our relationships have long preoccupied our minds. Our relationship with ourselves, too, has come under close scrutiny, particularly in the Anglo-American world of personal development, where the Self often sits centre-stage. The perennial pursuit of self-esteem has filled countless courses and therapy rooms, as well as preoccupied the minds of at least two generations of educators. Let’s be honest: an entire personal development industry is eager for you to knock on its door, to share any issues you may have with your self-esteem and so be a candidate for their teaching and services.
But is self-esteem really the ultimate goal? There is mounting evidence that self-esteem—long regarded as the Holy Grail of personal development—is not delivering on its promise. Instead, the widespread pursuit of self-esteem seems to be nurturing narcissism, addiction to praise and ever-present anxiety about not living up to one’s full potential. Far from producing generations of self-assured adults, we seem to be cultivating even more self-preoccupation, anxiety and depression than ever before. According to the World Health Organisation, more than 300 million people are now living with depression, an increase of more than 18% between 2005 and 2015.
In my business-coaching work, I see the consequences of self-preoccupation every day. The incessant question “How am I doing?” is a recipe for weaker negotiators, narcissistic managers and insecure professionals. In every walk of life, self-preoccupation is a malaise that often weakens real job effectiveness. If you are a manager of people, you probably see this every day. When it’s your turn to buy a service, don’t you want a professional who is focused on your needs, not his or her ratings or performance? Self-obsession usually diminishes a person’s capacity to bounce back from setbacks, because every disappointment is a reflection of them.
One evening in London some years ago, this was summed up for me by an intelligent young man who was prey to a host of insecurities. In one sentence, he summarised his constant anxiety with the exclamation: “I’m not much… but I’m all I think about.”
Educated in Self-Esteem
Self-esteem is the reputation that we have with ourselves… even when nobody is watching.
The need for self-esteem starts very early in life. In pursuit of self-esteem, we can aim for high marks, weight loss, awards, qualifications, romance, children, charitable giving, appearance, cars, houses, financial security, personal fitness, better/more sex or a different career. Naturally, we tell ourselves that we are choosing to do these things; that we are doing them for ourselves, not for anyone else. Or we convince ourselves we are having fun doing so. To be fair, sometimes we are.
Indeed, are we not educated to think this way? From a very early age, we are encouraged to develop exactly this sort of inner motivation. We are often expressly taught that this quality of self-esteem is precisely what differentiates successful people from the broad mass of average achievers. The catechism of twenty-first-century religion begins with self-belief and the liturgy of self-esteem is by now an extensive one. A recent example of this is the rise of “your optimised self”: a myriad of apps tracking your every move, exhorting you to set goals and be the best you can be. Implication: you are not.
With self-esteem as the new credo, its litany is now made up affirmations. Day by day, we try to affirm that we are smart, beautiful, successful, whatever it takes to establish that chimerical relationship with the Self. “Fake it until you make it” is expressly taught in Confidence School, along with power stances and the absolute imperative of self-belief. The slightest deviation from the path of positive self-regard is pounced upon and corrected. Like a Catholic nun might have reproached your venial sins a half-century earlier, lapses of “self-limiting beliefs” are now exposed and shamed in the orthodoxy of self-esteem.
Self-worth is a deep belief in your inherent value as a person, from a position of unconditional friendship with yourself. You don’t earn self-worth by doing worthy things: you already have it.
Like many people, I had always equated self-worth and self-esteem, assuming they were just synonyms for each other. It took a succession of losses in my fifties to teach me this fine but vital distinction. Driven far inside myself by a series of setbacks, I began to strip away the covers, in much the same way as you might strip down an old chair to uncover the original fine wood beneath.
When you are in love, or your career is booming, you feel good about yourself. In those halcyon days, self-worth and self-esteem both seem to be on the rise. The distinction will appear merely semantic, drowned out in the happy song of love or busyness. The soft whisper of self-worth is hard to hear when the full orchestra of romance is playing its full crescendo.
But when life is tough, or you fail to live up to your own expectations of yourself, the difference between self-worth and self-esteem suddenly becomes very real. It’s a powerful distinction that changes your view of yourself.
Self-worth is intrinsic, not extrinsic. It comes from within, not from your behaviour or your performance. It’s about you, not your actions or even your feelings. It’s already there, within; you just need to find it. It’s a belly-level sense of being on your own side. It’s got nothing to do with whether you are eating a bag of chips while you are thinking about it.
Self-worth is not contingent. In other words, you always have it. There are no conditions to be fulfilled. You don’t even have to feel it or believe in it; it’s yours by the very fact of your existence. Even if you have not found it yet.
Self-worth is a primal belief in your own value as a person. It is not contingent on your deeds, possessions or whether you go to the gym. It’s about you, not your behaviour, your state or your achievements. For all these reasons, self-worth is the strongest possible foundation for self-esteem, confidence and general happiness.
One thing, however, is clear. The softer voice of self-worth has been largely ignored in the clamour for self-esteem. In pursuit of the Holy Grail represented by a positive evaluation of ourselves, we have generally neglected the truth that we’ve been standing on all the time: the possibility of unconditional loyalty to one’s own worth.
Summing up the descriptions above, I am using the following definitions of confidence, self-esteem, other-esteem and self-worth.
Confidence: This is how we present ourselves to the world. Confidence can be real or faked.
Other-esteem: This is our reputation with others, which can be established by popularity, likes, positive feedback, people-pleasing, making people laugh, “likes” on social media and a host of other ways by which we register “social impact.”
Self-esteem: Using Nathanial Branden’s definition, self-esteem is our reputation with ourselves. Self-esteem is how we perceive we “measure up” to our own standards. Therefore, it fluctuates according to how we perform, how we judge ourselves.
Self-worth: This is our intrinsic sense of worth as a person. It comes from within, not from our behaviour or our performance. The strongest foundation for self-esteem and confidence.
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