Self-esteem has been a very popular topic for most part of last century. Several books were written about the theme and the popular thought is that a good self-image was necessary for a person to feel good about himself. Words of affirmation such as “I’m okay,” “I can do it” and “I’m special” were believed to help someone to achieve a positive self-concept. Some researches, however, showed that self-esteem wasn’t really helping people to feel better and have a good self-concept.
My purpose for this article is to explain why people cannot reach a healthy self-concept through self-esteem. In order to do it I want to start by explaining how feelings of inadequacy arise in our mind. The source of our feelings of unworthy stems from our childhood, mainly due to the relationships we have with the most important people in our lives.
We need lots of care, nurturing, touching, and love during our childhood to feel good about ourselves. Human beings are by far the most dependent animals. We need the constant presence and reassurance of our caregivers for the longest amount of time to have a healthy development. Our brain needs lots of compassion and empathy. Abandonment, rejection, criticism and abuse are detrimental to our brain. A child who does not feel accepted by her caregivers will have developmental problems and will feel insecure and anxious.
When children are not properly cared and nurtured they try to make sense of what is happening to them. Human beings are the only animals who try to find meaning for what happens to them. The child assumes that he is not well taken care of because he is bad and unworthy of his parents’ love. In addition, caregivers’ criticism and name calling reinforce the child’s idea that he is not well cared because he is inadequate.
However, nature has built in us a self-defense mechanism against feelings of inferiority. When children feel unworthy, they try to prove their worth. They want to assert their value and their importance to conquer their caregivers’ love and respect. They also try to convince themselves that they are not bad but they are good, intelligent and worthwhile.
This effort to prove oneself to conquer parents’ respect is spread to other people and is continued throughout adulthood. In other words, people who felt rejected and unloved by their parents during childhood are overly concerned with what other people might think of them and they want to show their worth. They have a concern about how they are perceived by others. They think that people judge them negatively and they need to do something to change people’s negative view of them.
The person who was not properly nurtured and cared during childhood wants to conquer people’s respect and admiration. She feels that the secret to be accepted by others depends on her showing them her qualities and virtues. She focus on things that she believes will attract people’s respect and she perfects them. The message they try to convey is “I am a good person, I have several qualities and consequently I deserve your love.”
Self-esteem consequently is a built in mechanism of self-defense against feeling inferior and unworthy. When a child feels rejected and unappreciated by her parents she automatically fights these feelings with opposite feelings of superiority and self-importance. She tells herself, I’m not inferior, I’m important, special and I have several good qualities.
We can notice this self-defense mechanism in adults as well. For example, when we are criticized by someone, our tendency is to defend ourselves. Very rarely we take negative feedback without justifying ourselves. Being criticized is painful and we want to restore our sense of worthiness by giving some explanation. The problem with criticism is that we attach our worth to it. When someone criticizes us we understand that they are saying we are inferior and we cannot stand feeling inferior.
The problem is that self-esteem does not help someone to feel good about himself. If it helped, the person would not need it again and again. Self-esteem only reinforces the built in defense mechanisms that the person has and it keeps the person in an eternal black and white vision of himself.
People who did not feel loved in their childhood are constantly moving from feeling unworthy to feeling worthy. One time they feel they are nothing and other time they feel they are everything. When they perform poorly or when they are criticized they feel inadequate and inferior. When they do something good, or when they are complimented they feel superior and special. When they face their imperfections they tend to feel dejected and sad. When they notice something good about themselves, however, they feel happy and excited.
Therefore, high self-esteem may be a sign that someone really does not have a positive self-image. Behind feelings of superiority lurks insecurity, and feelings of inadequacy. Narcissists do not love themselves. Narcissism and high self-esteem are only mechanisms of self-defense. They do not cure the problem; they only show that the problem exists.
Telling someone who feels inadequate that she is smart, attractive and competent is almost the same as giving cocaine to a depressed person. Although she might temporarily feel better, the effect will be as fleeting as a high for the drug addicted. She will eventually come to terms with her imperfections and she will crash.
We need something more effective than self-esteem. Something that is not contingent to our strengths and successes and is independent of our traits and qualities. We need something that will carry us through our moments of glory and our moments of failure. Something that will tell us that we are enough no matter we win or lose. This something I’m talking about is self-appreciation.
Telling ourselves that we are important, special and unique when we feel down does not help us. It works the same way as when someone else criticizes us. If we defend ourselves from a critic, the critic will feel compelled to criticize us harder. The more we defend our innocence, the more she will try to prove us differently.
This dialogue also happens inside of us. If we tell ourselves that we are smart, beautiful and competent when we feel inadequate, we will try to convince ourselves otherwise. We will split ourselves in two parts, one that tells us that we are unworthy and another one that tells us that we are worthy. The two parts will be eternally fighting and they will never come to terms with a solution to the problem. I say this because during several years I tried to heal my lack of self-esteem trying to feel valuable and it did not work.
Self-appreciation embraces everything that we are without prejudice or judgment. We are a mosaic of qualities and imperfections. We have strengths and weaknesses. We are good in some things, average in others and still bad in others. We are neither bad or good, nor inferior or superior. Therefore, when someone tells us that we are bad he is right, and if he tells us that we are good he is also right. And if someone tells us that we are ordinary, she is still right.
I think that the best description of what we are is actually ordinary. People with low self-esteem fear this word. They think they need to be special and unique to feel good about themselves. However, they keep on trying to feel special and it never solves their problem. Coming to terms with our humanity is the only solution to our lack of self-esteem. We are neither superior nor inferior, we are just average.
Trying to show people our qualities will not help them love us. We try to be successful to attract people’s admiration because of our belief that our parents did not love us because of our imperfections. It was not our imperfections that prevented our parents to love us, but their traumas from their own childhood and their inability to love themselves. Love is unconditional and does not depend on someone’s qualities or failures. Trying to be successful, rich, well-educated and thin to attract people’s admiration is as ineffective as our efforts to gain our parents’ approval during our childhood. We will keep an eternal game that will only make us feel frustrated and disappointed.
Trying to prove our worthiness always backfires. First of all we become afraid of falling off from people’s positive image of us. We become tense and self-conscious. We think we have to win at all costs and we cannot fail. And if we fail or we are criticized we feel horrible.
When we accept our humanity, however, we do not have anything to fear. We can have compassion on ourselves when we fail and we are not overly concerned about people’s approval. We know that winning and losing are part of life and we cannot escape either one of them. Because we are ordinary, we will win sometimes and we will lose other times. This awareness, on the other hand, helps us to win and be successful. If we are not overly concerned about winning to prove our worth, we are more relaxed and less afraid. This gives us the motivation and the energy to work and do our best.
The fear of being inferior is so terrifying that it prevents people sometimes from working towards their dreams. They are so afraid of failing that they become paralyzed. If they do not do anything they can at least say that they did not succeed because they did not try. Nonetheless, if they do not demand their success, they do not feel anxious or afraid. This helps them to have a positive mindset that will help them achieve their goals. Because they are free from demands and fears, they are liberated to do their best.