The Self in Self-Esteem

I was driving home from a friend’s house tonight, feeling sad about some stuff that’s going on in my life.  I was listening to a country station (I know, I know.  Country Music has correctly been called “three chords and the truth” but has never been called “The best possible pick-me-up music”  so the station was perhaps not the best decision when sad, but I digress… ) They played an old Reba McEntire song called “I’m a Survivor”.  The second verse so hit me that I’m going to type it in its entirety here:

I don’t believe in self-pity
It only brings you down
May be the queen of broken hearts
But I don’t hide behind the crowd
When the deck is stacked against me
I just play a different game
My roots are planted in the past
And though my life is changing fast
Who I am is who I want to be
With gentle hands and the heart of a fighter
I’m a survivor

I think it’s the “Who I am is who I want to be” that really struck me.  There’s so much in life that I can’t control but I can be sure that who I am is who I want to be. And it is…I am.

That made me think about the nature of self-esteem.  Low self-esteem is one of the things that I often hear people talk  about.  Sometimes people I know complain about low self-esteem repeatedly over a prolonged period of time.  I’ve seen people’s lives ruined because of low self-esteem.

Typically when I hear people talk about self-esteem they are talking about how they don’t have as much as they’d like.  How it holds them back.  Usually they talk about low self-esteem coming from childhood, or a series of life failures.  They blame it on someone or something that is “else”.

Here’s the thing.  It’s called “Self-Esteem”.  It’s not “My-Mother-Esteem” or “My-Boss-Esteem” or “Things-Always-Go-My-Way-Esteem” or “I-Don’t-Have-Any-Issues-Esteem”.   It’s Self-Esteem.

You are the only one who can affect your self-esteem.  Let me define self-esteem as I see it so as not to cause confusion.  To me, self-esteem is your certainty, that you know like you know like you know, that you are intrinsically amazing.

It’s not the same as how you feel about yourself because you are good at your job, or because you get the approval of others, or because of your talents, abilities and successes in life.  Self-Esteem is how you would feel about yourself if you were alone on a desert island with absolutely nothing to be good at.

“Self” is the operative word in self-esteem. In my experience, self-esteem isn’t developed – it’s discovered.  It’s not a process of accumulating praise or success.  It’s a process of letting go of criticism and failure, of letting go of praise and success.  Letting go of everything and ending up with just yourself.  Realizing that you are incredible because you just are – whether or not you ever accomplish anything.

If you don’t get that, then no achievements, promotions, praise, approval, love, or success will ever be able to give it to you.  You have to get that you are amazing and worthy – at this moment, at every moment – and you don’t have to do anything to have that, be that, or deserve that.  It just is.  Nobody can give it to you, you have to discover it, claim it, and own it for yourself.

Then you scrape together everything that you found about your inherent, intrinsic amazingness and you hold it in your center and you say “This is my Self-Esteem.  It’s Mine.  It’s Precious.  You Can’t Touch It.  You can’t even get Near It.  You can have my Self-Esteem when you pry it from my COLD.  DEAD.  HANDS.”

Then you set about the work of making sure that who you are is who you want to be in all the other aspects of your life.  But it starts with self-esteem, and self-esteem starts with Self.

17 thoughts on “The Self in Self-Esteem

  1. “Realizing that you are incredible because you just are – whether or not you ever accomplish anything.”

    Oy. This entry hits close to home for me, but specifically this line – bit of a light bulb moment. Thank you. 🙂

  2. This is why letting kids get away with crap in school and losing all standards of camparison to build self-esteem isn’t working! You’ve hit it right on the head–it comes from within!

    Thanks for yet another great post!

    xo Susie

    1. I totally agree – plus kids lose the lessons that winning and losing teach them. We’ve so missed the point on that. Glad that you liked the post 🙂

  3. So… is there any logic at all behind this concluding that I am awesome? I am not a fan of believing things for the effects of the belief rather than, like, evidence. And you’ve said what isn’t evidence (achievements, praise) but nothing that is (maybe because nothing is universal and you don’t want to tell anyone they shouldn’t have self-esteem). A complete lack of evidence is not very convincing.

    Can I blame my utter lack of self-esteem on being verbally abused every single (week)day for 10 years? Or is just all my fault for not believing that I am awesome for no reason?

    If I were in the desert, I wouldn’t think anything about myself, I would think either “Yay, I have food and water, I am set,” or “Oh crap, I am going to die. Cacti have water, right? Can I eat cactus? I’m going to find a cactus.” There would be no assessment to make of myself if there were no other people because there would be no context. I might be confident I could do something or not, and I guess I could compare myself to, like, lizards (gee, they sure do dig better than me, but they’re lizards). I don’t know if this means anything other than that self-esteem is higher than food and water in the needs hierarchy (where you satisfy the lower ones first).

    Also, that line in the song about playing a different game feels bootstrappy to me. (You know, pull yourself up by your bootstraps.) I don’t know any other games, I don’t even know the rules to this game, and even if I have separate personal rules it won’t stop me from losing the game that everyone else is playing.

    1. So, if I were alone on a desert island with no resources I would be all about survival, but if I were comfortably ensconced on a desert island I would find a way to pass my time and then I would bemoan how awful I was at it because I knew there were people back in civilization who were five billion times better.

    2. Nope – it’s not logical. It’s an intrinsic knowing – a decision really. I realized that I had to decide to believe that I am awesome despite all of the external messages otherwise.

      You can blame your utter lack of self-esteem on being verbally abused. You can blame it on whatever you want, I’m just not sure what that accomplishes other than justifying living in a state a poor self-esteem. If that’s what you want then it sounds like you’ve found a good path. It wasn’t what I wanted so I’ve found a different path that works for me. I was verbally abused for 18 years, that happened to me and it was wrong and I couldn’t control it happening, but the only options I can see are that I can either blame things on that and look for reasons why I should feel shitty about myself, or I can choose to take responsibility for how I reacted to it and what I want to do moving forward. I believe that you you want higher self-esteem you have to find a way to create it for yourself. It’s totally cool if you don’t believe what I believe – it’s just that if you don’t choose take responsibility for how you’ve reacted to your circumstances and how you’ve allowed them to affect you and what you are going to do moving forward I wish I knew what to suggest but I just don’t.

  4. From this exchange it seems to me there is a strong element of “faith” to self-esteem: either you believe you are marvellous or you don’t. OR can you act/ proceed as if you believe it, and maybe it will come?

    1. Hi Michele. You make a really great point. I do think that the fake it ’til you make it idea works, especially if someone can’t quite get to the “I’m awesome” belief right away. So then we might ask ourselves “How would I act if I truly believed I was awesome?” or “What choice would I make if I truly believed I was awesome”.

  5. Regan,
    I have been reading your blog all night. This post in particular was so inspiring to me. you truly are a huge inspiration. thank you so much. your writing is really reaching people and helping people-me in this case lol.

  6. you could look at self-esteem as being on your own side. In other words, wanting things to go well for the person whose body you’re in, because it’s their life you have to experience, not anyone else’s.

    I don’t see that this means you have to like or respect that person without reason. If you are a terrible person, then why should you blind yourself to that and think that you’re a great person?

    You might (should?) have to grow into the person that you want to be, or at least have respect and compassion for that person, because, it’s trying.

    The endless possibilities that arise from the fact that humans are so deeply complicated, and are constantly presented with unique situations, means every person has potential to add something of value to themselves or to others. Sometimes in ways it would have been impossible to predict.

    Every person goes through times when they are proud, and times when they are not proud, of themselves. But you can still be on your own side the whole time, disappointed sometimes, but always trying to be the person you want to be.

    I call this logical optimism.

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