The truth is, self esteem is a mental fabrication. It has no objective existence of its own like might a part of the body or something in the natural environment. We can all agree on a person’s height, weight or even how fast he or she can walk a mile. But, there is no way to measure self esteem that is objective or standardized. That’s actually a good thing because it means any person can make self esteem to be what they choose. But, therein lies the problem as well.
We might think a person who is successful in business, productive and wealthy, has “high” self esteem. Yet, that may not be the case. In fact, it may be that their success is a way of compensating for “low” self esteem. Those who strive for superiority, and may in some ways achieve it, can be attempting to overcome feelings of inferiority. Or, imagine a student who gets straight A’s year after year. Does that indicate high self esteem? Or, does it indicate fear of punishment? Or, does it indicate competitiveness? On the other hand, we might envision a mother of five children, barely able to make ends meet and who yet is happy and relatively unburdened by the amount of stressors in her environment. How does one gauge her self esteem?
Self esteem cannot be gauged by the outer conditions of our situations or circumstances. It can be determined, in part, by how we interact with and respond to our situations and circumstances. Generally, we can say that a person with high self esteem is
- Understanding and supportive of others
- willing to listen to others
- a generous giver
- eager to learn new information
- able to change beliefs and behaviors based on new knowledge
Low self esteem can generally be characterized as
- Overbearing and demanding towards others
- self absorbed and small minded
- a stingy taker
- frightened of risk and challenges
- resistant to change and growth.
Why is this so? Because the higher one’s self esteem, the less dependent one is on any given external structure which might define the self. Low self esteem is based almost entirely on external structures such as rules and regulations, codes of behavior, rewards and punishments. As such, external structures, including other people, can threaten the self, limit the self, manipulate the self and even damage the self. Individuals with low self esteem believe they can “win” by overpowering external structures as opposed to cooperating with external structures. Our western culture’s dominance over the external natural world, in contrast to indigenous cultures which are symbiotically cooperative, suggests our western culture has a low opinion of itself. Even the remarkable technological advances put forth by western civilization is not in itself evidence of a high collective cultural self esteem and can be viewed as a way of compensating for a variety of social deficits including slavery, racism, bigotry, prejudice and corruption. The history of brutality and violence exhibited in western society is certainly indicative of low cultural self esteem as it is excessively overbearing, to say the least.
What we often refer to as high self esteem comes about by understanding that the self is not dependent on the external world of people, places and things for its status. Self esteem is something which exists within one’s own mind and something which can be enriched and enhanced or degraded and demeaned only by one’s own mind. As such, there is no reason to fear external structures such as rules and regulations, new information, strange beliefs, different cultures and certainly people with different colored skin. All such external objects have no real bearing on the self other than what the mind gives it. High self esteem comes from a mind that knows the self to be essentially fluid, malleable and flexible which is required for growth and development. The self is understood to be a process, not a static entity. By way of analogy, consider the self to be like water. It can be solid, liquid or gas. The solid state of water, as in ice, is the self when awake. The liquid is the self when dreaming and the gas when asleep. But, even ice can change its shape. It can be melted and reshaped without losing any of its quality or quantity.
Many modern teachers will suggest a variety of exercises in affirmative positive thinking to build self esteem. Although positive, constructive thinking has it’s place and can be a part of building self esteem, all the positive thinking in the world will be for nothing until one believes, knows, that the self, no matter how frozen, can be reshaped without fear of losing the self. The very first step towards changing self esteem, or changing any aspect of the self, is the realization of its adaptable, pliable nature and its underlying reality as a mental fabrication. Neuroscientists refer to this capacity of mental adaptability as “plasticity. ” And, ultimately, since the self is a mental fabrication, it arises out of a vast array of neural interconnections in the brain, which has this capacity of plasticity. Once this solvent nature of the mind is fully accepted, then positive, constructive thinking can be effective. But, positive thinking alone is not enough. There must also be heat to melt the old frozen lower level self esteem models and a new mold in which to shape the new higher level self esteem beliefs. It is said that new wine must be put into new wine skin. Positive thoughts must be contained within a new belief system which understands the self to be a fabrication of its own making – what one might call a framework of “self-responsibility. ”
Ken Fields is owner and principle counselor at Open Mind Counseling, http://www.openmindcounseling.com He is a nationally certified licensed mental health counselor with over 25 years of experience in working with individuals, couples, families and groups. He has been a crisis intervention counselor, has taught at university and has been an administrator in a human service agency. He has taught public classes in stress and anger management, mediation, communication and negotiation, self image psychology, motivation and goal setting and crisis prevention. Mr. Fields now offers online communication coaching and counseling specializing in cognitive behavior and family systems therapy.