It was once said that having low self-esteem is like driving through life with a handbrake on. I like this metaphor because it illustrates just how hard it is to live your best life when you don’t feel worthy to live in that space. for years I have read about self-esteem and how it affects the way that we live. Struggling in my teenage years with low self-esteem, I came to see firsthand what the world looks like when you feel very negatively about yourself. Doing my own inner work over a number of years I also came to see how differently the world appears when you change the thoughts that you have about who you are and what your experiences in life represent.
Self-esteem can be defined as the way that you feel about yourself. It is whether you feel happy or sad, peaceful or unsettled, courageous or fearful, when you look in the mirror. How we feel about ourselves will determine much about what we feel towards the world. Feeling distain for ourselves and we will feel distain for the world and the people who inhabit it. Feeling loving and accepting of ourselves and the world will be a place in which we can practice love and acceptance. Indeed, the outer world is a reflection of our inner world, and for the most part the emotions that we experience in it are the same emotions that are tied up in our own self-concept.
Thoughts produce feelings which in turn produce actions. Understanding this relationship between our psychology and physiology we learn much about self-esteem and the way that it influences our behaviour. Whether we have high or low self-esteem is primarily determined by the things that we say to ourselves. If we say to ourselves that we are worthless, no good and undeserving of the best things in life, we will feel terrible about ourselves and act in a way that communicates to the world that we do not like who we are. we will probably abuse ourselves in some way whether it is through unhealthy eating, consuming drugs or excessive amounts of alcohol, or abuse others, mistreating them in the same way that we mistreat ourselves. This is what it means to have low self-esteem. It is to see ourselves as ugly, diminished and therefore incapable of being the person that we aspire to be.
If our self-talk is positive, reflecting an optimistic attitude, we will feel great about ourselves and the world in which we live. This will lead us to live passionately with great enthusiasm. Feeling our joy and receiving the good works that our inspired effort produces, the universe will bring to us people and opportunities that allow us to experience more of what we already are. People who live like this have high self-esteem. they feel good about who they are and their world reflects this.
Being what they have created from the inside out, it is no accident that their feelings of inner success produce external success in the different forms that material prosperity takes. This however is not to imply that all those who have amassed great worldly fortunes produced them with high self-esteem because many of them did not. The difference lies in the integrity that was practiced as the service was being rendered and the rewards were being received. Leaders like Richard Branson, Steve Jobs, Oprah Winfrey, Warren Buffet and Bill Gates share what they have created with many other people. With who they are being such a large part of what they have created, the high quality and value of what they have produced and contributed to mirrors in a very tangible way their own self-concept, and their belief of what they are capable of.
Someone with low self-esteem and a limited self-concept will not have what it takes to accomplish great things. Only once they increase their self-esteem and develop a powerful self-concept will they be able to do what they previously thought impossible. Believing in themselves they will be able to envision bigger and better things. Acting on that belief they will be able to create with their hands what they envision with their mind. This is how self-esteem facilitates success in worldly terms. what your mind can conceive and believe, you can achieve, but if you don’t believe in yourself you will not go to work in creating a future that is better than what you are living in the present.
It is very sad for me to see people who have clearly given up on themselves. Shuffling as they walk with their heads down, they appear to carry the weight of the world on their shoulders. Ostracizing themselves from other people, they are reluctant to admit that they are stuck, but in so many ways they give themselves away, from the way that they hold themselves and speak about their experience of life to the way that they treat others.
To value yourself you must first know yourself. what I mean by this is being acquainted with the psychological and spiritual aspects of your being. Who we are physically in this world is only the most visible part of who we are but there are whole other parts that so many people have yet to explore. being that inner realm which holds the secrets of who we are at a deeper level, it is these psychological and spiritual facets of being that we must give more conscious attention to if we are to understand who we are.
It is very hard to love something that you don’t understand. Applying this to the relationship that we have with ourselves, it is imperative that we grow to understand ourselves more clearly so that we can love ourselves without judgment. not judging the truth of who we are, it will appear more visibly in the world to guide our growth.
One of the things that I have observed about low self-esteem is that it leads us with our self-talk to beat ourselves up with messages that are not necessarily true. Perhaps we paint a picture and everyone that we show the picture to says that it is a fabulous piece of art. despite the positive feedback that we have received, the wounded mind will not focus on that but on the limiting beliefs that we have as an artist. Perhaps we will say that the painting was terrible or that it was luck that produced the piece. Talking this way, we will articulate our perceived shortcomings even though they do not stand up against the contrary evidence that appears before us.
Have you ever been around a person who is so self denigrating that they appear to live on a different planet? With the images that they hold and the words that they communicate with the mind not matching the physical reality of their life, what we see with our objective eyes is often what they struggle to see with eyes that have been blinded by a limited self-concept. so often we cannot see anything other than what our map presents to us even when it is totally inconsistent with the territory that is independent of the mind. in this disparity between truth and falsehood we suffer in life, lost in our dark and depleted mind that is incapable of shining a light on who we really are.
Very recently, I read Dr Maxwell Maltz’s classic Psychocybernetics in which he talks in some detail about this concept of the map not matching the territory. A plastic surgeon by trade, Dr Maltz would consult with patients who said that they wanted to look more attractive and feel more beautiful. Working through the enhancements to be made with Maltz, these patients would emerge from surgery as dissatisfied with their appearance as they were when they first came to see him. despite his great work in making these people look more physically appealing to the opposite sex, many of these patients would burst into tears of sadness when their bandages were removed. Revealing something that they perceived to be ugly and displeasing, it took Dr Maltz some time to figure out why they were reacting in this way.
What he realized as he observed this phenomenon was that his patients’ self-concept was so damaged that not even a radical physical transformation could change the negative beliefs that they had of themselves. not feeling beautiful on the inside, they could not recognize their beauty on the outside, even when their looks were tailored to suit what society expected beauty to be. having very low self-esteem and a poor self-concept, the work that Dr Maltz performed did not change their opinions of themselves because it dealt not with the core issue of their angst and dissatisfaction which was internally located.
As human beings we are susceptible to trying to build ourselves up from the outside in but this never works. to realize positive and lasting change we need to start on the inside and work from there. while this may take more time and energy than the ‘quick fix’ to be found outside of ourselves, the work is inevitably worth it because when we build ourselves up in this way, the improvements that we make will be permanent, both in terms of our character and our self-concept.
The problem with relying on the things of the physical world to bolster our self-esteem is that they are fleeting, leaving us worse off in their parting than we would have been had we made the initial decision to strengthen our psychological and spiritual foundations. Part of the reason why Dr Maltz’s patients reacted so badly to the surgery was because despite the enhancements they did not experience a change in the way that they felt towards themselves. The other part of it was the lengths that they went to in order to feel better about themselves and realizing that the path that they chose didn’t work.
What these people did with plastic surgery, other people do with big houses, flashy cars, clothes and accessories, titles in the workplace, namedropping and the overconsumption of drugs and alcohol. Using these things to build self-esteem, they never do the job because they are an artificial means to a natural end. for sure, in the short term we may be able to fool ourselves and other people into believing that these things give us strength, but over the long term the lie will reveal itself and we will come to learn that true strength is what we possess internally, independent of the things that we identify with and hide behind.
When I say natural end what I mean is the process of development that nature facilitates with no effort on our part. Staying true to our nature and being willing to heal ourselves and change, we create the space in which we can grow more fully into the people that we were created to be. Moving in the direction of self actualization our self-esteem grows commensurately to our advancement in consciousness. Taught of the truth about who we are, our true value and magnificence we cannot ignore no matter how hard we may have tried to stay small in the past.
Transformed by the spirit we cannot shrink back to our previous dimensions. This is because we have made lasting change within ourselves. Building our house on the rock, we avoid the pitfalls of building our house on the sand, which shifts as the tides of life come and go. Like the opinions of other people, we must not search for self-esteem in those who we come into contact with. Capable only of filling our own tanks of wellbeing and confidence, it is self-love and self-belief that we must nurture for ourselves, being inner treasures of spirit that no one else can provide us with.
Sure, others can tell us how much they love and believe in us but until we learn to love and believe in ourselves their kind words will fall on deaf ears. It takes a lot of energy to try to lift up someone who does not love him or herself. Giving them our love and support to improve their situation, we learn sooner or later that until they do their own inner work, the state of their life will not change for the better. I know this is hard to hear for some people who would like to believe that they can change other people with the power of their intention, but the truth is that we can only be responsible for ourselves and doing our own work to become the best people that we can be.
When I say this, I am not saying don’t care for those people in your life who have low self-esteem or a damaged self-concept; far from it. Express your love and your encouragement. Give yourself to them, but know the limit. Don’t be a martyr and don’t make others dependent on you for validation. often what can happen is that people come to lean heavily on us for their self-esteem. Wanting us to continually affirm them, this can cause resentment on our part and addiction on their part.
As a teenager I had a friend who had a very poor body image. so concerned was he with his appearance that he literally used to spend an hour or more a day in front of the mirror looking at his body. With his upper chest area being the central focus of his concern, he used to continually ask me if the resistance work that he had begun at the gym had made his chest bigger. just wanting him to quit going on about his chest I would usually respond with something like, ‘Yeah, I think that it is working. you look like you have bulked up a little bit.’ Thinking that the response would satisfy him, it only drove him further into his narcissism. Returning to the mirror to see whether he could see the change I described, he would sometimes notice some changes and other times he would not.
Had he really grown more muscular? I didn’t know and I really didn’t care. what I didn’t know then but I know now is that I created that monster because I fed his narcissism rather that asserting myself in the situation and telling him that he had an image problem that I didn’t want to be a part of. having my own teenage insecurities and being co-dependent in that friendship I chose the path of least resistance. Had that payoff not been in place I may have acted differently, but hindsight is futile because the past cannot be altered.
Not learning that lesson at the time I have since come to learn it through other relationships. trying to convince a person that they are worthy and loveable when they don’t believe it themselves is like trying to fill a hole-riddled bucket with water. no matter how much water you pour into the bucket it is incapable of holding the water. Only when the holes are plugged and the bucket fortified is it able to serve the purpose for which it was created.
In another essay I talk about boundaries and the holes that we have in our psyche when we don’t know who we are. having these holes, it is hard to build self-esteem because it drains away like the water from the hole-riddled bucket. Only once we do the work to fill the holes can we build our self-esteem and keep it for ourselves. This is the essence of true power, not searching for it in the outside world in the hope of feeling better.
Why none of our words of love and encouragement get through to the person who struggles with self-esteem is because they flow out through the holes in their boundary. Like the words of encouragement that I gave to my friend, they were not what he could assimilate and give meaning to because of the holes in his bucket. Leaving his mind as soon as they arrived, they were not what he could retain because he understood not who he was in spiritual and psychological terms.
Are the things that we tell ourselves really true? does the world really work in the way that we say it does? Do the people that we interact with really think about us in the way that we think they do? Are the circumstances of our life really as bad as we allow our thoughts to say they are? When dealing with self-esteem issues these are very poignant questions to ask. Revealing much about the content of our maps, their answers can provide much in the way of insight and clarity.
All of the negative messages that drive down our self-esteem may seem true when they are related back to a particular person or experience, but do they stand up against other times in our life that prove the opposite in a very tangible way? often, painful experiences that are given the light of day produce different associations. what I am talking about here is a larger perspective that allows us to see a seemingly negative event from a more positive place.
Looking at our experiences from different angles we can learn different things. think of a hologram. Looking at it from one place you see only a portion of the whole image. Looking at it from a different position and another aspect of the image that you were previously ignorant to reveals itself. why this is relevant to self-esteem is because often we don’t challenge our associations in light of our growth. Experiencing something that we have labelled as negative in the past, we deny ourselves the opportunity to look at that event with the learning that we have since gained.
If self-esteem is primarily driven by the thoughts that we have of ourselves, it would make sense to continually be testing these thoughts against a reality that is not stagnant but forever moving as we grow and mature in the world. Are you really as ugly as you told yourself you were at the age of 11? Isn’t it true that your body has changed in many ways since that time, and that others have noticed that about you? Isn’t it the case that at least once you have had the experience of someone being attracted to you or telling you that you are beautiful?
If you were to continue to embrace that outdated belief you would be living a lie which would play its part in sabotaging your self-esteem and robbing you of happiness. unfortunately so many people live lives that are dominated by thoughts that are not even true. Thinking that they are the negative thoughts that run through their head they miss the opportunity to connect with a deeper truth within themselves that is always communicating more authentic messages to them.
Who you are is not who your mind says you are but who your heart says you are. being a vehicle for the spirit, it is the image that it holds that we should abide by. Complimenting us with words of love, power and prosperity, these are what we must attune our minds to so that we can begin to see ourselves as complete and capable. Each of us were born to be heroes but before we can live this way we must see ourselves as worthy, beautiful and brilliant.
As evolving beings we do not have to live down to our perceived limitations. having low self-esteem is a barrier that none of us need continue to let dominate our lives. Keeping us small, weak and timid it is what prevents us from claiming our greatness. Work every day to discover more about the truth of who you are. being so much more than you believe yourself to be, your self-esteem will grow as you do in the light of psychological understanding and spiritual wisdom.
Peeling back the layers of falsehood in your own life, you strengthen your ability to release the brake. what you shine light on can be transformed. make the choice to make yourself more powerful. Believe implicitly in yourself, act with boldness, and your greatness cannot help but reveal itself.
Releasing the Brake