Self esteem is a natural psychological and emotional quality for a healthy ego. When we have a healthy lifestyle, a good work life balance, and meaningful personal and professional relationships, we feel fulfilled and self esteem comes easily. It is a natural sense of well-being. However, the quest for self esteem can sometimes be misguided.
Common to low self esteem is negative self talk as both a cause and an effect. While self belief is essential and positive self talk very helpful, they also hinder when used to battle with negative self talk. The result is that we are engaged in a battle with ourselves, which for obvious reasons cannot be won; thus we remain in conflict and perpetuate low self esteem.
Inseparable from the issue of self esteem is comparing ourselves to others. This causes us to judge others, and we will also use comparisons to judge ourselves. It keeps us away from authentic relating, thereby perpetuating a lack of real connection with others and with our world, and so our self esteem remains low. If we are trying to gain self esteem from feeling higher or better than others, we are most likely attempting to cope with a narcissistic wound (not seen, heard, or valued, just for who we are), which often stems from childhood. This is also the case when we feel less than others. Neither stance allows us the freedom to authentically be ourselves. However, it must be understood that there is often a good reason for our negative self talk. It is a way of coping with suffering but without really addressing the suffering. We may not even know what it is or why we are suffering. Negative self talk is therefore a form of psychological survival.
Carl Jung stressed the importance of working with the shadow side of the human psyche. He said that “the most terrifying thing is to accept oneself completely.” It is important to know that the shadow side of the human psyche also holds our light! It is through feelings of unworthiness that we fear our wholeness.
In addition to self acceptance, self care, self love and self appreciation are essential to healthy self esteem. Self acceptance enables us to befriend aspects of ourselves that we would rather get rid of, and may even be afraid of. The attempt to get rid of parts or aspects of ourselves creates an inner separation, a dissociative gap, which makes us perceive an emptiness inside; then through fear of the emptiness, we produce anxiety.
Self appreciation helps us to know our own worth. Essential to self appreciation is self care and having healthy relational boundaries where we make sure that we have the time to take care of our own needs. Michelle Obama said that “we need to do a better job of putting ourselves higher on our own to do list.” Many feel unworthy of this level of self attention, which is often a defense against allowing the genuine humility it sometimes takes to fully appreciate life.
Self love is neither narcissistic nor selfish. It is essential for healthy relationships because we cannot give to others what we will not give to ourselves. It helps us to recognise equality. Attempts to give to others what we will not give to ourselves results in co-dependency, which can be a subtle form of control or coercion. i.e. loving or pleasing others in order to get our perceived needs met. Much of this goes on unconsciously.
Although many of our issues with self esteem seem to have their roots in childhood when our basic need to be seen, heard and valued for who we are have not been met, there is however, a deeper level to our issues of self esteem; that being the spiritual level – the Self or essential Being that is beyond esteem. According to all spiritual traditions, at this level we are free, and in our freedom we feel safe, secure and certain – beyond doubt, because we are beyond question. We know we have worth because there is a deep love and self assurance that comes with the experience of our deeper essence, and that this love is for life itself, from which we are an integral and inseparable part; and thus it is also a Self love as an intrinsic and inherent nature.
However, we must be careful that we do not try to find this level as a way of bypassing psychological wounding. This is commonly known as spiritual bypassing and leads to dissociation from those parts of ourselves that need healing. Contact with the essential Being frees us from any need to esteem ourselves, and may also reveal psychological and emotional wounding that needs the receptivity, acceptance, care, and attentiveness that leads to healing.
- London South West Counselling and Psychotherapy
- Mid-Life Crises and the Search for Meaning