—John Milton, Paradise Lost
When we look back honestly on this phase of history, we’ll see that one of the most profound issues of our day is a pandemic-scale crisis of self-esteem. We don’t need to look far for the manifestations of this, or for the causes. They surround us so completely that we barely notice them; or if we do, we assume they are an indelible part of existence. They are built into our relationships, which are often designed as shelter from the storm, but which don’t usually work.
As my editor Brian put it when I ran this article idea past him, he’s noticing this most in people feeling like they are going insane because the world doesn’t appreciate who they are or what they have to offer. This is particularly strange in a world that has nothing but ever-increasing needs; in theory we should all be in greater demand.
To describe something as a crisis of self-esteem is to use a phrase covering a great many potential situations. Ultimately they all come back to how we feel about ourselves and our existence. Do we feel good about who we are? On a deeper level, do we consciously notice our existence? Do we feel like we have a right to exist?
We may not be so articulate with ourselves. Usually, we get the data in emotional form. If we’re struggling, it may arrive as depression (literally, the sense of being pressed down) to the challenges of adapting in a world that is not the same place from hour to hour. Adapting takes energy and being in a constant process of adjustment can consume nearly all of our energy.
Let’s first get a definition of esteem up on the blackboard. According to Etymology Online, “esteem” means to estimate the value of something. The word dates to 1450. It was initially used the same way we use the word estimate, so that a conscious evaluation is implied, not simply a notion. The term “self-esteem” is neutral: It can represent a high value, or a low one, pending evaluation.
As for self-esteem, Oxford English Dictionary defines it simply as “a favourable appreciation or opinion of oneself,” and one of the first to apply the term was John Milton. But it was popularized by phrenology, which assigned it a “bump” on the skull in the early 19th century. I’ll have to learn how to find that bump and do an informal study, to see who actually has one.
I prefer to use the term “self-respect,” which would literally mean seeing who you are, again. To have self-respect, you would need to notice twice. This implies an evaluation and a reevaluation. Too often these are missing; low self-esteem often comes from the absence of an actual assessment.
In practical terms, the pain we associate with low self-esteem can show up as any of the following: the feeling of being worthless or useless; having no sense of purpose; feeling like one’s life is out of control; feeling submissive to the needs of others; feeling unworthy of love; hating oneself; walking around thinking everyone hates you; being stalked by guilt and/or shame; feeling like no place is actually home; obsession with relationship in the midst of any or all of this; constantly feeling lonely, even if you’re in a relationship; being terrified of intimacy; or feeling like relationships are prison cells.
Let’s add to that the feeling that life has already passed you by, such as feeling old at age 19.
What exactly is going on? How did this come to be? Well, let’s start with the chaotic households that nearly everyone was brought up in, and how little time is devoted to children. Let’s consider kids growing up around parents whose lives are nearly constant struggles, as has happened to so many of us. Adults living in a world of pain teaches kids to feel badly about themselves, in part because kids take on, and blame themselves for, the pain of their caregivers. Too often, it’s not possible for children to be the center of attention, like they need to be at the beginnings of their lives. When our lives are warped or twisted around those of other people, where we do not exist as individuals but as subsets of more powerful people, that teaches us to do the same things to others—and it’s a lonely world when that happens.
When we turn up as adults with adult expectations put on us, we exist in a world where everything seems to be better than we are, or made to seem better than we are. Photographs of models are supposedly more beautiful than real women; the images of men portray guys with less to do, more money, fancier cars, and sculpted muscles. This is an invitation to feel like shit; then you have to do something about it. That’s how most advertising works, mainly by preying on our sense of inferiority.
My favorite example of this is that ad for the “Army of One”—a military recruitment ad (which I am now discovering from a Google search has been viciously satirized a number of times). This masterpiece features one soldier flying in a transport plane, fighting a war, and so on. On the surface, it tells kids “You are somebody special.” But what it’s really reminding young men about is how worthless they feel. I could not believe that the military brass approved it, because in combat, you work with your fellow soldiers. But in our demented world, one special guy just makes it out of high school and goes to war (that would be you), and if you’re not a hero, clearly you’re a loser. Now multiply this out over an entire society.
Though the phrase hasn’t been used a lot lately, I think our self-esteem crisis is a big ego trip. You might think: ego trip? That’s about thinking you’re the greatest thing ever. Which is precisely what we’re taught to believe. Then we are faced with the deeper feeling that we’re not—the sinking feeling of shame and worthlessness. And because of how painful it is, we bury the whole conflict.
Let’s give this a name: exiled narcissism (which was coined by my friend Maya’s therapist, Steve Carroll). Exiled meaning pushed into the shadows of the psyche, and narcissism meaning the belief that we are better than someone for no good reason, or self-fixation at the expense of others. This can also involve obsessively fighting to prove we’re better than others—a kind of competitiveness that our society loves so much but won’t call by its real name. (For example, jealousy is considered precious, but it’s rarely described as an attribute of narcissism.)
We are going through a phase of mental history wherein the only thing that’s interesting is competing. You can no longer just be a good cook, and use food as a source of nourishment and pleasure. You have to be the top chef, and if you’re not the top chef, then what are you? And at the same time, narcissism is allegedly a bad thing. So we shamefully have to shove it out of awareness. Then it comes back with a vengeance, because we “know we’re special” and “deserve the best” and so on. Or we “lost the game” and are devastated. The sick part is that usually, this has less to do with Top Chef and more to do with being (or not being) Top Wife.
We often flip back and forth between grandiosity and shame; between being the most beautiful and not beautiful enough. Grandiosity can feel like being righteously indignant and powerful and like you have the right to reject anyone or anything; shame is when you feel so worthless, the obvious conclusion is, you deserve nothing and no one. If we can observe this process for a while, we can see that neither of these polar extremes are true values. Neither would serve us in relationship to ourselves or to others; and in a true estimation, neither one actually exists.
Somewhere in here, we might decide it’s time to love ourselves. But in doing this, we might seem to tread dangerously close to narcissism, or fear being labeled narcissistic. It’s easy to get caught in the feeling of a double bind. And that double bind is the very thing that hitches us into the crisis. There are many insightful psychological viewpoints on how this works. Two of the best can be found in A General Theory of Love (by Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini, and Richard Lannon) and The Drama of the Gifted Child (by Alice Miller).
But I think that it goes a lot deeper than psychology. The crisis has its roots in something underneath esteem. That something is the awareness of existence.
The Awareness of Existence
It’s not just that many of us do not esteem ourselves (and harshly judge those who do), but that we don’t even know we exist—that we, in fact, stand out and stand open as a place within the cosmos where both a world and a person mutually unfold, manifest, and reveal. This may sound outrageous, but I have noticed a trick of the mind that conceals the truth of existence from us—and then we have to fight and pretend to create the illusion of existence.
Many of us don’t believe we have a right to exist and to be creators of our lives. This shows up, then, as low self-esteem. First, we have to acknowledge existence, then claim our right to it, and finally, esteem ourselves in the process.
Implied in this process is the acknowledgement of death. Not dealing with death consciously creates a crisis because unless we acknowledge the other side of existence, which is to say, nonexistence, then we cannot really appreciate either. And when that happens, we can get caught in the netherworld of the ego trip, or as has been so popular since 9/11, the hero trip. Here is a thought from The Denial of Death by Ernest Becker: “The first thing we have to do with heroism is to lay bare its underside, show what gives human heroics its specific nature and impetus. Here we introduce directly one of the great rediscoveries of modern thought: that of all things that move man, one of the principal ones is his terror of death. After Darwin the problem of death as an evolutionary one came to the fore, and many thinkers immediately saw that it was a major psychological problem for man. They also very quickly saw what real heroism was about, as Shaler wrote just at the turn of the [20th] century: heroism is first and foremost a reflex of the terror of death.”
Fear of Death
Heroism: that big ego trip that we use to feel better about ourselves, genuflecting to the fear of death. The Army of One.
How do we put this information to work? First, I think we need to raise awareness about the fact that existence as we know it is a transient thing. Everything is in motion; everything changes; existence is a process of change; we are part of that process. This is a powerful tool to size up self-esteem and its various issues. For example, many people fear they are not good enough, find the first person they can, and create a “permanent relationship,” which denies the fact that all relationships change. In the healthy ones, a conscious relationship to change, and hence a process of growth, is included.
This is the kind of very basic stuff it’s possible to work on in good therapy. Entities that are alive also develop and grow and become, and that includes something we don’t hear much about these days: building character consciously. And when you embrace change and build character, and look back and make an honest estimate of who you are, that would count for healthy self-esteem.