In this extended essay on self-esteem, you will get a comprehensive picture of what it is, how it gets compromised, and how you can restore it. Low self-esteem is the underlying cause for all problems in your life — understanding this will pave the way to true and complete healing and unlocking your true potential as a human being.
In a hurry? Read the digest version.
All the problems you have in your life boils down to the single point.
If you have it in abundance, you’ll be able to overcome anything. No adversities will prevent you from having a fulfilling life. I’m not saying you’ll live long (though you probably will, if that’s what you want) or you’ll get rich (though you probably will, if that’s what you want). But you’ll be successful in life. On your death bed, you’ll look back at your life and be at peace.
But if you have a faulty self-esteem, you’re going to encounter problems. Low self-esteem prevents you from realizing your potential, as you can’t believe in it. Low self-esteem prevents you from having good relationships, because you don’t know that you deserve it. Low self-esteem keeps you from true affluence, because you don’t think you can have it that good. Low self-esteem stifles your happiness, because you can’t be happy with something you’re not confident in.
So let’s look at how self-esteem works.
What is self-esteem? It’s hard to know if you’ve never had a lot of it.
Indeed, there are several facets to it. Self-esteem is a belief, in 3 levels. A belief that:
- You deserve to exist. This is the bottom, very fundamental core.
- You are competent. At the next level, you believe in your general ability to handle life and its unpredictable events.
- You deserve affluence. The highest level of self-esteem goes beyond your ability, and trusts the world at large around you (or god) to provide for your needs. You deserve a great spouse. You deserve a perfect job. You deserve a big house. These are things that you have influence on, but cannot necessarily create by yourself. You need help, or luck, from the world-at-large — and you trust that that help will come when you need it.
Though the word “belief” suggests that self-esteem is a conscious thought, but it actually goes deeper than that. Self-esteem is innate, a state of being that is the default mode when we are born. From the very start of life, we start out with “full” esteem.
Think of about a baby in a womb. It is easy to see how it satisfies all the three qualities above. Your mother’s body is naturally set up to provide for your every need. Your only task is to grow — and I’m not just talking in multiplying your cell counts. We know that babies move in the womb, testing out various physical abilities, experimenting. They are paying attention to what’s going on outside, receiving signals from the mother. And fundamentally, they know they deserve to exist — because they do exist. Nothing in their whole world, which the womb is, suggests otherwise. All the systems are wired and working together to affirm and sustain their existence. Their cells are nourished and vibrant with life’s energy. We are born with full esteem.
Esteem is a sense of well-being, and a trust in that sense. It permeates through all levels of our consciousness, from the cognitive thoughts we are aware of, to the subconscious depth, the foundation of our psyche, which tells our body to go on functioning.
Incidentally, Wikipedia has an interesting discussion on what self-esteem means, and its history.
Early Childhood: Self-Esteem Is Nurtured or Compromised
So, we start out with our entire being full of self-esteem, a trust in our capacity to exist, maneuver life, and flourish. However, we also start out completely dependent on at least one other human being, and without conscious control over our mind and body. Both the mind and the body are rapidly developing, taking in a lot of influences from the external world, but we are not self-sufficient.
Naturally, we are very vulnerable at this stage. We are at the mercy of the world — which, at this point, is mostly made up of parent(s) or primary caregivers.
Our world starts out being just the womb. And while every system is wired and working to provide for your needs and protect you, you are susceptible to conflicting influences your mother is going through or introducing into the system. For example, we all know that mothers who smoke while being pregnant can compromise the well-being of a child. Not only does this affect the physical growth of the baby, but it’s working on the foundation of our psyche, too. The all-powerful nurturing machine has a strain of poison in its system, which doesn’t make you feel good. What does it do to your faith in the system?
One example I’ve seen is my little brother. I have two younger brothers, and when my little one was in the womb, my other brother had a car accident, right before my mother’s eyes. He turned out OK, but when my little brother was born, he was born with a keen fear of cars. When he was a little child, he would ran at the sound/sight of a car. He eventually grew out of that fear, but it was input into his mind that cars are dangerous things. It didn’t go so far as to compromise his esteem in levels 1 and 2, but the 3rd level was definitely affected.
The vulnerability to compromising influences increase dramatically once the child is born, out into the wide, open world. Gone are the protective walls and automatic feeding. Gone are the oneness you felt with your mother, the persistent sound of her heartbeats. All kinds of external factors influence the child’s psyche more directly.
The baby is not old enough to recognize any input as a message not to trust his/her abilities or the world/god. All messages affect the primal, subconscious base: do I deserve to exist?
Let’s say you are born with 100 percent self-esteem. After you are born, life begins to chip away at that esteem, because the world does contain some threatening elements that you need to be aware of. You can’t keep your innocent, the-world-is-all-good-and-safe belief entirely.
So, not having your needs met can have significant consequences. Children are naturally resilient, but repeated neglecting (not attending to the child when he/she cries) and/or dramatic events (parent dies or goes away) can really take away from their esteem.
And to a child, parents are basically the extent of their world. Their whole being depends on the parents. Because they don’t understand language at first, they respond to more physical and primal inputs — cuddles vs. separation, attachment vs. abandonment. A child who experiences abandonment feels that he/she doesn’t deserve to exist.
For example, my father was the youngest of 5 children, 9 years younger than his closest sibling. He was born when his mother was 40, which was exceptionally old for being a mother at that era. Japan was tasting its defeat of World War II, and while my grandfather didn’t die in the war, the times were very uncertain. Because my grandmother was older and had her hands full, my father was raised by the wife of his oldest brother (who was 18 years his senior). Clearly an unplanned child, my father always wondered if his birth was a mistake.
Sadly, stories like that are very common. Going back to the percentage analogy, if you start out with 100, at the very, very best, a person can go through early childhood with 90 percent intact. Even if you’re not abandoned or neglected or abused, painful things do happen in life, and we lose some of our optimism. We start to worry, and our esteem goes down. The level 3 esteem is impossible and unrealistic to retain completely.
On the other hand, it’s perfectly possible to go through your early childhood without neither the level 1 or 2 esteem compromised very much. Most confident people have like 80 points left. This person believes that the world can be a scary and dangerous place, but he/she deserves to fully exist and has the competence to navigate through the maze of life.
Incidentally, many cultures, religions and other belief systems have built-in codes of conducts that do compromise little children’s natural esteem. This is precisely the point — for the benefit of the tribe’s survival, it’s easier to raise mostly inconfident children, so you can scare them into obedience and fall inline with the tribe’s code.
Childhood and Maturation: Testing and Building of faith in self and the world
As you grow out of the early childhood into a phase where you are self-aware and cognitive of your own behaviors, the influences of the external world start affecting more of level 2 and 3 esteem. It would take a rather catastrophic event or very long and persistent signals to take away one’s belief that he/she deserves to exist, once that belief is formed and solidified from properly being nurtured through the beginning stage.
That said, there’s plenty of damage that can happen on the two upper layers. We all feel the sting of living, from injury to disappointments to betrayals. It’s possible to recover from any negative, compromising events, but parents still have to step in during childhood. After becoming an adult, you have to develop a healthy coping mechanism not to internalize such influence. We learn that the world indeed can be a dangerous place. We learn that there are things we just can’t do well. Neither of these experience has to take away from one’s fundamental trust in his/her own ability to navigate life and in the world being a good place to live. But we often let them chip away from these confidences. We learn to fear the pain, to be on the defense.
Particularly, in our childhood to adolescence, we allow arbitrary, external judgments to rate and evaluate our competence. Peers, teachers, coaches, tests, grades, and so on. These can make deep cuts into both our level 2 and 3 esteems. You would still have a pretty miserable life experience, if all of your level 2 and 3 esteems were destroyed because you think everyone is out to get you and you don’t have skills to protect yourself from them. It’s hard to hang on to your level 1 esteem in such a situation.
So at this stage, it’s almost as if the level 2 and 3 esteem have to be tested and destroyed, and then rebuilt. We identify and judge ourselves in the context of a now bigger world (friends, schools), and all the sudden the previous confidence gets shaken or is gone.
But good parents, teachers and mentors can help young people through this tricky phase. You regain confidence in your abilities as you recognize successes and growth along the path. Your confidence in the world gets restored as you realize that you are surrounded by people you can trust. None of us grow up in a vacuum. We receive both affirming and compromising influences, but with help from those who went before us, we can learn to strengthen our confidence and not to allow degrading forces to cut in deeply.
True self-esteem is hard to cut down once a person reaches maturation. With a history of good habits, affirming memories, and knowledge of one’s strengths and limits, the esteem becomes solidified inside and more immune to external influence. This is why a confident person appears to be stable, as opposed to being drama kings and queens. Fully internalized self-esteem isn’t easily affected by external forces, be it life events or other people in their lives. If you consider yourself to be moody, pessimistic or easily affected by what someone else says or does, then your esteem is not fully mature.
Self-Esteem Affects All Areas of Life
I’m sure I won’t have to go into details about how low self-esteem affects everything you do. The lower the esteem, the more fearful you become. The more fearful you are, the less risks you take. The lack of risk-taking stifles a person’s growth, which only takes more away from one’s self-esteem. It permeates in all areas: learning (all growing involves risk), school or job performance, relationships with family, friends and significant others.
But what you may not realize is how deeply your mistrust and fear runs in your psyche.
Let’s say you have a lousy job. You’ve always had lousy jobs. Why is that?
If the level 3 esteem was compromised, but the 1 and 2 were relatively intact, you think you’re competent but the world cannot see you as such. Maybe your parents had lousy jobs, too, and you resigned to that being the reality — that jobs are not something to enjoy. You toil and struggle at your job and live for nights, weekends and retirement. That’s how life is.
No change in self-esteem is remotely easy, but at this level it is relatively doable. You just need to change your belief that you don’t deserve a good job. Go find people who love their jobs, ask them what it’s like. Input into your brain that such a reality is possible. Rescripting takes time and effort, but it’s near the surface and you can reach and rewrite. Go scout the web — there is abundance of advices on how to do this level of rescripting. Find ones that resonate with you and apply them to yourself.
If your level 2 esteem is compromised, then you don’t feel that you’re competent enough for a good job. In fact, you don’t think you’re competent enough for any job. You may work too hard at a job that you don’t really enjoy, for fear that they discover that you’re really not as competent as you think they think. Instead of being grateful, you hang on to your terrible job with all your fear.
This needs a deeper level of reconditioning. We all have gifts and talents, and one has to take the time to discover and develop them. Learning to trust one’s ability is possible, though it can be a scary process. Because such a growth involves taking at least some risks, even though you don’t have confidence to take those risks. Your life history is full of not measuring up to standards (usually external and arbitrary ones, set by someone other than you). It’s hard to start thinking that you are competent, when you have a history of what you perceive as failures.
This healing process is best done with a parent, teacher or a mentor, someone who is mature, stable and well-versed in such nurturing. All competent parents do this with their children. They encourage their children to explore, take risks, not run away from challenges, so that we can retain the natural esteem buried within us. So there are people who can help you do it. If you have to do it on your own, approach it as if you’re raising your inner child. (Incidentally, some parents go through this healing process as they nurture their children. They’re doing what they themselves needed)
Now, if your level 1 esteem is compromised, your job is not the only thing you are having problems with. You are not sure about your very existence, and that doubt permeates all areas of your life. You are probably not satisfied anywhere. It’s possible to have some confidence in one’s ability or the world even with compromised faith in one’s existence. But this only results in trying desperately to manipulate external areas to validate one’s existence. You may place too much importance on your abilities and become a perfectionist or a workaholic. You may try to cheat the system and engage in criminal activities (since the world didn’t treat you right, you’re only returning a favor!). You may be suffering from some kind of chronic mental or physical ailments. Doctors and medicines can sometimes treat the surface-level problems, but they always come back, either in a same way or a different manner. You probably have a history of instability or turbulence. You may even be thinking that you attract trouble.
In any case, restoring trust that you can exist is the first order of business — before addressing any other, higher-level needs, if you want to resolve all your problems once and for all and achieve self-actualization. This is done through affirming your existence — but you have to do it in a way that reaches deeper in your psyche. Some of the ways I’ve seen and experienced include creating a statement affirming your existence, reliving your early childhood (again, parents have opportunities to do this simultaneously with their own children), talking with your parents and receive affirmation from them (Mom: “I was really glad that you were born.”).
The problem with compromise in this level is that it’s hard to know what exactly is wrong with you, thus you don’t know how to fix it. For example, even if you have a history of turbulence, unstable relationships and chronic physical/mental health issues, few will correctly look at you holistically and thoroughly enough to tell you that your esteem in your existence is lacking and is the root of the problem. We ourselves are not often aware of deficiency this deep in our psyche. We just don’t go around wondering “do I deserve to exist?” in our daily lives. We just see the symptoms of the problems higher up in our existence, and try to fix it on that level, which works in the short term but never really in long term.
The best advice I can give is to engage in pretty intense self-analysis. The more self-aware you are, the deeper you can reach inside and trace your problems to the root. It’s still hard for people who are heavily left-brain oriented (men, in particular), as this is an intuitive process and involves analyzing your feelings a lot, and they are often just not that aware of their deep, underlying feelings.
If the chip in the level 1 esteem is pretty small, you may do heal on your own, but otherwise, it’s probably best done with a therapist or holistic healing arts. Both homeopathy and traditional Chinese medicine/acupuncture look at the whole person, including the psychic state, and try to restore balance. This kind of healing does try to identify and correct problems at the root. Deep, subconscious psyche is closely linked with our physical body, so restoring the balance of the body from the bottom up can have similar effects on the mind. It is not an overnight change by any means, but they, along with an experienced healer/therapist of our minds, are the people you want to help you.
I’ve seen some of my family members go through this. My father made some courageous efforts. He didn’t go see a therapist, but he was a bit of a health nut — never stuck with one method for a long period of time (instability, lack of persistence), but tried this exercise or that healthy food all the time. His health habits were driven out of fear — that unless he made such efforts, his body would develop problems. He did go talk to his mother and his older siblings, and discussed his early childhood experience. He only called his mother “Mom” a few times since he himself became a father. He called her “Grandma” because that’s what she was to us, his kids. I do know that at one point, he was able to tell her “Mom, I’m glad I was born.” It was a very special moment of healing.
But he died before he really resolved his esteem fully. He developed depression and drove himself into somewhat of an isolation. Then he developed ALS and died 3 years later. Though there are no scientific studies to prove this, I am convinced that he contracted an incurable disease because he wanted to. He grew tired of his life, as it was an incessant quest for healing. He told me that this was as far as he wanted to go, and that he looked forward to the end.
He was an honorable man who did manage to hold down a lasting marriage (though there are struggles there) and created a stable family for his children. I recognize those as incredible feats for someone coming from his background. He did, too, and he was at peace with his life in the end. He died in the midst of his healing process, but that doesn’t make his life a failure.
On the other hand, I also witnessed a complete healing. This person literally reverted back to her childhood and relived it, but this time, was raised in a more nurturing way. She descended into a deep depression, but made a complete recovery and is now a transformed person. It took a lot of time and effort, but now she is on her way to realizing her potential.
As you see, a single symptom — dissatisfaction with a job — can point to multiple levels of compromises in your self-esteem. Depending on which level you have a problem, the approach to restore the self-esteem can vary.
Many people just treat the surface problems, and don’t bother to dig deep and explore where the very root of the problem is. But I can guarantee you, at the bottom of it all, your self-esteem is hurt. You may not feel inconfident. You may be even a boastful, proud person. Such personality traits can be just a reverse effect of the underlying vulnerability, the lack of self-esteem at a deeper level. You can just go on dealing with the surface level problems if you want to spend your life dealing with one problem or another. Or you can embrace the healing process of the very core, and work on restoring your self-esteem.
How to Build Your Self-Esteem
Although I explained that a lot of damages to self-esteem are inflicted from our environment, particularly before we develop stable and mature enough core of our own, you will never begin the true healing process if you keep putting your blame on your parents or other external elements.
The truth is that nobody has perfect upbringing. Some of us are luckier than others, but stories like my father’s are more common than not. You need to get over it and decide that your healing is in your own hands.
Though deeper healing is difficult to go at it alone, the desire to build self-esteem has to come from within you. Here are a couple of key realizations that can awaken that desire.
- Know that healing is possible. You were born with full self-esteem, so what you need to do is to unlearn the harmful lessons you learned along the way. There are many ways to do this, and I already touched on a number of them, such as redoing your childhood or using holistic healing arts. But all of this starts from your will to heal, to heal fully. We are all born with natural healing power. There re ways to unlock and tap into that power.
- There are people to help. Most of us suffer have suffered from low self-esteem in one way or another along the way, myself included. And many of us are passionate about helping others heal. We enjoy helping you — so you letting them help you is not just a benefit for yourself, but for their fulfillment, too. Just as children are not meant to grow up alone, healing and rebuilding of your esteem is best done with other nurturing souls. Seek out ones that you can trust, and allow them to come into your life.
High Self-Esteem Unlocks Your Potential for Effectiveness and Joy
Once the three levels of self-esteem reach functional, “good enough” level, you will then be able to tap into inner resources that you didn’t know you had when you were compromised. Your resilience, optimism, and stability will probably impress and amaze yourself.
Greater trust and less fear will result in more stable and consistent sense of well-being and optimism. This alone will help attract great results — nicer relationships, better jobs, more days of contentment. At this point, you become less concerned about repairing yourself or finding the missing pieces in your life, and are ready to begin your life’s greatest work, that which will pull out every resource in your body and will make the greatest contributions to the world at large.
Going back to the above job example, you now have resources to cope with and find solutions in any situations. Level 3 esteem tells you that great jobs are attainable, whether changing the one you have or getting a new one. Level 2 esteem tells you that you have the ability to get and keep such a job. Level 1 esteem tells you that you are OK no matter what happens. Your existence’s validity doesn’t depend on your job situation, so you don’t worry excessively and don’t get too affected by whatever happens.
It may feel selfish, but until you reach this state, know that spending all your effort and resources on developing yourself to get to this point is perfectly justifiable. Being a do-gooder who’s driven out of fear (you’re not a good person unless you do “good” things) is still distributing more fear and destruction than actual good. The contribution you will make as a whole person will easily out weigh whatever measly impact you can make as a compromised, fearful person. At the very least, know that striving to heal and sharing of your stories, lessons and experience will inspire and enrich others. I woulnd’t say there are no exceptions to this rule, but generally there’s no reason to go help others at the expense of your own healing.
High self-esteem is the source of all good things in your life. Low self-esteem is the root of all problems. In the current societal climate, most of us are compromised, many deeply. But together, we can restore much of our natural self-esteem. Living your life attempting to do so in itself is a great contribution to the world at large, even if you don’t reach complete healing in your life time. If you do succeed and move on to realize your potential, that in itself will do great good to the world. Your story will inspire and motivate the rest of us.
As more of us achieve this complete healing and restoration of self-esteem, tho stories of triumph become less of an exception, and more of a norm. The world will be a much, much better place, then.
As I was writing this entry, I encountered an occasion to apply this concept in real life and heal my own wounds. Read my personal story about how I healed my damaged self-esteem.
This article was featured in The Nineteenth Edition of the Carnival of Improving Life.