The Rabbit Hole of Regulating Self-Esteem

Posted on 2017-09-21 By Joanna

It is commonly assumed that having have a high self esteem is desirable and if it gets too low, one needs to raise it up to a satisfactory level. Self esteem is a sum of opinions that we hold about ourselves. In a way, it is our self image, a description which we tell ourselves for whatever reason. What such reason could be other than to feel good about ourselves, to feel in a way important or unique or perhaps, simply able to live our lives the way we really want. That will become rather problematic if you recognize that self esteem will rise and fall accordingly to various life circumstances you go through. You make some mistake - you then feel down. You achieve something - you then feel great. We assume that self esteem is some sort of lever that must be pressed or regulated, otherwise something terrible will happen. We are very imaginative indeed, to invent something like this, or rather, to try to box a transient experience which changes its colours accordingly to various circumstances.

Humans are meaning making machines. We want to describe and explain whatever we can to ourselves. And describing our own self to ourselves seems like a primary job of the meaning making process. On the one side, we need to describe ourselves to ourselves in order to reduce confusion, to know what we stand on and what our true capabilities might be. On the other side, doing so might provide us with a sense of security because we can learn what our role in this world might be. Still on the other side, labelling ourselves and thus, boxing ourselves within a specific frame of who we are and who we are not can prove to be rather limiting, simply because there are trillion things we haven't tried, trillion things we haven't experienced and by telling yourself that you are such and such person with such and such possibilities might close the doors towards further development of yourself.

To have a high self esteem means that you know your skills, capabilities and values. Contrary to that, low self esteem means precisely the opposite, suggesting that you haven't realized certain aspects of yourself or that you diminish your value on purpose. Regardless on what end you might be, both scenarios become rather problematic because first, as we have already stated - various experiences will give you different impressions and will make your self esteem appearing in many different lights. Second, many people invest a lot into building their self esteem - they try to cling to something as impermanent as one's mood or as abstract personality trait. And third, because of the focus on the self esteem and as a result, the certain amount of narcissism which goes with such an amount of self concern, one then misses on life opportunities - regardless if their self esteem is high or low, simply because any form of self esteem will be limiting and for it to be stable and permanent, one would need to make certain sacrifices either in their behaviour or attitude in order to continuously fit into whatever their self esteem dictates and in order to keep it stable. Surely, we might try to create some fundamental beliefs which will create a permanent self esteem, such as having faith in being able to learn or in being able to withstand difficult circumstances, but these skills should be viewed as a basis of any living organism in this world - not something glorified, neither taken for granted, but simply seen as a primary human responsibility.

What would happen if there was no self esteem on the first place? We usually describe people with no self esteem as having no personal value or self respect. This would be correct if we were to assume that once the self esteem is gone, there would be nothing else to provide some sort of personal value or self respect. However, as we can see here, we are playing with some abstract concepts. These could be easily replaced by being able to respond to reality in the appropriate way and having the most accurate understanding of what's going on around one's self as one is capable of.

Let me approach it from yet another perspective. If self esteem is ever changing, plastic and generally very flexible, and if many people are in need of regulating it, that's a hell of a job to do. They might watch out for their behaviour, force themselves to at least appear in a certain manner that makes them feel good; they might consume some self-help resources in order to regulate it to a satisfactory level. If they don't do anything, they will experience some negative consequences such as carrying a lot of shame about their own being, perhaps being shy or timid, perhaps living their life way under the level they could reach if they only had some faith in themselves. The problem, however, also occurs when the self esteem is too high - vanity, empty pride, narcissism. The common problem in both conditions is precisely the self esteem - not whether it's too low or too high. Who decides what's the right level of self esteem anyway?

Hence, the cause of the problem named 'the social compulsion to regulate self esteem' is very clear - the very root of such problem is precisely the self esteem - it is the only common denominator in both conditions of both, low and high self esteem. One might of course say that the root of both problems is rather having an inaccurate self perception and understanding - but then again, if you can find at least one person in this world who can tell me the correct way to form self image, perhaps I will then give up on advocating my argument. As far as I know, there exist none - everyone tries to be correct but nobody resolves the problem of self esteem in the practical and applicable way. Telling someone to have faith in their worth and abilities doesn't resolve the problem at all because it doesn't provide us with a specific amount or a level which could be considered healthy. The more abstract the concepts are and the more we are invested in them, the further away from the reality and the present moment we drift.

What I'm pointing to here is not to having no self esteem in a sense that such self esteem is so low that it moves beyond the scale which we could measure, but rather having no self esteem in a sense that it is neither low, nor high because it simply doesn't exist. In such a scenario, one wouldn't be concerned with whether they feel good or bad about themselves or whether their self image is correct or healthy. Instead, the concern would be directed towards the actual experience and perception of life - are we responsible, are we present, are we conscious or do we live our life automatically, do we do what we enjoy, etc. People try to resolve these small issues associated with being happy by diving deep into trying to correct their self esteem but they can't see that the problem is not with their self esteem but with the very focus they give to the self esteem itself instead of taking necessary actions to be happy.

Some might see this approach as a form of magical thing - if I have a problem with self esteem, forgetting about it or ignoring it as if it didn't exist will solve the problem. If I close my eyes, I will become invisible. This is, however, not exactly the strategy I'm suggesting. Rather, instead of paying attention to the self esteem, focusing on actually living one's life and every moment seems like a better deal than investing one's energy into imaginary concept which might or might not exist. We are living in such a relativistic world that it would be quite absurd to expect our mind to not be subjected to the very same conditions.

But what about a doubt that if I stop paying attention to my self esteem, that will mean I will have no self esteem (in a 'common-sense' way), and therefore, I will continue having all these automatic thoughts, telling me how stupid or ugly I am or telling me how amazing and clever I am. In such a scenario, all these mental comments are still a manifestation of self esteem and paying attention to them and acknowledging them means that one still holds to that abstract concept. From the wider perspective, it doesn't matter how you perceive yourself but how you experience life - as a individualistic self embedded within the world in a constant relationship with everything around you.