As much as self-love does not seem to score high in the pursuit of wellness, self-esteem has everybody trying to get as much of it as they possibly can.
Self-esteem is a judgment of oneself, of your own worth.
The proponents of self-esteem as a measure of success suggest that in order to have good self-esteem you have to believe and feel you are indeed very successful. And the way you get there is by measuring yourself against everybody else, by being better than or superior to everybody else. It has gotten so out of hand that you cannot be average or “common” anymore.
To be considered successful, you have to be exceptional. Self-esteem is seen as an absolutely necessary ingredient in the formula used by school admissions officers as an indicator of performance. It has become a trusted Human Resources predictor of how you will do in your job.
The scale that measures your self-esteem values your aptitude for life: a low grade means that you are a loser with little value, while a healthy, high grade means that you have great value, therefore you are awesome. Because of the perceived importance of good self-esteem, people work hard to achieve it. This makes sense if you believe that as you raise your self-esteem, you raise your value in your own eyes and in the eyes of those who judge you.
This race to be awesome as fast as possible has been captured by a huge industry that promises to deliver big chunks of self-esteem if you buy whatever it is they are selling. It targets the whole gamut of human existence—cosmetics, plastic surgery, cars, housing, vacations, clothing, restaurants, schools, neighborhoods, even special courses and seminars. They all promise to make you feel better about yourself, to raise your value so that you can compete better in this world.
Not even children are spared from learning to be awesome. They play with toys that aim to be role models for the winners in this race, just like Barbie’s boyfriend “totally cool Ken” and other manufactured role models.
I find this self-esteem doctrine that emphasizes your worth quite disruptive and damaging. It’s a recipe for a life riddled with anxiety and frustration that can easily lead to depression or delusional narcissism.
Another disquieting assumption of the self-esteem judgment underlying the need to be the best at whatever you do is that you are not allowed to make mistakes. You cannot have faults. Faults and mistakes show that you are not awesomely special! So when you do make a mistake or fall short of everybody’s expectations, you do not want to admit it, because accepting your mistakes would mean your worth is very little. It can be really devastating.
In our daily life we frequently reinforce this tendency to deny our flaws or mistakes and those of the people we love. If a friend is feeling miserable because he’s made a big mistake, your immediate reaction is to help him get over his “failure.” As most of us would, you’d probably help him feel good again by bringing up all the things that he does really well and all that he’s achieved. You repeat his triumphs again and again until he begins to get out of his misery and starts to agree with you. You and he together manage to restore his grandiose ego until he forgets about his mistake and he can move on to feeling awesome again, almost as good as “totally awesome Ken.”
Feeling good about yourself is a healthy attitude to have, and it’s important that you cultivate it. Having a good sense of your achievements and your talents and holding a positive and open view of your possibilities is an evolutionary and inspired way of living. But you do not get to that feeling by comparing and measuring your standing against others. You don’t value yourself by referring to a comparison chart.
Imperfection is part of being human. You and I and all of us have flaws and make mistakes. When you deny them because you are afraid of failing, of being a failure, you deny yourself the opportunity to work on them in ways that can be more life-enhancing and can contribute to creating an authentically good feeling about yourself.
I hope that soon the whole self-esteem obsession will give way to a better understanding of who we are and what we are made of, of how we deserve to treat ourselves with kindness, of how in kindness to ourselves we can contribute to the betterment of our lives, our societies, and the planet. But for now, let me assure you that self-esteem is not related to loving yourself.
An excerpt from my book, Happiness No Matter What!