written by: Kosjenka Muk
In a society that is on a low level of emotional development, in which most people rarely have the chance to experience what it like is to feel truly good about themselves, it is useful to clearly define self-esteem.
What I want to talk about is far more complex and larger than self-esteem defined just as the way somebody acts or the way somebody perceives themselves.
I want to talk about the feeling of deep inner fulfillment, pure pleasure of existence, experience that is beyond love for oneself. I want to talk about the experience of being the source of love itself. At this point, the expression “love for oneself” becomes an unnecessary rationalization. Self-esteem might not adequately describe this inner state, but it can be used to describe the behavioral habits that result from this state.
Even when we talk about behavior itself, our society is not familiar with self-esteem and so it is interpreted in many different ways.
In ancient times, our ancestors were brought up to be obedient to rulers and priests. To achieve that, it was necessary to force people to give up their natural desire for freedom and a better life, to make them think less of themselves, to suppress their inherent, authentic feelings and aspirations. For many centuries, people were brought up in fear, guilt and shame not only for the slightest mistakes in behavior, but simply for harboring ‘incorrect” emotions (e.g. “anger is a deadly sin”). Feelings of love for self, experiencing self as a valuable human being – would automatically mean disregarding and rejecting imposed fear and guilt, and therefore were not allowed.
For people to believe that their normal feelings were bad, they had to be convinced that they were sinful and unworthy by nature. When children brought up in that kind of environment grew up and had children of their own, their offspring’s natural immature behavior thus provoked deep feelings of insecurity, guilt and shame. Often it was easier for such parents to call the children “bad“ or “selfish“ than to admit their own feelings of fear, guilt and shame, which had been suppressed for decades. This is how guilt and fear are often passed on to next generations.
In such a way, a society of false politeness and
doubtful morality was created, a society in which “being good“ meant to
neglect yourself and your own needs, “being polite“ meant not to
disagree or stick out, not even to say something good about yourself,
and “consideration for others“ often meant damaging yourself.
Suppressed emotions and toxic self-image
A basic law of physics says that energy cannot be destroyed; it is only possible to change its form. A similar principle applies to emotions.
Suppressed emotions linger within us and strive to rise to surface and give us their messages. If we do not allow ourselves to face them in a constructive way, unconsciously we start to look for relief in other ways – often destructive ones. Gossip, hypocrisy, depression, envy and malice provided pressure relief for many generations. Sooner or later, self-control is not enough to sustain the pressure of accumulated emotions and we switch to another extreme.
This is occurring in our civilization right now.
Accumulated destruction rises through countless images of violence and
immature behavior on television. Younger generations, which on one side
were brought up on tradition and on the other side with such immature
models that send the message that destruction is OK, turn to the other
extreme – open selfishness, arrogance and aggression. Some people call
this self-esteem, which is one reason for confusion about the term.
Many people have never experienced true self-esteem and have only a whimsical image of how is it expressed. It is easy then to believe in false portraits of self-esteem, in an often fake, superficial feeling of power that destruction might give. Once you have your own inner experience of self-esteem, no longer do you need outer models for self-orientation.
If you ever felt arrogance, contempt or aggression – and from time to time this happens to everyone – you have probably noticed that it is not a truly pleasant feeling. Instead of appreciation for oneself, those attitudes are based on fear, defensiveness and attempts to avoid perceived dangers, including trying to suppress unpleasant feelings. On the other hand, when we truly appreciate ourselves, we are spontaneously more willing and able to see the positive qualities of other people. Therefore, true acceptance of oneself is naturally related to the acceptance of others. On some level, we are aware that the human essence is the same for all of us, and whatever we find within ourselves, we spontaneously search for within others as well.
Behavior that appears to be confident, but without consideration and respect for others, is not self-esteem but only hides a subconscious negative self-image. You have probably experienced that those attributes you know you possess, you do not feel you have to prove or actively point out to others. The need to show off, to prove yourself, implies that you do not quite trust your qualities or who you are.
All of us have some negative beliefs about ourselves, and consequently we feel the need to prove the opposite to ourselves and to others. This can be a very strong, compulsive need that is hard to moderate or, sometimes, even to be aware of. Much of what we do or yearn for is motivated by that need. How would it look like if, instead of needing to prove ourselves, we really felt good about ourselves? How much energy and time in all areas of our lives would become available for much more useful purposes?
True self-esteem and respect for others
In external behavior, self-esteem is expressed as respect for our feelings, our needs and demands as well as respect for other people; this means, among other things, to see others as powerful and capable of doing the same. There is no fear of condemnation (which is actually fear of self-criticism!). The need to neglect ourselves to take care of others disappears because we know that they can take care of themselves and, not less relevantly, that it is their right to do so.
The anger and resistance that we might feel in situations when others try to express their discomfort with our behavior, or when they warn us that we have violated their personal boundaries, is a defense mechanism which conceals deep unconscious beliefs that we don’t deserve to stand up for ourselves. Those beliefs are usually created at a very young age. Still, in some ways, a child will feel that such a belief is unnatural and will resist it. At a young age, however, they don’t know how to deal with such inner conflict and confusion. Thus, a feeling of inadequacy is often covered up with a compulsive need to defend our self-image by underestimating or even humiliating other people and their feelings and needs.
This need to avoid feeling inadequate is partly fueled by a biological urge for power and competition. The evolution that shaped our genes includes a conflict between cooperation and empathy, on one hand, and domination and power, on the other. Yet, I find that family upbringing shapes our biological heritage, not the other way around. Children who are taught self-esteem as well as healthy boundaries, can find constructive ways to distinguish themselves and express their power and abilities.