Randall Eiger LCSW
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But I'm Not Good Enough to Have Self-Esteem!


To study Zen is to study the self, to study the self is to forget the self, to forget the self is to be enlightened by all things.
—Eihei Dogen. 13th Century Zen Master

The essence of low self-esteem is that one lacks a basic sense of one's own strength, power and goodness and depends for one's sense of self-worth on sources outside oneself. Since these sources are beyond one's control, one's sense of self is fragile, at the mercy of others and of circumstances.

People without a strong sense of self tend to place an inordinate value on the opinion of others. Sometimes they are excessively shy, feeling that others are more important than they, or afraid that others will "see through them" and realize their basic inferiority.

On the other hand, some cultivate a large acquaintance among people they view as "cool" or "important," feeling that "if so and so likes me, I can't be all that bad."

And some actively seek positions of power. They surround themselves with flatterers who are always willing to applaud and assure the fragile ego that it amounts to something, however empty it might feel.

Although low self-esteem is painful for individuals, it is probably good for the economy. Much of consumer marketing is based on selling people stuff to help them feel good about themselves. You'll feel good about yourself, the ads tell us, if you buy a Lexus, wear Nike sneakers, or lose those unsightly excess pounds.

But trying to prop up a fragile ego by getting stuff is like scratching your head when your foot itches. There's nothing wrong with scratching your head, but it won't help your foot. In the same way, there's nothing wrong with money or fame or having a nice car or an attractive mate, but none of them can bring a feeling of self-worth if the basic sense of it is lacking.

The psychoanalyst Heinz Kohut believed that a healthy sense of self originates with the unconditional love of one's parents. The child looks up at its mother and sees the gleam in her eye that says, "I love you, not because you're the strongest, the brightest, or the most beautiful. I love you just because you're you."

Unfortunately, many people don't get a chance to experience this kind of unconditional love. Too often the message they get from their parents is, "I love you as long as you get 'A's', or look nice, or behave yourself." Often, parents may not even be aware of the messages they are sending. But the message is clear — you alone are not enough. If you want to be loved, you had better perform.

If we don't get unconditional love from our parents, we probably won't get it anywhere else, except perhaps from children and dogs. Mature love is conditional, based on mutual care, respect and esteem. To succeed in adult relationships, we must accept the give and take of adult love. The alternative is proud isolation or a succession of affairs that burn brightly for a short while, then go down in flames.

So what can be done about low self-esteem? I believe it is counterproductive to try to replace a poor self-image with a better one. Self-images, however positive, tend to be brittle and limiting. Although it is necessary to have some picture of the way we are, we're better off with an image that is a quick sketch, constantly subject to erasure and revision, than one that is carved in a block of ice.

Instead of experiencing who we are solely in terms of an image, it's helpful to begin to experience who we are in terms of what's going on right now. What are we seeing, hearing, smelling, experiencing? Most of all, what are we feeling? Since the only place our selves really exist is in the present moment, the present moment is the logical place to begin to work on our self-esteem. Can we respect our experience? Honor it? Enjoy it? Can we even bear it?

If we can experience who we are, right now, we can begin to meet the simple needs that arise and to treat ourselves as if we are someone worthy of care and attention. And when we treat ourselves as if we are worthy of care, after a while we begin to believe it.

Best of all, when we start taking care of ourselves, we can begin to take care of others too. Slowly, we develop a sense of inner wealth that overflows to our family, friends, neighbors and the world. We are now ready to take our place in the world as confident adults, and have freed ourselves from the unappreciated child inside us who will do just about anything for a pat on the head.