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What is Self-esteem?


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 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, amongst 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.


Needs, desires and boundaries


Healthy and happy children, those who have not yet learned to feel ashamed of themselves, will spontaneously express their wishes and feelings without even thinking to conceal them – at least until they are taught otherwise. Healthy children primarily focus on themselves, and naturally, although not consciously and rationally, expect others to do the same. If parents neglect themselves to please children, this is just as confusing and damaging as if they neglect children in order to please themselves.

To focus on self – doesn't it sound selfish? By default, it is labeled as selfishness. Often it's easier to call this selfishness in others, than to take care of ourselves, to confront someone, to say “no” or to stand up for ourselves. Respect for other people is an essential part of true self-esteem. We respect other people's personal boundaries when we avoid hurting them intentionally or endangering their freedom – but also by being aware of their power and responsibility to stand up for themselves and protect their boundaries. In other words, to warn us if, unintentionally, we do something that makes them feel uncomfortable.

When I talk about focusing on yourself, I mean that only you can know what you want and need. We cannot expect anyone else to be accurate in predicting our desires and needs. In the same way, we cannot know what other people want or feel. Since each one of us has a different personality and history, often we will be wrong even when we are convinced that we know what another person is feeling or thinking.

I am NOT advising ignoring others and avoiding doing anything nice for them, as some people with black and white perception might say. It is nice to help people around us feel better! Sometimes we might want to give up something that is not so important to us, or to do something that makes the other feel good, even if it takes effort. It all comes down to balance. It is essential to be aware of your important values and needs while being considerate to others. Everything else can be negotiated and a healthy person will not expect to have it all their way.


Healthy negotiations vs. manipulation


You won't see healthy and happy children who feel good about themselves, trying anxiously to predict and guess what people think or want (“Have I said something wrong?”, “Have I done something wrong?”, “Might people think that I am selfish?”), but you will meet a lot of unhappy, anxious people (and children) who do exactly that. For a healthy child it is normal to say “no” if they don't want something, that other people also say “no” and set their boundaries – and then to negotiate.

Nevertheless, very often people close to a child are unable to set boundaries or sincerely express themselves, so they either blame or manipulate others. This is how children learn to feel guilty if they are spontaneous and sincere; and they also learn to blame and manipulate others. People who believe that they will be punished if they are sincere or ask for what they want, will expect others to “read their minds” and predict their needs, which is an awful burden for everyone and an important cause of disputes in our society.

To focus on yourself includes taking full responsibility for yourself and recognizing the responsibility of others to do the same. If everyone was free to express what they feel and want, this would sets us free of immense guilt and endless, often unexpressed, expectations.

It does not mean that others are less important to us. People who truly feel good about themselves don't have the need or desire to hurt or undervalue anyone. Actually, the opposite is true: the more we understand and appreciate ourselves, the easier we can understand others. It is normal to have a general, healthy idea about what it means to intentionally violate the freedom and personal space of other people, and therefore to avoid doing that, since we know how it feels. In an ideal situation, everybody expresses their wishes, feelings or disapproval without blame, fear or guilt. In this way, it would be much easier to listen to and appreciate other people's points of view.

Such ideal situations of course are rare, so we need to take into account other people's personal histories, behavioral patterns, fears, guilt and suppressed emotions – just as our own. We will often be in situations when other people cannot consider our feelings and limitations. That makes the work on self-esteem, as well as life itself, diverse, interesting and full of opportunities to learn and to question ourselves from different points of view and in all kinds of circumstances


The need for love


The need to feel loved and appreciated is one of the strongest drives of human behavior. Yearning for approval is in the core of almost everything that we communicate or avoid to communicate, in most things that we try to achieve and manifest; it is the key to most of our emotional reactions, especially the unpleasant ones.

Do you feel anger or sadness when there is something you want from others but somehow fail to get? Other people's attention is deeply important to us, from ”What will the neighbors say?" to extreme exhibitionism. Many people subject their whole lives to it: from people who are never able to express their true wishes due to fear of being rejected, to those who spend all of their lives chasing money to buy status symbols in hope that others would admire them.

When we are children, our families are the only source through which we can evaluate our behavior and ourselves. Inexperienced about the world they are born into, children see their reflections in other people's reactions. As young children, we could not know that other people reacted not only to us, but also to many other things going on in their minds (including their subconscious minds).

We reach for power when, unconsciously, we feel that whatever we do, we still do not receive love. This is a painful and terrifying conclusion that is reached at a very young age. Later it turns into a need to control our environment. Another reason for focusing on power is the compensation mechanism: if I can't get what I truly want – to feel worthy through the experience of love – I will reach for something less worthy, but still rewarding, that feels like approval. Therefore, we start to seek dominance.

A search for external love can never replace loving ourselves from within. When we achieve success in outer world, deep down we may feel that it has no true value. We may feel that people's approval is based on an illusion, rather than perceiving who we really are. However, if we never learned how it feels to be loved and appreciated, we don't know any better and stubbornly keep following the old path – the path on which so many people spend their whole lives, repeating strategies that don't work. Even if they achieve external success, they will soon forget it and compulsively reach for more – more fame, more power, more money - yet no external experience of success ever reaches their inner child so that they can feel that there is finally enough.



As adults, we can be at least partly aware of what is going on, but old beliefs from childhood are still deeply suppressed and will shape our consciousness and our lives. This can be changed, but not overnight. For many people, the experience of feeling unloved and unappreciated for who they were, became a foundation on which they built their personality, and it takes time and continuous effort to change it.

True love for ourselves will fulfill us in ways that no external love could ever do. Even if people love us, but we lack love for ourselves, we will never be able to fully accept it, appreciate it and feel that their love is justified.

You might not be aware of how much better it would feel to love yourself. Imagining such a feeling compared to real experience is like imagining a trip compared to actual traveling.

The feeling of being loved within can heal many small and even bigger hurts and resentments. You will no longer need approval and external confirmations of your worth, so you will feel much more freedom to be yourself. You will better empathize with others and recognize their pain, while still seeing them as strong adults. On the other hand, if somebody hurts you directly or tries to put you down, you will be more capable to stand up for yourself or to turn away and leave.

You will be more willing to make changes and take risks that are too frightening for many people. From this healthy state of mind, you cannot easily accept bad conditions any more: poor working circumstances, harassment at work, dull, hopeless relationships. Without too many words and theories, you know that something better is possible. Spontaneously, you move towards your goals and it gets easier and easier, since you are open to learn your lessons – and loving yourself is one of the most important lessons in life.

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