Unraveling the mystery of self-esteem

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Oft times nothing profits more Than self-esteem, grounded on just and right Well manag’d.
— John Milton, Paradise Lost; 1667

Dear Friend and Reader:

When we look back honestly on this phase of history, we’ll see that one of the most profound issues of our day is a pandemic-scale crisis of self-esteem. We don’t need to look far for the manifestations of this, or for the causes. They surround us so completely that we barely notice them; or if we do, we assume they are an indelible part of existence. They are built into our relationships, which are often designed as shelter from the storm, but which don’t usually work.

Photo by Eric Francis / Book of Blue.

Photo by Eric Francis / Book of Blue.

As Brian, my editor at Chronogram magazine put it when I ran this article idea past him, he’s noticing this most in people feeling like they are going insane because the world doesn’t appreciate who they are or what they have to offer. This is particularly strange in a world that has nothing but ever-increasing needs; in theory we should all be in greater demand.

To describe something as a crisis of self-esteem is to use a byword covering a great many potential situations. Ultimately they all come back to how we feel about ourselves and our existence. Do we feel good about who we are? On a deeper level, do we consciously notice our existence? Do we feel like we have a right to exist?

We may not be so articulate with ourselves. Usually, we get the data in emotional form. If we’re struggling, it may arrive as anything from depression (literally, the sense of being pressed down) to the challenges of adapting in a world that is not the same place from hour to hour. Adapting takes energy and being in a constant process of adjustment can consume nearly all of our energy.

But there is something else unique to our time in history that I think may hold the key: as a society and often as individuals, we live as if we have no responsibility to anyone or anything; not ourselves, not our society, not the world. I’ll give you an example. There is a large swath of society that feels like it’s entitled to do absolutely anything at all. There is a larger swath that allows them to get away with it.

It’s not just how we feel about ourselves that is suffering, but rather how we feel about very nearly everything. And in a word, that would be cynical. Cynical is another way of saying having no respect. Another way is suggesting that we live in a time of ethical bankruptcy, which is taking a personal toll in the form of a great many people feeling worthless. It should come as no surprise that most have done very little to earn that sense of worth from themselves.

Let’s get a definition of esteem up on the blackboard. According to Etymology Online, esteem means to estimate the value of something. The word dates to 1450. It was initially used the same way we currently use the word estimate, so that a conscious evaluation is implied, not simply a notion or a quality. The term self-esteem is neutral: it can represent a high value, a low one or something in between, pending evaluation. There is an accounting involved; and that implies accountability. This is precisely the opposite of getting away with anything you can, or letting others get away with anything.

As for self-esteem, Oxford English Dictionary defines it, perhaps too simply, as “a favorable appreciation or opinion of oneself,” and one of the first to apply the term was John Milton. The term was popularized by phrenology (a kind of pseudo-science involving reading bumps on the head), which assigned it a bump in the early 19th century.

In astrology, this is 2nd house territory, which is related to Taurus and to Leo. It’s possible to get a fairly clear understanding of a person’s concept and experience of self-esteem by a careful reading of the 2nd house. Pretty much everything shows up there, though it’s often necessary to look at the planet that rules the 2nd house (which will usually be placed in another house) and see what it’s doing. The 2nd house is how a person feels about him or herself. It’s also about one’s personal assets, such as money and other valuables. Most of us have to work to build our assets, which suggests that self-esteem is not something that we’re born with or that we inherit, but rather something that we earn.

Photo by Eric Francis / Book of Blue.

Photo by Eric Francis / Book of Blue.

When that bank account goes into negative numbers, which can come from our own actions, our refusal to invest in ourselves, or from others intentionally plundering us, the results can be a devastated sense of self-worth.

In practical terms, the pain we associate with low self-esteem can show up as any of the following: the feeling of being worthless or useless; having no sense of purpose; feeling like one’s life is out of control; feeling submissive to the needs of others; feeling unworthy of love; hating oneself; walking around thinking everyone hates you; being stalked by guilt and/or shame; feeling like no place is actually home; obsession with relationship in the midst of any or all of this; constantly feeling lonely, even if you’re in a relationship; being terrified of intimacy; or feeling like relationships are prison cells.

Let’s add to that the feeling that life has already passed you by, such as feeling old at age 19.

What exactly is going on? How did this come to be? Well, let’s start with the chaotic households that nearly everyone was brought up in, and how little time is devoted to children. Let’s consider kids growing up around parents whose lives are nearly constant struggles, as has happened to so many of us. Adults living in a world of pain teaches kids to feel badly about themselves, which is a form of plundering them. Kids take on and blame themselves for the pain of their caregivers. Too often it’s not possible for children to get the focus they need; most of us grow up neglected, which is another way of saying that we start with a negative example and persist in doing the same things to ourselves.

Many parents teach children specifically not to invest in themselves. The child or teenager wants to make an investment, such as learn a skill; an adult thinks it’s a waste of time; the kid gives up. Note, some of us don’t listen. My father told me numerous times not to be a writer; rather, he supposed I would make a better postal worker.

If we don’t make these investments, which are spiritual as well as physical, we can exist in a world where everything seems to be better than we are. There is an estimation involved, and we typically count ourselves out. If we don’t feel beautiful, every photograph of a glamorous model is going to seem more beautiful than we are. If we don’t feel strong or successful, the images of men that portray guys with less to do, more money, fancier cars and sculpted muscles are an invitation to feel like shit. That supposedly calls for action, which is how most advertising works: by preying on our sense of inferiority.

My favorite example of this is that ad for the ‘Army of One’ — a military recruitment ad (which I am now discovering from a Google search has been brutally, viciously satired a number of times). This masterpiece — which, incredibly, we cannot find on any website, nor can we find still images from it — features one soldier flying in a transport plane, fighting a war and so on. On the surface, it tells kids ‘you’re somebody special’, but what it’s really reminding young men about is how worthless they feel. There is twisted logic to the subsequent recommendation: do something about it; feel good about yourself and join the Army.

Be a hero. If you’re not a hero, clearly you’re a loser. Now divide this out over an entire society that has been primed to be vulnerable to precisely this message. We are susceptible to feeling like the greatest thing ever, or shameful and worthless. Because of how painful it is, we bury the whole conflict.

Graphic confusing the meaning of self-esteem with narcissism. Credit: Vision.org.

Graphic confusing the meaning of self-esteem with narcissism. Credit: Vision.org.

Let’s give this a name: exiled narcissism (coined by my friend Maya’s therapist, Steve Carroll). Exiled meaning pushed into the shadows of the psyche, and narcissism meaning the belief that we are better than someone for no good reason, or self-fixation at the expense of others. This can also involve obsessively fighting to prove we’re better than others; a kind of competitiveness that our society loves so much but won’t call by its real name. (For example, jealousy is considered precious, but it’s rarely described as an attribute of narcissism.)

We are going through a phase of mental history wherein the only thing that’s interesting is competing. Competing is a form of estimation; but it yields a value based on being better than someone else, not worthy in your own assessment of yourself.

You can no longer just be a good cook, and use food as a source of nourishment and pleasure. You have to be the top chef; and if you’re not the top chef, then what are you? And at the same time, narcissism is allegedly a bad thing. So we shamefully have to shove it out of awareness. Then it comes back with a vengeance, because we “know we’re special” and “deserve the best” and so on. Or we “lost the game” and are devastated. The sick part is that usually, this has less to do with Top Chef and more to do with being (or not being) Top Wife or Best Father.

We often flip back and forth between grandiosity and shame; between being the most beautiful and not beautiful enough. Grandiosity can feel like being righteously indignant and powerful and like you have the right to reject anyone or anything; shame is when you feel so worthless, the obvious conclusion is you deserve nothing and no one. If we can observe this process for a while, we can see that neither of these polar extremes are true values. Neither would serve us in relationship to ourselves or to others; and in a true estimation, neither one actually exists.

Somewhere in here, we might decide it’s time to love ourselves. But in doing this, we might seem to tread dangerously close to narcissism, or the fear of being labeled as such. I would say this may actually be true, particularly if our ‘self-love’ does not involve an actual estimation of our value, in our own eyes. Usually from this position we feel too worthless to start investing in ourselves; after all, what is the use?

This crisis goes deeper than psychology. Its roots are in something underneath ‘esteem’. That something is the awareness of existence. In other words, maybe the problem has more to do with self than it does with esteem.

It’s not just that many of us do not esteem ourselves (and harshly judge those who do), but that we don’t even know we exist — that we, in fact, stand out and stand open as a place within the cosmos where both a world and a person mutually unfold, manifest and reveal. We are so busy playing roles — wife, mother, businessman, cool guy, someone busy getting rich, suffering poet and so on — that we don’t realize we are simply people.

Relating to death with awareness is a crucial part of maturity. Photo by Eric Francis.

Relating to death with awareness is a crucial part of maturity. Photo by Eric Francis.

Many of us don’t believe we have a right to exist and to be the creators of our lives. In other words, we’re not accountable to ourselves; and we don’t feel we have a right to respond to our own needs. Why would we? This shows up, then, as low self-esteem. First we have to acknowledge existence, then claim our right to it, and finally esteem ourselves in the process.

Implied in this process is the acknowledgment of death. Not dealing with death consciously creates a crisis because unless we acknowledge the other side of existence, which is to say, nonexistence, then we cannot really appreciate either. Death is covered in the 8th house of astrology — which is opposite the 2nd house. Notably, the 8th also involves the value that we get from others; and that includes the marriage contract. How many people get married because they feel worthless, or like they found the one person who will value them? The one person for whom we can be a hero, which is to say, worthy in the eyes of others so we can feel good about ourselves.

Here is a thought from The Denial of Death by Ernest Becker:

“The first thing we have to do with heroism is to lay bare its underВ­side, show what gives human heroics its specific nature and impetus. Here we introduce directly one of the great rediscoveries of modern thought: that of all things that move man, one of the principal ones is his terror of death. After Darwin the problem of death as an evolutionary one came to the fore, and many thinkers immediately saw that it was a major psychological problem for man. They also very quickly saw what real heroism was about, as Shaler wrote just at the turn of the [20th] century: heroism is first and foremost a reflex of the terror of death.”

How do we put this information to work? First I think we need to raise awareness about the fact that existence as we know it is a transient thing. Everything is in motion; everything changes; existence is a process of change; we are part of that process. This is exhilarating to some people and it makes most others despondent. And it is indeed possible to get caught in the thrill of death, which is a form of heroism. At this end of the spectrum as with any other, a conscious, healthy relationship has to be established, and that really means coexisting peacefully with the ongoing process of change.

Maybe reaching that point of positive self-esteem is the moment when we feel we are worth an investment in ourselves, despite the fact that time goes on without us. The death connection can be useful in that it’s a reminder that nobody is inherently better than anyone else, and that what we choose to do with our time is entirely up to us. As is (with the exception of our children) who we spend it with: people who care about themselves and act on it; people who care about us and act on it; or someone else entirely.

All of these are decisions we make on the way to personhood. As others have noted, I don’t think we are born people; I think that becoming truly human is something we work at every day, all our lives. Why we would be struggling with this in our ‘dehumanized’ world today is easy to see; but if we want to do something about it, we first must recognize the need.

Eric Francis
With additional contributions from Maya Cook, Kelly Cowan and Christine Farber.

To read and participate in an interesting discussion thread on self-esteem, created for the preparation of this article, you may visit this link on Planet Waves.

Eric Francis

About Eric Francis

Planet Waves began in 1998 as the home of the Eric Francis horoscope, a prominent feature in our premium service. Going far beyond what most Sun-sign astrologers even dream is possible, Eric brings in-depth interpretations to his work. He is a pioneer in the newly-discovered planets, including Chiron and the centaurs, and is able to translate their movements into accessible human terms, offering ideas for life, love and work. Discover a whole new world of literary journalism in Planet Waves. We offer free trial subscriptions, discounts for students and seniors, and gift subscriptions for veterans and those on active military duty.
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11 Responses to Unraveling the mystery of self-esteem

  1. baycyn says:

    nance,
    Yes, those pathways really get set when we repeat the thought patterns. An addict will keep going there…and “just say no” doesn’t work. “What the Bleep…” had some good info on addiction, and it sure was entertaining.

    Pain — physical and emotional — evokes beta-endorphin (BE), a chemical that numbs the pain and makes us feel good & safe. Ever wonder why some people seem to enjoy being miserable? Among other things, they get a hit of BE as they’re complaining or feeling bad. As time goes on, tolerance to BE develops (think addiction here) and more/more frequent hits are needed. A vicious circle.

    bkoehler,

    Here’s the abridged version re. healing and balancing my biochemistry. I’m a sugar addict (yes, it’s real). I also used other substances addictively though never got too far in. Never really could understand how anyone could have only one cookie/beer/toke. Also used/use behaviors in this way (some ongoing work here!).

    I was always moody, prone to depression & anger; sometimes felt on top of the world and very capable; sometimes hopeless and despairing. Didn’t understand why I kept falling into cycles of depression and anxiety. Self-esteem would be fine sometimes; in the pits at others. Usually felt on the outside looking in, not really a full-fledged part of any group, even though I had friends and succeeded in school. Felt emotional pain very keenly.

    I think these kinds of feelings are behind a lot of the acting-out behaviors we see all around us. It’s very, very painful to be in that place.

    In the depths of a depression 4.5 years ago I finally figured out I was addicted to sugar (for some folks it’s white flour [pasta, breads, etc], or behaviors). Wonky brain chemistry led me to seek feeling “normal” in any way I could. That was usually sugar, caffeine, pasta. Would feel great for about an hour or two. Then I’d come crashing down. So I’d have another candy bar or coffee or munch on chips or something. A terrible rollercoaster that was hard on my poor, precious body and emotional & psychological health.

    I found a program called Radiant Recovery (google if you want more info). It was designed by a woman who is an addiction specialist. There’s no fee. It’s a dietary and behavioral plan — whole foods, nothing weird or dangerous. Designed to heal brain chemistry.

    A lot of the painful emotions I had, especially the swirling ones (e.g., not being able to “move on” or replaying a traumatic or uncomfortable situation over and over), were “sugar feelings” and have disappeared. Truly. I have so much more compassion for myself, my family, other people now. Lots of other changes have happened, too. I feel like I’m finally ME, without a bunch of other crap getting in the way. Well, there’s still some crap but now I can recognize it most of the time.

  2. bkoehler says:

    baycyn,

    Tell us more about “healing and balancing” your biochemistry. This is very very interesting….

    mystes, hope you have a wonderful time!

  3. neptunedream says:

    Eric, thanks for your continuing awesome articles, I gain so much from your insights. I gotta tell you what has happened to me in less than 24 hours regarding self esteem and people indulging themselves with self righteous entitlement. I work with the public as a receptionist for a doctors office, so I get a few A..h’s at my window.
    Yesterday a man showed up an hour early for his appointment demanding to get in now! Didn’t care the doc had other patients being seen-threw a lot of male bully energy at me with voice tone and body language. I felt scared, stomach flipflopping and told him I wasn’t here to be beaten up by you come back at your scheduled time. Then he tried to barge into the doc’s office! He was told to come back, which he did, and was still hate filled and arrogant.
    The juxtaposition to this during that same time was a male patient at my window chatting about the responsibilities of men to be good role models and take their responsibilities to themselves, others and community very seriously.
    This morning, I read your article (at work) and got it, I get what you are saying about self esteem, how mean people make me feel, the tug of war I have been feeling about honest relationships with myself and others. Mid morning today, a male patient who had failed to show up yesterday, came in saying his appointment was today and demanded to see the doctor, didn’t care that other patients were scheduled, it was my fault, didn’t want to come back at noon, etc. It was the same scenario, I hope he doesn’t come back…
    I did stick up for my self which is difficult for me as a woman, and feeling a lack of self worth most of the time. Re-wiring our brains is difficult, a constant struggle to be vigilant about self worth issues, dealing with and living in an American society where competition is venerated. In an ever increasingly scary world, things change on hourly basis, fear and stress can ruin and run our lives. I don’t know what to do about any of it, except try to love myself and find forgiveness and compassion for the world.

  4. nance says:

    Yes Baycyn!

    My favorite part of the movie ‘What the Bleep Do We Know’ details the biochemistry of addiction – including addiction to anger, addiction to pity, victim consciousness, etc.
    We create pathways in our brain each time we repeat a thought pattern. The trick is to change your mind. Or ‘take a giant step outside your mind’ – Taj Mahal

  5. baycyn says:

    Thanks for this continuing exploration. It’s vital.

    There’s another piece to this self-esteem puzzle. A whole lotta people are living with addictions, whether they realize it or not. Our culture stokes addictive behaviors, so it can be tricky to discern our own addictive patterns while we’re in them. Addiction is biochemically mediated — there’s a HUGE physiological component.

    You can do decades of therapy (and other healing modalities) and never come to a place of biochemical healing. And your addictive behaviors will not be resolved, either — they’ll likely be replaced with something else that will give your biochemistry the “hit” it craves.

    Self-esteem comes into it thus: people genetically prone to addiction are born with lower than normal levels of certain neurochemicals (e.g. serotonin beta-endorphin, dopamine) and volatile blood sugar. Low levels of the neurochemicals can present symptoms including a lack of self-esteem, lack of connection with others, feeling different, feeling incapable, and oh so many more things like this. Depression, anxiety, feeling screwed by the world, feeling deep and constant anger…this is just for starters.

    Add to this the likelihood that these people come from alcoholic and/or abusive home environments, and you compound the problems.

    I believe we can use astrology and healing modalities to identify and begin work on these issues; we just can’t ignore the physiological piece. I’ve done countless therapy sessions, workshops, journaling, etc etc etc and never could understand why I seemed to make little or no progress. That was a real self-defeating cycle!

    It wasn’t until I healed and balanced my biochemistry (through foods and behavioral changes — not through pharmaceuticals) that I could clearly see the forest for the trees. My past healing work wasn’t a waste, of course. It gave me lots of tools to use NOW. My self-esteem issues are much clearer to me, and many of them have simply fallen away as I’ve healed physically.

    I can now truly *engage* in my own healing, with clarity, and feel my connection as part of the Big One.

  6. nance says:

    one more thought – I started doing yoga about 15 years ago and through that practice have been able to connect my body/mind/spirit and find self-acceptance, compassion for myself and others, self-forgiveness, and generally make peace with myself. It is a lifelong practice.

  7. nance says:

    Interested you put this out again as I was just coming back around to it myself.

    I reached a valuable point of self-awareness, healing after the new moon last week. I’ve been connecting the dots ever since. Monday night we went to our local non-violent communication (NVC) practice group. Salient points for me were awareness that NVC is 10% feelings/90% needs. Here I was, struggling to identify feelings, when the real gem is buried underneath the feelings – the needs. I managed to notice that a particular driving need for me is ACCEPTANCE. I am 5th of 7 children and grew up with much, much criticism and judgment, and very little in the way of acceptance.

    So then Michael Jackson dies along with Neda and the rest. To be clear, I was never much of a fan of MJ, didn’t ever buy his music. Shed more tears for Neda than MJ. But taking in the general mix of feelings around MJ, I started wondering about self-esteem and acceptance. Our culture is judgmental, especially the media. Perhaps this plays a general role in self-esteem and clearly played a role in MJ’s life and the abuse he suffered from the media. Being the gifted 7th of 9 children, he may have suffered abuse in the form of a critical family as well.

    Neda gives women a voice in a culture where women are unaccepted/unworthy (judged by males).

    So, do we learn from the harsh judgment of others and spend our lives suffering to measure up?

  8. chrys says:

    There is a famous story about the Dalai Lama meeting with a group of successful academics many years ago , and the topic of self esteem and self hatred came up. When almost all these academics raised their hands that they suffered from this, HH Dalai Lama was astounded, and since has worked hard to talk about how one needs to have compassion for oneself before spreading it out into the world – however one might want to do. It is of course easier said then done – hence the quote I put up,
    Doing a meditation sending yourself compassion is a very strong practice

  9. chrys says:

    “The fundamental point is that if you do not have the capacity to love yourself, then there is simply no basis on which to build a sense of caring toward others. Love for yourself does not mean that you are indebted to yourself. Rather, the capacity to love oneself or be kind to oneself should be based on a very fundamental fact of human existence: that we all have a natural tendency to desire happiness and avoid suffering. Once this basis exists in relation to oneself, one can extend it to other sentient beings.”
    HH Dalai Lama

  10. mystes says:

    “Embrace your body. Here is esteem *without* mediating construct, an action of true valuing. Can you do it?”

    Embrace *whose* body?

    “I had as lief be embraced by the portier of the hotel
    As to get no more from the moonlight
    Than your moist hand.

    “Be the voice of the night and Florida in my ear.
    Use dasky words and dusky images.
    Darken your speech.

    “Speak, even, as if I did not hear you speaking,
    But spoke for you perfectly in my thoughts,
    Conceiving words,

    “As the night conceives the sea-sound in silence,
    And out of the droning sibilants makes
    A serenade.

    “Say, puerile, that the buzzards crouch on the ridge-pole
    and sleep with one eye watching the stars fall
    Beyond Key West.

    “Say that the palms are clear in the total blue.
    Are clear and are obscure; that it is night;
    That the moon shines.

    (Two figures in a dense violet light, Wallace Stevens)

    “Bring to me your tired, your weary, your yearning to Bobo
    free.”

    (She has agreed to go out with me!)

    *8^D

  11. Half De Witte says:

    Some observations: Starting with Descartes ‘Cogito Ergo Sum’

    ‘I think, therefore I am’ would find some measure of corrective in ‘I am, therefore I think’.

    Disembodied Cartesian rationalism bequeaths to us much of our current ‘self’ ideology and the bowels of our subjectivity construct as well as notions of otherness as over against .

    ‘Self’ has become referentially construed as a subjectivity seeking its *true* object – an object which to have validity or authenticity is equated with inwardness. We believe that we have not reached far enough inward if we have not charted the self. Hence, this reachingness springs from mind and reaches in toward some abstract potentiality called ‘soul’ or ‘spirit’. This fascination with essence has obscured the more concrete sense of self as substance, or, body.

    Oh my God, there, I said it..

    But my body is too concrete to be spiritually valuable, surely? Maybe it’s how I perceive my body, then? Yes, that feels more comfortable. I can have a falsely polarised intellectual opinion again now. Great. Is that spiritual enough (far enough removed from that vulgar body thing)?

    Hey, De Witte, hold on. Do you mean, I get to live my body (not just be ‘in’ it)? That’s just too fucking radical. Stop it!

    Sensory experience… Mmm, saturated in visual culture (which is highly correlated to mind – both physiologically and as a social construct) perpetuates the split.

    I say ‘Get with your other senses, indulge them’. It is SO right. Do not think about it. Murder your guilt, put it to the sword.

    Therein lies a missing ingredient of self-esteem, maybe pathologically absent, because the body has somehow gone missing and most of us failed to notice. How strange.

    Embrace your body. Here is esteem *without* mediating construct, an action of true valuing. Can you do it?

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