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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.