Unraveling the mystery of self-esteem

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.

As Brian, my editor at Chronogrammagazine 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.

Discuss This ArticleIt’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-esteemOxford 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. 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.

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.

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.

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 acknowledgement 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 under­side, 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

Venus stations direct in Pisces today

Venus stations direct in Pisces today, Friday, at 3:24 pm EDT. It is in the last degree of Pisces, meaning it’s in the last degree of the tropical zodiac. Being so close to the first degree of the zodiac, this qualifies as an Aries Point event. Because it involves Venus and Pisces, it’s deeply personal. So we stand at an intersection of the most intimate and private feelings, and the state of the world.

This Venus retrograde began March 6, though the echo phase — when Venus entered the degrees where it would be retrograde — began Feb. 2, 2009. Venus will now re-cross the same degrees of the zodiac it’s been in for the past two and a half months, and finally enter new territory on May 20.

If you’re working with this transit as part of your personal history, Venus last crossed the Aries Point the first week of April 2008.

When Venus stations direct, the Sun will be in late Aries and the Moon will have just entered Aquarius.

Venus is in Pisces, along with Mars and Uranus. Pisces is also a focus because its two ruling planets, Jupiter and Neptune, are forming a triple conjunction with Chiron, which will be exact the last week of May.

The Sun enters Taurus at 6:44 pm EDT Sunday, April 19, with the Moon in an exact conjunction to Neptune, and less than one degree away from Chiron.

While I’m on the subject of inner planet retrogrades, note that Mercury will be retrograde from May 7 through May 31. The echo phase begins April 23, and the second echo phase (when Mercury enters new territory for the first time since the retrograde began) ends June 15. Those times are available at this link.




Weekly Horoscope for Friday, April 17, 2009, #762 – By ERIC FRANCIS

Aries (March 20-April 19)
Your life may be entirely different than it was a few days ago, and if it’s not, you’re getting a clear idea of how you want it different. What you’re being called to do is match the visible and invisible dimensions of reality; the implicit and the explicit worlds. Notice what you have in your psychic closets and at least bring it to your own awareness. Get used to what you’re thinking, feeling and understanding about yourself on the most personal level. Once you get used to your emotional contents as a conscious gesture, you’ll find it a lot easier to share your truth when that moment comes — and it is arriving fast. You know there’s a lot you have not said, and that you need to say.

Taurus (April 19- May 20)
Look through the layers of yourself, your circumstances and the world. Review all that you’ve been through the past six months, and give yourself credit for what you’ve accomplished and who you have become. Remember that you accomplished this yourself. You had help, but you can finally say you were instrumental in making progress on your own terms. This implies strongly that you can embark on the next phase of your life with confidence that you don’t usually get to express. There are times to have a fixed idea about what you want and times to have a more relaxed concept, working from a general vision, without a script. Your astrology suggests you’re in the second kind of landscape at the moment.

Gemini (May 20- June 21)
You may be wondering if the opportunities that have arisen recently are real, or are flashes in the proverbial pan. Think of it this way. Everything you see, from a movie to the computer or newspaper you’re using to read these words, started with an idea. It’s a long journey from a concept to a tangible, valuable or useful object. But it’s we who give life to our ideas and opportunities. The energy of this moment is truly unusual, though it draws its beauty from another quality, which is its creative flexibility: a rich meeting point of what is ‘artistic’ and what is ‘practical’. The elements are in place to suggest that what you see is as real as potential gets in this world; you will never know until you actually start the experiment.

Cancer (June 21- July 22)
You’ve made more in the way of what I will call invisible progress in the past couple of months than you’ve given yourself credit for. It’s true that you’re still trying to figure out what you want to be when you grow up. But don’t spend so much time figuring that you miss the fact that you’ve arrived somewhere that is interesting, innovative and which meets your main qualification for being worthwhile: being inherently useful to others. I am here to tell you that you are developing something that is about to make you a leader in your field. You merely need to cooperate with the process; stay out of your own way; and send yourself positive messages from moment to moment.

Leo (July 22- Aug. 23)
You have plenty of energy bound up in what may feel like conflicting emotions, yet the planets are aligning in a way that is allowing you to purge yourself of anything that is not useful. This includes all that is not your own material, not helping you to grow, and in general, not true. It also includes any relationship patterns that are not serving your interests and by extension, those around you. Those who appreciate reality tend to avoid lies. Yet one of the more astute spiritual teachings of recent generations suggests that we need to spend our time seeking what is not true, that is, identifying the blocks to the awareness of love’s presence, and let the truth take care of itself.

Virgo (Aug. 23- Sep. 22)
The Sun arrives in your sympathetic earth sign Taurus this week, joining your ruling planet Mercury. I trust this will help you sort out your thoughts. Basically, you can now think less in terms of what you must give up and more in terms of what you have to gain. You’re someone who tends to profit when you remember your ethics and are in alignment with your own values. You’ve spent quite a while considering the values of someone close to you, and you’re finally at the point where you’re figuring out what works for you and what does not. The key to remember is you’ve been here before, and it’s taken you longer than necessary to act on what is important to you.

Libra (Sep. 22 – Oct. 23)
One particular relationship is starting to make more sense — the one you have to yourself. In the world’s obsession with hooking up, this is the one connection point that we not only miss, but that we are taught to skip over. I think you’ve figured out that this isn’t going to work, and more recently have noticed how well it works to be in alignment with yourself as a direct part of making contact with others. What’s different about the astrology now is that you’re in a connecting point where you and the people around you can be accommodating to one another about your basic needs; though you seem to be the one spurring this discussion based on your own agenda, which primarily involves emotional healing. The agenda makes sense; usually this does not happen by accident.

Scorpio (Oct. 23- Nov. 22)
You need to account for the projection factor in your relationships. Do you see people for who they are, or do you see them for who you want them to be? I think we all do some of both. We cannot help but be immersed in our own perception; the idea at the moment is stepping far enough outside that process that you can see it happening. It’s healthy and sensible to test your perceptions. That is to say, you can ask the people close to you about their experiences and take what they say under advisement. The most meaningful question to ask is: who are you becoming? Who do you want to be? Your part is to do your best supporting the authenticity of the people you love.

Sagittarius (Nov. 22 – Dec. 22)
When extraordinarily rare astrology occurs, things can have a way of feeling nonchalant and normal. It’s easy for astrologers to overstate the significance of aspects; I prefer to make a subtle case, leaving you room for original discoveries. That might be a good approach for you to take, under the circumstances. You are in the process of doing something that’s usually extremely difficult, which is changing how you think. I am not referring to something superficial, like taking a gardening class. It’s almost as if your brain cells are rearranging themselves into a new alignment. You are doing this on such a fundamental level that you may not be aware of the process: but you have your moments, and you’re about to have more of them. The question to be asking is, what is the result you are seeking?

Capricorn (Dec. 22- Jan. 20)
Your calm exterior is like an elegant façade over your impulsive emotional nature. You can even go so far as to fool yourself that you’re mentally poised all the time, but you know that’s not true when you notice that your thought process stops making sense. At the moment you seem to be making perfect sense to yourself, and the reason for this is because you’re allowing your emotions and your thoughts dialog with one another. Remember how this feels. Remember what it’s like to maintain two different kinds of awareness and not have them conflict with one another. At times it will seem like two things that should cancel one another out are both true at the same time. That’s when you can be fairly certain you have an understanding with yourself.

Aquarius (Jan. 20- Feb. 19)
You’re working on the very edge of your consciousness — the place that we’re trained to avoid, unless of course we cannot avoid it. You may as well admit that this is not a comfort zone; that there is no predictability to how things are going to shape up, or for that matter, how they are going to dissolve. Because you’re in an actual, undeniable growth process, you’re working with the factor of irrevocable change. This is progress because it will compel you to stand in the center of your own life, and confront how you feel, what you see, and one last thing: the extent to which your unconscious expectations are blinding you to what you really want. To address this, put your own expectations on the table in front of you, and consider them one at a time. You may notice that something better is possible.

Pisces (Feb. 19- March 20)
Events developing behind the scenes of your life are moving closer to where you can perceive them for what they are. And what would that be? Try this on: you are learning that you create yourself from the inside out. One way to say this is that you build your life using intention. Another way to say it is that you are learning to mix patterned thought and imagination in such a way that you can self-create in an ongoing, fully conscious process. Or rather, you are gaining consciousness over the whole experience, and in this case consciousness is power. There are a lot of things that you’ve wanted to change.

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