Self-Esteem as a Spiritual Discipline

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Self-Esteem as a Spiritual Discipline

Four decades ago, when I began lecturing on self-esteem, the challenge was to persuade people that the subject was worthy of study. Almost no one was talking about self-esteem in those days. Today, almost everyone seems to be talking about self-esteem, and the danger is that the idea may become trivialized.

And yet, of all the judgments we pass in life, none is more important than the judgment we pass on ourselves: it touches the very core of our existence. Some part of us knows this. We know that more fateful by far than what others think of us is what we think of ourselves.

“Self-esteem” is sometimes used interchangeably with “self-image,” which is unfortunate, because the concept is much deeper than any “image.” Self-esteem is a particular way of experiencing the self. It is more complex than any mental picture of ourselves and more basic than any transitory feeling. It contains emotional, evaluative, and cognitive components. It ordinarily exists, in large measure, beneath conscious awareness, as context or container for all of our thoughts, feelings, and responses, as ultimate ground to our being.

Our responses to other people, to the challenges of work, to the sight of suffering or beauty, to the vicissitudes of life – all are affected by our deepest sense of who and what we think we are, what we are capable of, what we deserve, what is appropriate to us.

Self-esteem entails certain action dispositions: to move toward life rather than away from it; to move toward consciousness rather than away from it; to treat facts with respect rather than avoidance or denial; to operate self-responsibly rather than the opposite. These are characteristics it is difficult, if not impossible, to fake.

What we tell ourselves about our self-esteem, and what it actually is, may be quite different. It may please us to believe that our self-esteem is relatively high when in fact it is seriously troubled. Nothing is more common than to deny or avoid our fears and self-doubts, thereby preventing them from ever being resolved. If I am willing fully to confront my self-esteem problems, to face and accept reality, I create the possibility of change and growth. If I deny my problems, I sentence myself to being stuck in the very pain I wish to escape. I do not wish to imply that if only we are willing to face our problems, solutions will always come easily; we may suffer from blocks we cannot overcome without professional help, or from a lack of knowledge that limits our options. Nonetheless, it is safe to say that the way we respond to discomfiting realities reveals a great deal about our deepest vision of who we are – how secure or insecure we feel. It also reveals what kind of future we are likely to create for ourselves.


What Self-Esteem Is and Isn't

Of course, most people do not tell themselves anything about their self-esteem because they do not think in such terms. However, the impact of a self-estimate works its way within us whether we are aware of it or not. Ignorance of self-esteem – or misconceptions concerning it – does not nullify the role it plays in our lives.

Self-esteem is not the euphoria or buoyancy that may be temporarily induced by a drug, a compliment, or a love affair. It is not created by praise – or by foolish and exaggerated notions of our capabilities. It is not a shallow “feel-good” phenomenon. As we shall see, if it is not grounded in reality, if it is not built over time through such practices as operating consciously, self-responsibly, and with integrity, it is not self-esteem.

The essence of self-esteem is the experience that we are competent to cope with the basic challenges of life and that we are worthy of happiness. Thus, self-esteem is made of two intimately related components: (1) trust in our mind, in our ability to think, to respond effectively to challenges; and (2) confidence that success, achievement, friendship love, respect, personal fulfillment – in sum, happiness – are appropriate to us.

Self-esteem is not a luxury but a vitally important psychological need. Its survival value is obvious. To face life with assurance rather than anxiety and self-doubt is to enjoy an inestimable advantage: one’s judgments and actions are less likely to be distorted and misguided. A tendency to make irrational decisions – as well as a fear of making decisions – are both observable consequences of intellectual self-distrust. To face human relationships with a benevolent, non-arrogant sense of one’s own value is, again, to enjoy an advantage: self-respect tends to evoke respect from others. A tendency to form destructive relationships – and to experience the suffering they occasion as natural or one’s “destiny” – are familiar effects of feeling unlovable and without value.

Childhood experiences – or, more precisely, the way a child interprets childhood experiences – tend to lay the foundation for the level of self-esteem that will emerge later in life. Adults who give a child a rational, non-contradictory impression of reality; who relate lovingly, respectfully, and with belief in a child’s competence and worth; who avoid insults, ridicule, and emotional or physical abuse; and who uphold standards and values that inspire the best in a child – can often make the path to healthy self-esteem seem simple and natural (although not invariably or necessarily; a child’s own choices and decisions should not be discounted). Adults who deal with a child in the opposite manner can make the path to self-esteem far more difficult and sometimes impossible (without some form of help).


Building Self-Esteem

However, what nurtures and sustains self-esteem in grown-ups is not how others deal with us but how we ourselves operate in the face of life’s challenges – the choices we make and the actions we take.

In psychotherapy, work with self-esteem may have to begin with healing childhood psychic wounds, breaking destructive patterns of behavior, dissolving blocks, or neutralizing anxiety. But, although it can clear the ground, the elimination of negatives does not produce self-esteem. Just as the absence of suffering does not equal the presence of happiness, so the absence of anxiety does not equal the presence of confidence. Self-esteem is built over time by the practice of:

  • choosing consciousness rather than unconsciousness.
  • self-acceptance rather than self-disowning.
  • self-responsibility rather than passivity, alibiing, or blaming.
  • self-assertiveness rather than self-suppression.
  • purposefulness rather than drifting.
  • integrity rather than self-betrayal.

These practices are what I call “the six pillars of self-esteem,” and I call them “practices” because I want to stress the significance of consistency and discipline. They are not things we do only when we feel like it. They represent an orientation to life that has the aspect of an ethical code. To a well-integrated person, they may come to feel like “second-nature,” but that is not a state into which anyone is born: it represents a spiritual achievement.

When I use the word “spiritual” in this context I do not intend any religious, mystical, or otherworldly meaning. By “spiritual” I mean pertaining to consciousness (as contrasted with “material,” which means pertaining to or constituted of matter); and further, pertaining to the needs and development of consciousness. Now let me explain why I call the attainment of self-esteem a spiritual achievement.

The foundation of the practice of living consciously is respect for the facts of reality, respect for truth – recognition that that which is, is. Such a practice reflects the understanding that to place consciousness in an adversarial relationship to existence – to evade or dismiss reality – is to invite destruction. To work at cultivating such awareness within oneself is a noble pursuit, even a heroic one, because truth is sometimes frightening or painful, and the temptation to close one’s eyes is sometimes strong. Whether the awareness we need to expand pertains to the external world or the world within ourselves, to strive for greater clarity of perception and understanding, to move always in the direction of heightened mindfulness, to revere truth above the avoidance of fear or pain, is to commit ourselves to spiritual growth – the continuing development of our ability to see. Whatever other virtue we may aspire to, this one is its base.


Self-Responsibility

The practice of self-acceptance is the application of this virtue specifically to oneself. Self-acceptance is realism – meaning respect for reality – concerning ourselves. It is the acceptance of our thoughts, emotions, and behavior – not necessarily in the sense of liking, condoning, or admiring – but in the sense of not denying or disowning.

Self-acceptance is my willingness to stand in the presence of my thoughts, feelings, and actions, with an attitude that makes approval or disapproval irrelevant: the desire to be aware.

Obviously we will like and enjoy some aspects of who we are more than others – that is not at issue. What is at issue is whether we can be open to that which we may not like or enjoy. Perhaps I have had some embarrassing thoughts that reflect an envy or jealously I believed I was “above”; perhaps I sometimes experience emotions that clash with my official self-concept, such as hurt or humiliation or rage; perhaps I have sometimes acted in ways that are shocking and dismaying to recall – the question is always: can I allow space within my awareness for such realities without retreating into rationalization, denial, alibiing, or some other form of avoidance; and also, without collapsing into self-repudiation (which is just another way of running from reality). Self-esteem cannot be built on a platform of self-rejection. Spiritual growth cannot emerge out of self-made blindness.

The more aspects of reality a consciousness is open to seeing – and the operative word here is seeing, not groundless believing – the more highly evolved the consciousness and therefore the most mature the level of spiritual development.

In understanding the practice of self-responsibility, let us begin with the observation that the natural development of a human being is from dependence to independence, from helplessness to increasing efficacy, from non-responsibility to personal accountability. Self-responsibility means that we recognize first, that we are the author of our choices and actions; and second, that we are responsible for our life and well-being and for the attainment of our desires; and third, that if we wish to gain values from others, we must offer values in exchange: no one exists merely to take care of us; no other human being is our property.

The most fundamental expression of self-responsibility is reliance on our own minds – the choice to think and to operate consciously – as contrasted with living second-hand, off the borrowed values and judgments of others. Independence in the full sense is not a state that comes easily to most people. What many call “thinking” is merely a recycling of the thoughts and opinions of other people. To look at the world through one’s own eyes and be willing to live by one’s own judgment, requires courage, self-trust, and intellectual conscientiousness. To be willing to be accountable for one’s actions requires integrity. These are moral and spiritual virtues.


Applying the Practices of Self-Esteem

To many, self-assertiveness may seem like the very opposite of a spiritual virtue. And yet, if the practice of self-assertiveness is considered, not in a vacuum, torn from all context, but as part of a network of virtues that include rationality, self-responsibility, and integrity, it may be viewed in a very different light, as an essential step toward the realization of our humanity. Self-assertiveness is not about running over widows and orphans to get to the front of the line, or being rude to waiters, or behaving as though no one’s needs existed but one’s own. When I write of self-assertiveness, I have in mind the courage to treat oneself and one’s convictions with decent respect in encounters with other persons; the willingness to stand up for one’s ideas and to live one’s values in reality; the honesty to let oneself be visible to others – or, to say it differently, not to be so controlled by fear of someone’s disapproval that one twists one’s true self out of recognizable form. Thus defined, we can see that self-assertiveness is not self-indulgence but is among the rarest of virtues. Certainly spirituality is more to be associated with openness than with self-concealment, with candor rather than dissembling, with authenticity rather than a calculated persona.

The practice of living purposefully, as opposed to passively drifting through life, is essential to any genuine sense of control over one’s existence. It is our goals and purposes that give our days their focus. To live purposefully is to think through and formulate one’s short-term and long-term goals or purposes, to identify the actions needed to realize them, to keep oneself on track, and to pay careful attention to whether the outcomes produced by one’s actions are the outcomes anticipated or whether one needs to go back to the drawing-board. To act only on the whim of the moment, or on the basis of the chance encounter or chance invitation or chance opportunity, is to embrace helplessness as one’s fundamental response: one is not a thoughtful initiator but only an impulsive reactor. To remove oneself from the realm of purpose is to exist on the sidelines of life, to become a non-participant. After that, no form of spirituality is possible.

The practice of integrity entails congruence between what we know, what we profess, and what we do. To be loyal in action to one’s understanding and professed convictions is the essence of integrity. When there is not congruence but contradiction, at some level consciousness is betraying itself. If one is genuinely concerned with the growth and evolution of consciousness, which is what a spiritual quest or commitment entails, then a lack of integrity cannot be tolerated: it is a self-inflicted wound one must strive to heal. If we torment our mate with small or large lies and inconsistencies, are cruel to our children, or dishonorable with our associates, colleagues, or customers – if we run from honest self-examination while protesting it is our highest concern – we cannot buy our way to spirituality by studying the I-Ching, the Kabbala, the Bible, or the scriptures of Buddhism. The issue is not so much whether we are “perfect” in our integrity but rather how concerned we are to correct such breaches as might exist. In the absence of such concern, whatever our life journey is about, it is not about spiritual growth.


Self-Esteem and Spirituality

I began thinking about the relationship between self-esteem and spirituality some years ago when I was asked a provocative question by an elderly businessman. I was addressing a group of CEOs on the ideas I was writing about in The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem. I was talking about the practice of living consciously, self-acceptance, self-responsibility, self-assertiveness, living purposefully, and personal integrity – and why they were the foundations of self-esteem. At the end of my presentation, the oldest businessman in the group said to me, “Is this a religion – these principles?” At first, I was puzzled, since I had made no reference to religion and no such thought was in my mind. Seeing the puzzled expression on my face, he corrected himself: “Perhaps what I mean to ask is, is this a code of ethics?” I answered, “Well, I hadn’t quite been thinking of it that way, but now that you ask, yes, I would say it is – or part of one. After all, it’s not surprising that the virtues that self-esteem asks of us are also the virtues that life asks of us.” Afterwards, I found myself reflecting on why he had first thought of religion. Was it simply that for many people religion and ethics are almost synonymous? Somehow, in this case, I did not think so. What I began to suspect much later was that he had been groping for the connection that I have made explicit in this essay: the connection between the six pillars and spirituality.

For many people, one of the commonest associations with the idea of spirituality is the longing to feel at home in the universe – to feel benevolently connected to all that exists and to the ultimate source, whatever that might be, of all that exists. We will not, in this context, raise the troublesome question of whether we wish to be benevolently connected to that which we regard as evil: instead, we will focus just on the longing for the experience of peace and harmony with existence, in the most profound sense imaginable.

Whatever else may be required for the fulfillment of this desire, peace and harmony with oneself is a precondition of peace and harmony with anything else. A spirit cannot be benevolently connected to the universe ahead of being benevolently connected to itself. However, there is a sense in which the reverse it also true. The relationship is reciprocal. A spirit cannot be benevolently connected to itself if it is in an adversarial stance to reality. That is why the theme of respect for the facts of reality runs through my discussion of all six pillars. That which is, is; that which is not, is not. No truth is more fundamental. To embrace this truth is the beginning of self-esteem. It is also the beginning of spiritual development.