No one who is familiar with my writings will be surprised to learn that one of my favorite subjects is self-esteem and how it affects virtually every aspect of our life. Even if I seem to be writing about something else, sooner or later self-esteem has a way of being invited to the party.
Self-esteem is the experience of being competent to cope with the fundamental challenges of life and as being worthy of happiness. (For more details, read The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem). Why the definition of self-esteem can be as important as it is controversial is an issue I will address in a future post.
In recent years, I have been increasingly interested in business and career problems as they relate to self-esteem. Here is a simple example:
The head of a medium-sized company consulted me because, he said, although he had made a great success of his business, he was depressed and unhappy and could not understand why. We discovered that what he had always wanted to be was a research scientist but that he had abandoned that desire in deference to a father who pushed him toward a career in business. Not only was he unable to feel more than the most superficial kind of pride in his accomplishments, but he was wounded in his self-esteem – because in one of the most important issues of his life, he had surrendered his mind to another human being. This is always dangerous, no matter how brilliant the person to whom one surrenders.
It was not difficult to discover that his depression reflected a lifetime of performing admirably while ignoring his deepest needs. While he operated within that framework, pride and satisfaction were beyond his reach, except to a very limited extent. Until he was willing to challenge that framework, and to face the fear of doing so, no solution was possible.
At this point, someone may want to jump in and say, “Wait a minute, Branden. This is not a story uniquely applicable to business. It’s applicable to every aspect of human relationships.”
“You are quite right.”
Probably most of us have heard someone say, “I have accomplished so much. Why don’t I feel more proud of myself?” And these people may not be thinking about business. They might be thinking about their marriage, their beautiful children, or their beautiful home. They may believe that these “successes” are guaranteed paths to self-esteem. They ask, not in so many words, “Haven’t my parents or friends promised me?” (See my treatment of autonomy in my “Taking Responsibility?”)
Although there are several reasons why someone may not enjoy his or her attainments, it can be useful to ask, “Who chose your goals? You – or the voice of some ‘significant other’ inside you?” Neither pride nor self-esteem can be supported by the pursuit of second-hand values that do not reflect who we really are.
Tying our self-esteem to the approval of “significant others,” and betraying our own judgment in the process, is only one of the tragic mistakes by which we can betray our selves. But it is a common one.