Living with Integrity
by Kosjenka Muk, MA (Soulwork Trainer)
What is Self-Esteem?
In a society of low emotional maturity, in which few people experience what it is like to truly feel good with themselves, it is useful to examine self-esteem. What I write about is more complex and deeper than self-esteem defined as the way somebody acts or the way people perceive themselves.
I want to talk about a feeling of deep inner fulfillment, pure enjoyment of existence, an experience that is beyond love for yourself, experiencing oneself as a fountain of love, I want to talk about being love itself. Then, “love for oneself” becomes an unnecessary rationalized invention. Self-esteem might not adequately describe this inner feeling, yet it can be used to describe the outer manifestations in everyday life that result from this feeling.
Even when we talk about outer manifestations, our society is not familiar with self-esteem and therefore it is interpreted in many different ways.
For many centuries, our ancestors were brought up obedient to rulers and to the Church. To achieve that, people were forced to give up their natural longings for freedom and abundance, to think less of themselves, to suppress their native, authentic feelings and aspirations. Throughout centuries, from childhood, people were brought up in fear, guilt and shame. Not only for the slightest mistakes in outer manifestation but for the emotions alone (“anger is a deadly sin“). Feelings of love for self, experiencing self as love, as a precious human being – would automatically mean to give up those convictions introduced into their psyches. Emotional maturity therefore could not be allowed.
To make people believe that feelings are bad, they had to be convinced that they as people are bad; sinful and unworthy in nature. When children brought up in that environ grow up and have children of their own and meet with their children’s feelings and wishes, it is sometimes easier for them to blame the children for being “bad“ or “selfish“ than to admit their own feelings of fear, guilt and shame, which were suppressed for decades. Guilt and fear were passed on to the next generations.
This is how a society of false politeness and doubtful moral was created, a society in which “being good“ meant to neglect yourself and your needs, “being polite“ meant not to point out yourself, not to say good things about yourself and “consideration for others“ could mean to damage yourself.
A physical law says that energy cannot be destroyed; what is possible is to change its form. It is similar with emotions. Natural, authentic human emotions and yearnings could not be destroyed – not even after countless attempts through many centuries.
Suppressed emotions linger within us and strive to give their message. If we do not let ourselves do that consciously, we unconsciously look for relief – often characterized as destructive. Gossip, hypocrisy, depression, envy and malice have been “pressure-relief valves” for generations. But sooner or later, self-control loosens under the pressure of accumulated emotions and we step to another extremity.
This is happening in our civilization now. Accumulated destruction rises through countless images of violence and immature behavior on television. Young generations, which on one side were brought up on tradition and on the other side on immature models that send out messages that destruction is OK, cross to the other extremity – from open selfishness and arrogance to aggression. Such aggression is often called self-esteem, which is partly the reason for confusion about the term.
Few people experience full self-esteem and can only imagine how it is manifested. Therefore it is easy for them to believe false portraits of self-respect, and the often fake, transient feeling of power that destruction can give. Once you experience true self-esteem, you cease needing models for orientation.
If you ever felt arrogance, contempt or aggression – you probably noticed that this felt unpleasant. Instead of love for oneself, those experiences are based on fear, defense and attempts to prevent perceived danger or we are just try to suppress unpleasant feelings. On the other hand, when we love ourselves and are self-content, we are spontaneously apt and more capable to see what is positive and what qualities other people have. Therefore full acceptance of oneself is naturally connected to the acceptance of other people. We become aware that the human essence is the same for all of us, and that which we find in us, we spontaneously search in others too.
Self-confident and egocentric behavior, without consideration and respect for others, is not self-esteem but only make-up on an unpleasant self-image. You have probably experienced that you did not have to prove or point out those attributes that you possess. A need to show off, or to prove yourself, implicates that you are unsure about your qualities and that you do not fully believe in them.
Most of us hold some limiting beliefs about self with the consequence of a need to prove to yourself and others the opposite. This is a strong, compulsive need that is hard to moderate and sometimes hard to be aware of. Much that we do or yearn for is motivated by that need. How would it be if instead of that need we felt really good about ourselves? How much energy and time in all areas of our lives would become available for much more useful things?
True Self-Esteem and Respect for Other People
In outer behavior, self-esteem is manifested as respect of ones feelings, needs and demands as much as the respect of other people in a way to see them as powerful and capable to do the same. There is no fear of condemnation (which is actually fear of self-condemnation!). The need to ignore ourselves to take care of others disappears because we know that they can take care of themselves – and, not less relevantly, that it is their right to do so.
Anger and resistance that we might feel in situations when others try to express their discomfort with our behavior or just warn us that we have violated their personal limits, is nothing else but a defense mechanism which covers up deep unconscious convictions that we do not deserve to stand up for ourselves. Those convictions are usually created at a very young age. Since our true being feels that this conviction is something unnatural and resists to it, at a young age it does not know how to deal with this feeling so later on this feeling is covered up with the compulsive need that we must feel good about ourselves very often by underestimating other people and their needs.
A healthy and happy child, who has not learned to feel embarrassed of self, will spontaneously express wishes and feelings without thinking to conceal them – until he or she is taught otherwise. A healthy child is primarily focused on self, and naturally, although not consciously and rationally, expects others to do the same.
To be focused on self – doesn’t this sound selfish? By default it is called selfishness. Often it is easer to recognize this as selfishness in others rather than to act in this way ourselves, to confront, to say “no“ or to stand up for ourselves. Respect for other people is an essential part of true self-esteem. I see this as respect of other people’s personal limits when we avoid to hurt them intentionally or endanger their freedom – but also to respect their own power and responsibility to set up and defend their boundaries. In other words, to warn us if unintentionally we are doing something that people feel uncomfortable about.
When I talk about focusing on yourself, I am saying that only you can know what you want and need, and that we cannot expect from anyone else to know that for us. Alike, we cannot know, and it is irrational to expect that we know, and predict what other people want or feel. Since everyone of us has a different character and experiences, it often happens that we are wrong even when we are convinced that we know what another person is feeling or thinking.
You will never meet a healthy and happy child feeling good about oneself who is anxiously trying to predict and assume the wishes of people around him or her (“Have I said something wrong? “, “Have I done something wrong?, “Might people get the impression that I am selfish?“), but you will meet a lot of unhappy, anxious people (and children) who are doing exactly that. For a healthy child it is normal to say “No“ if he or she doesn’t want something, and for them it is normal that other people also say “No“ and set their boundaries – and then to negotiate about them.
Nevertheless, people in the child’s environment who cannot set boundaries or sincerely express themselves, blame or manipulate others. This is how children learn to feel guilty if they are spontaneous and sincere, and they start to use manipulation too. People who learned that they will be punished if they are sincere and ask for what they want will expect others to “read their minds“ and predict their needs, which is an awful burden for everyone and a main cause of disputes in our society.
To focus on yourself means to take full responsibility for yourself and to recognize this responsibility and the right of others to do the same. When everyone feels capable and free to say and express what he or she feels and wants, this sets us free of an immense amount of guilt, and endless, often unexpressed expectations and accusations.
It does not mean that others are less important. If we truly feel good about ourselves, we do not need or want to hurt or underrate anyone. The opposite is true, the more we understand and appreciate ourselves the better we can understand others. It is normal that we have a healthy picture about what it means to intentionally violate the freedom and personal space of other people, and not do that, since we know how it feels. But – in ideal situations – the wishes, feelings and disapproval of others are expressed, and since there is no need to blame, there is also no need to feel fear or guilt. In this way it becomes much easier for us to listen and appreciate other people’s points of view.
These ideal situations happen rarely and often we must consider other people’s personal history and patterns in which they function, their fears, guilt and suppressed feelings – and our own. We will often be in situations when the other person cannot take our limitations into consideration. That is what makes work on self-esteem as diverse as life itself – interesting and full of opportunities to learn and to question ourselves from different points of view and in different circumstances.