[updated Dec 12, 2018]
I recently answered a question about self-esteem that made me think more about how I managed to change my self-esteem from a place of self-loathing as a child – self-hatred even – to one of realising that I’m actually ok as I am. This post might help others begin to consider something that allowed me to shift out of the low self-esteem trap: knowing the difference between social worth and existential value.
Self-esteem, or how we value ourselves, is something that we learn to do. The problem many of us face is that we learn to de-value ourselves and end up with the dreaded ‘low self-esteem’, which usually entails our feeling bad about who we are. This then often impacts upon how we live our lives, how we feel about ourselves, how we relate to others, and the choices we make in life.
So how does this low self-esteem start? It starts when we experience the influences upon our feelings of social worth: how much worth we seem to have to other people.
Children tend to draw simple conclusions about their worth and who they are based on how others relate to them. These conclusions might read “He treats me bad, so I’m bad”. In our rational adult minds the correct equation might look like “He treats me bad, so he’s behaving badly” which correctly locates the centre of responsibility in the other person. As kids however, especially infants, we haven’t separated ourselves from others in terms of who is responsible for what. And so the treatment we experience from others becomes ‘internalised’ to the extent that we can end up carrying a little version of the ‘bad’ person around in our heads who will reliably continue the mistreatment against us unless we learn something different, and all powered from our own energy supply.
“Our dependency makes slaves out of us, especially if this dependency is a dependency of our self-esteem. If you need encouragement, praise, pats on the back from everybody then you make everybody your judge [and master*]”
That’s a simplified version of one way we learn to de-value ourselves by adopting the de-valuing behaviour of others and using it upon ourselves in our thoughts and in the way we behave and feel about ourselves as we grow. If this kind of treatment continues then we accumulate these punitive experiences and may develop a warped sense of our value based on how others have mistreated us. This is our sense of social worth, and we often think that this is all there is to self-esteem. It isn’t.
The first thing I did that helped me turn my own warped sense of value around – my de-valuing thoughts and behaviour – was in recognising something I now refer to as ‘existential value’. Existential value is the realisation of my inherent value as a human being from simply existing as a product of Creation. It differs from feelings of worth I get from what others say or do in relation to me. For me this came from realising the fact that I was created. I didn’t make myself nor did society make me: God made me. It’s how I made sense of the phrase “Ye are not your own”. We don’t invent ourselves, we are given our lives. It highlights how ridiculous it is – once you have grasped this fact – to act as if the only value we get comes from other people. Especially other people who don’t appreciate us as we are and who can make us feel worthless through, for example, being ignorant or insensitive towards us. Feelings of worth are different from inherent value. But often we aren’t taught about inherent value (existential value), particularly in an age when children are not taught about God or the value of a personal relationship to God. And so we can grow up acting as if we are like an object or a commodity in the world that is there to attract good or bad comments from others: our parents, care-givers or authorities who then somehow assign value to us through their behaviours towards us. Good behaviour, good girl. Bad behaviour, bad girl.
With no concept of a Creator and the fact that you are part of the Creation (and thus, if everything else has value as part of Creation, then by default you do too) then it’s very easy to end up trembling in the insecure and vulnerable state of being that comes from putting ourselves at the mercy of others’ judgements and behaviours. A bit like a cork bobbing around on the ocean: fine when it’s calm, not so much when it’s rough.
Additionally, if we learn to exist as if we are objects or commodities in the marketplace, then it is very easy for us to seek to boost our self-esteem by attracting favourable attention, acceptance and approval from others. Our hyper-focus on self, celebrity, popularity and outward attractiveness within a self-centred economic system easily results in our behaving like objects that we advertise and market in order to boost self-esteem. Social media is the prime example of how individuals now typically market themselves, investing their energies in appearing to be popular, collecting online ‘friends’ and ‘likes’ in order to attempt to meet esteem needs for social worth.
Oh no, not God…
Now I know that many people will have stopped reading as soon as I mention ‘God’, because many of us are so jaded by the culture we live in that has itself ridiculaed and de-valued God, often into non-existence. If there is a God why would he let the innocent suffer and die? Why would he let the wicked prosper? From the childish transcription of Michelangelo’s ‘God as some old guy with a beard, living above the clouds’ to Marx’s ‘religion is the opium of the masses’ or the Nihilist’s ‘God is something people use to comfort themselves because they need to believe that there’s somewhere nice to go when they die’, what chance do we have of taking the notion of God seriously? Science, after all, has much more convincing explanations that render our Disney understanding of God defunct: the Big Bang Theory, Darwinism, and we end up with the eternal battle of Scientific Ego against Theological Ego. Ok, so using the word ‘God’ can be a little controversial for some. But it shouldn’t blind us to some fundamental truths of existence (existential truths) of what we have in front of us.
Created, Not Graded
And the truth is that you – just like everyone and everything else – were created as part of a whole. Following the line of generations who ‘created’ each other takes us back to some point of origin that wasn’t created by you or them. You were created, not by Facebook or Harvard Medical School or your Grade Point Average. You were given your life by life itself. If it’s easier to call God ‘the universe’ then, for the sake of argument, that’s fine too. For you to be worthless, the whole universe would have to be worthless, because you are part of its totality.
When I acknowledged that I was created, not by people, but by something much bigger than people, then I had to acknowledge that I had inherent value as a product of Creation, rather than the the words and opinions issuing from other people’s heads. So, my first step out of the low self-esteem trap was acknowledging that by virtue of being a person – a creation of God – we each of us have inherent value just by being a unique instance of a human being; a particular expression of this event we take forgranted: life.
This value is quite different to the ‘value’ people attempt to place upon us. By simply being you have value. That kind of existential value can’t be diminished by anything anyone does to you or says about you.
Social Worth versus Existential Value
When I realised this I could begin a process of separating out feelings of worth that depend on others (feelings that come and go) and something much more reliable and permanent: my inherent worth as a human being. Letting my need for approval from others go allowed me to begin to feel the truth that other people can’t reduce this inherent value. The problem of low self-esteem is the problem of having allowed ourselves to be convinced of a lie that says that the judgement of others is what defines our value. This relies upon a confusion of the idea of our value as human beings somehow being dependent upon other human beings assigning it to us; that it rests in the hands and eyes and and actions and opinions of others, and that this value needs to be given to you or awarded to you for recognition of something that you have done to delight or please others in some way. You get an A in your geometry test so you’re valuable, you get promoted so you’re valuable, you can afford a big car so you’re special, you get a PhD so you’re extra special. It is like saying one monkey is more valuable than another because he’s managed to grab more bananas for himself.
But what if you get a D grade, drive a rust bucket, have no money in the bank, or you’ve been sent the message all your life that ‘you’re worthless’? Phrases like “you’re a waste of space” or “you’re no use to anyone” and behaviours that dismiss us, ignore us, or make us feel like we are unwanted and unattractive bite into our feelings and can leave us feeling worthless. When we have nothing other than the behaviours and opinions of others then we are in a very insecure, vulnerable position indeed.
This is the trap of giving the world the power to assign you your value by either performing well or acquiring a badge; a status symbol that says you deserve approval. In the monkey’s case, it’s his bananas, and it always involves one monkey being up, and another down in the pecking order. It is a process that relies upon some people being elevated to the role of quasi-God (celebrities, Nobel Prize winners, billionaires etc) and some being lowered to the role of servant (the rest of us) waiting for crumbs from the master’s table; waiting to be awarded ‘freedom’ by a designated superior, whom we look to as a role model.
All this is the Ego at work – that variable that functions as gofer in the world; inflating itself or diminishing itself according to forces that act upon it. Your Ego is what hurts when someone offends or dismisses you. But your Ego is not your life. Your value is inherent within you by virtue of the gift that you were originally given: your precious, very short, very unique life.
Your Spiritual Path
Your existential value – the value you are in and of yourself – is something you can recognise and cherish each day and can never be taken away from you, because it is a gift that has been given to you. The recognition of this distinction between temporary social worth and enduring existential value can be the start of a spiritual path and your relationship to something bigger and deeper than the transient, often shallow influences upon us every day that push and pull at our sense of worth. And like any gift, you can appreciate it, take care of it or let it go to waste: that’s where your Ego comes in. You can have your Ego work for you, by mobilising your energies to recognise and take care of your inherent value. Or you can make it a slave: exploiting others and allowing yourself to be exploited in the service of accumulating more bananas: approval, popularity and increased social status. It is the tension between these two paths that we wrestle with in search of greater security: the one fleeting and dependent upon others. And the other our link to the foundation of our life, and ultimately to the eternal.
The self-esteem trap is, happily, one that we can step out of by clarifying these two pathways: the inherent value of our Life versus the transient worth of social approval and the efforts of our Ego to shore itself up in the world. If we simply remain with the belief that we only have worth if we are approved of by people then we remain enslaved to the Ego’s best efforts and the generosity and sensitivity of others in giving us what we need. Both of these means of ensuring self-esteem can never be truly stable or relied upon.
The alternative is to have your Ego remain in service to your Life, not by having your Life serve your Ego. Those who do the latter invariably rely upon the accumulation of wealth or property or power to secure their social worth with little regard or investment in their existential dimension of their self-esteem. Similarly, people who prey on the innocent are, for example, placing their Ego desires ahead of their own life and the lives of others. We are not born tapeworms, or ticks, or fleas. We are born human beings. People who exploit others when they are born with the capacity to give to others or help others (thus celebrating the value of their own lives) deny the truth of their human value by behaving as if they are parasites. Our world is so far removed from the world it was supposed to be that some of us even celebrate parasitic people as ‘successful entrepreneurs’ and ‘good businessmen’. Successful Egos have – in building up large stores of social worth – somehow managed to convince us that they represent successful lives. And it is the Egos of men and women who have also convinced us that ‘there is no Creator’, ‘there is no God’.
In the end, we are each of us given our life. We can take it forgranted as many of us do, squander it, waste it, hate it even. Or we can wake up and recognise that it is inherently valuable as a fragile, impermanent gift, passing ‘like a vapour’, that was given to us and, as far as we know, it’s a gift that we will never be given again. We can get busy being grateful for that gift or continue in an endless spiral downwards as we confuse its reality with addictions we may have formed that keep us enslaved in seeking approval and validation from others via the myriad ways of Ego manipulations and social games. But like all addictions, seeking approval feels great when you get it, but you crash and burn when you don’t. And when you get a little, you want a little more the next time. Another facebook friend, another ‘like’, another certificate, a bigger house. For some, this can lead to narcissism, vanity and the trappings of power addiction. When all along, your value – as the human life you have been given – remains, quietly waiting for you to affirm it, appreciate it, be secured by it, and be grateful to your Creator for giving it to you in the first place.
For anyone still in doubt about whether our value rests upon the exploits of the Ego making or failing to make a ‘success’ out of its life in social value terms, ask yourself whether a newborn baby has inherent value or whether it is worthless? If so, is its value less than the value of Bill Gates or Donald Trump with their billions of dollars and luxurious lifestyles? Does the child need to have a good job to secure its value? Is its value increased by the house it lives in or the clothes it wears? And yet, around the world every day of the week, we send messages – directly or indirectly – to children that say they are more valuable when they strive for celebrity, wealth, being thin, good jobs, nice cars, big houses, and less valuable when they fail to fit the economic and social moulds handed down to them.
More to the point, is a child’s value reduced by the toxic, critical or abusive behaviours of others towards it? No, but it begins to feel as if this is the case because they are only given the idea that social worth is all there is to self-esteem.
Feelings associated with social worth come and go. But it is existential value that is immutable and, if we don’t have a strong sense of it, then we wobble under the social fripperies of approval and disapproval that come and go, affecting our self-esteem and sometimes our sense of identity. In its almost exclusive focus on social worth, western society has learned to care less about the value of individual life and more about appearance and possessions. Re-valuing a deeper kind of value can allow us to begin to break free of the rubbish that the world has us believing is necessary for us to feel that we’re ‘ok’ as individual human beings marks a shift in awareness. In doing so we have an opportunity to liberate ourselves to invest in self-esteem as an aspect of the spiritual dimension of our lives.
The truth is you are valuable just sitting there. You just have to accept this truth as your foundation to self-esteem. And let the rest blow past you in the wind…at least in theory. In reality, our feelings will always be pushed and pulled by the world and the many ways we can be drawn towards things that seem to promise us acceptance, appreciation and approval. But knowing that there are two different ways we can attempt to meet our need to be affirmed can can help us make our choices just a little bit clearer.