Introducing Self-Esteem

Self-esteem is a topic we are going to be talking about a great deal at Four Birds Education because it is the core of good mental health and consequently the core of the Water Bird theme.  So it is entirely appropriate that our first content post be concerned with self-esteem.  This article is not intended to be an in-depth discussion, simply to help familiarise parents and teachers with the basic concepts so as to make later articles easier to follow.  Parents and teachers would benefit from reading this article carefully because there are people who work in education who actively teach narcissism (the opposite of self-esteem) thinking they are teaching self-esteem.  Be wary of these people, do not underestimate how much damage they can do to your children.  Being able to spot the difference between narcissism and self-esteem is as important as being able to spot the difference between genius and insanity, pride and arrogance or loving and wanting to be loved.

General Principles of Self-Esteem

Life is meaningless without a sense of value.  If one feels one’s life has no value, life feels miserable, long and pointless.  Thus people need to feel as though their lives have value.  People can get this sense of value from various sources: from other people’s opinions of them (narcissism), from association with an esteemed group (identity cults) or through themselves (self-esteem).  Depending on which source a person gets their sense of value, it will have a significant impact on their sense of morality, values, behaviours and thinking.  People from different esteem groups tend to struggle to understand or relate to each other.  Some people will actively promote narcissism and identity cults, pointing out the benefits to these approaches, I have looked into all three approaches and come the conclusion that self-esteem is the best source of giving one’s life value and attaining good mental-health, because it is the most reliable source of value (you only need yourself) and it has by far the fewest negative side-effects.

Knowing what self-esteem is not is just as important as knowing what self-esteem is.  Most people immediately understand the esteem part: valuing yourself, yet struggle to understand the “self” part.  The self part is not about receiving, but giving esteem.  Self-esteem is not an emotion, one cannot “feel” self-esteem.  Self-esteem is a collection of thoughts and behaviours that serve a common purpose: the valuing of oneself.  Consider that love is not an emotion, but a set of ideas and behaviours that serve a common purpose: the care and support of other people.  The consequence of good self-esteem is to feel pride and the consequence of good loving is to feel joy.  But these feelings are consequences of self-esteem and love, not self-esteem or love in itself.

Self-esteem is not giving children constant pep-talks and telling them how wonderful they are.  One can not give another person self-esteem, it can only be given to them from themselves.  Children who are constantly praised grow up with no self-esteem because they depend on other people giving it to them.  When people depend on other people to supply their sense of value it is called narcissism.  Narcissism is an extremely painful and confusing state of mind, on the outside they might appear charming, hard working, successful and happy, but on the inside they are filled with self-loathing, jealousy, fear, guilt and regrets.  In order to teach someone self-esteem, one needs to demonstrate it.  Telling a person to value themselves is at best a waste of time and at worse, it merely encourages them to become narcissists.

Narcissism will be discussed in more detail in later articles as narcissism is in my opinion, the single biggest threat to mental health a child (or adult) will face in their development.

Self-Loathing Ideas

Self-loathing ideas are thoughts we have that actively damage our sense of self-esteem.   Some typical examples are: “I am not good enough,” “I am defective,” “I will never find true love,” “I always mess things up,” “I am too ugly to be successful,” “I can not do anything right,” “I do not deserve to be successful,” “I do not deserve to be happy,” “I am a member of group ‘x’ and all people of group ‘x’ are bad people,” etc…

Everyone has self-loathing thoughts from time to time, indeed there are people everywhere who are actively trying to put self-loathing ideas into other people’s minds.  Typically self-loathing ideas hide in the background of our minds, but come out to hurt us whenever we: make a mistake, fail to achieve a goal, have a fight with a friend, encounter a setback or obstacle, experience a romantic relationship breakdown or lose one’s job.  When these things happen self-loathing ideas can tumble around our minds tearing up our sense of self-worth making life feel miserable and pointless.  Self-esteem cannot exist at the same time as self-loathing ideas, therefore, any ideas that are in opposition to your recovery from a setback are indicative of mental illness.  The solution is not lots of praise and affirmations, but rather examining and identifying these toxic thoughts.  Once a toxic thought is identified and understood, it tends to recede naturally.  Compliments might make you feel better, but it is the self-loathing that is doing you harm, giving a compliment in this situation is like taking aspirin while keeping your thumb locked in a vice: the real solution is to release your thumb, not cover over the pain of it.  However, this is not an easy task.  Future articles will cover this in more detail.

Self-Apathetic Ideas

Removing the self-loathing ideas is the biggest and most important step to achieving good mental health.  Without doubt the single biggest problem you will encounter is the war against oneself.  However, I have come across people who have made peace with themselves, but are still not florishing.  These people are confusing because they do not despise or loathe themselves, but they do not see their life as having any value or significance either.  Rather they adopt the attitude of, “I am not special, I have no talents, I am just like everyone else, I am not important, I do not think about the future or what will happen to me.”

The problem with these self-apathetic ideas is that they encourage a person to not take themselves seriously or to believe they can have a fruitful and joyful life.  The person is in effect not barracking for themselves and does not care if they fail to achieve their full potential in life.  In many ways these are the hardest ideas to deal with, because unlike the self-loathing ideas, these ideas do not cause demonstrable pain and harm.  Rather, all that can be pointed out is that these ideas prevent one from achieving success and happiness.  People often give jealousy a bad rap, but if anything, I wish these people would feel jealousy because it would spur them into taking themselves more seriously instead of consenting to an existence just waiting for death to visit them.

One way that these people can gain value in themselves is by developing relationships with other people and seeing themselves as valuable to other people and then learning from these experiences to value themselves.  This represents a more complicated problem and solution that mirrors how children originally learn (or fail to learn) self-esteem from their relationships with their parents.  Future articles will cover this in more detail.

Self-Esteem Ideas

These are ideas that build up our sense of value without reference to other people.  Thoughts like, “I like to take care of myself,” “I like to make sure I get enough sleep,” “I like to make sure I eat healthy food,” “I like to exercise,” “I like to have friends who excite and interest me,” “I like to explore and learn new things,” “I like to be creative and build things,” “I like to surround myself with beauty,” “I like to protect myself and avoid dangerous activities like smoking and alcoholism.”

What is different about these ideas, is that they imply that one has a value.  That one’s health is valuable, that one’s enjoyment of life is valuable, that the quality of one’s relationships are valuable.  Learning to value one’s well-being is very difficult if one has self-loathing ideas, so most of the battle will be eliminating those and making peace with oneself.  The thing with self-esteem ideas is that although they feel naturally good, because it is natural to want to take care of cherish oneself and one’s life, most people tend to feel guilty and selfish if they think about themselves in such a positive and caring way.  The idea that selfishness is bad is actually a self-loathing idea.  Selfishness is simply what people do naturally, it can not be avoided or changed so beating yourself up about it does no good, it might actually be harmful if it causes one to go about trying to prove that you are not selfish by over burdening yourself with other people’s problems.  Instead, consider that everyone is responsible for themselves, this means it is your duty, no one else’s, to protect, care, nurture and love yourself.

Future articles will discuss this idea in greater detail.

Post last updated: 23/8/2013

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One Response to Introducing Self-Esteem

  1. Pingback: Introducing Narcissism | Four Birds Education

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