Wednesday 4 November 2015

Life Lesson: Self-esteem does not come from anything that can be taken away.

"If you don't live by the praises of men you won't die by their criticisms.”

I’ve been on a self-improvement quest recently, both inside and out.  I’ve spent considerable time analysing the issue of self-esteem.  What builds and sustains self-worth?  Why is it important for a healthy and fulfilling life?

I don’t think many people question its importance.  It’s evident how a lack of self-confidence causes people misery, leads them to make bad choices, and to place unnecessary limitations on themselves.  My partner of 13 years suffers from low self-esteem and I have observed his pathetic, desperate attempts to fill that void with frustration and pity.

I currently ride a green horse who lacks confidence.  He naturally gravitates to the person or other horse who radiates confidence and makes him feel secure.  With people, sometimes bravado will cover for a lack of deep-seated confidence but you can’t fool a horse.  He will only trust me if I trust myself.

Like most worthwhile things in life, self-confidence has to be earned.  In the U.S., we value self-esteem so highly that children are raised in an environment where everyone is a winner, everyone gets a medal, everyone is awesome.  It’s all very fake and it is creating a generation of young adults who feel an unmerited sense of entitlement and who are facing a rude awakening in the real world.

These parents and teachers who are trying to instil self-esteem in children with unearned accolades have it backwards:  Self-confidence does not come from praise, from never saying one child is better than another at anything.  Self-confidence is built internally.

Self-esteem does not come from anything that can be taken away.

Your job, your car, your house, your possessions, your money, your looks, your physical or mental prowess, your partner, praise and admiration from others….all of these things can be taken away.

What can’t?  Your personal qualities like honesty and integrity, your values, your kindness, your discipline and hard work, your empathy.  In short, your character.

Anything else is a castle build on sand.  When the waves hit it and wash it away, there is nothing left.

To use an extreme example, prisoners of conscience sometimes survive because they know that, even if they are vilified in the world around them, spit on, despised, lied about, they know that they are acting in accordance with their values.  Most of us won’t face such trying conditions, but the point is that building our self-confidence on personal qualities and behaviours that are *completely within our control* is the ONLY way to achieve genuine self-esteem.

If you have low self-esteem, trying to fill the void where it should be can become your sole objective in life.  The constant care and feeding of a fragile ego leads to a powerful self-absorption.  You end up a slave to a ravenous monster who controls you, who demands more and feels sated for less time.  You got the degree?  Now get the job.  You got the job?  Now get the raise, the promotion, the car, the house, the hot spouse, the perfect kids, the perfect body…..and on and on.  There is nothing wrong with wanting any of those things; the problem comes when your sense of self-worth is attached to whether you have them or not.  We’ve all seen rich, gorgeous, successful people who hate themselves.  Why, we think, they have everything you could want in life.  What could be missing?  The answer is character.

It’s a cliche that you can’t love anyone else until you love yourself.  But, like most cliches, it holds truth.  If you don’t have self-esteem, you can’t respect anyone who cares for you.  And you cannot love someone whom you do not respect - including yourself.  You will also be looking to the other person to increase your self-esteem — to make you feel good about yourself from the outside.  It works — temporarily.  But nothing on earth - NOTHING - replaces character.  And nothing is more attractive than character.  Someone who demonstrates genuine empathy, who lives by their own strong values, who is honest, who behaves with integrity, is truly and deeply attractive.

Any other kind of attraction  - built on looks, accomplishments, money, hero-worship, anything not an intrinsic personal quality - is fleeting and superficial.

Let’s say a woman loves a man who invented a life-saving vaccine.  She doesn’t love him because of the success of his invention or the money he made or the prizes he won or because he is famous or respected.  You can’t love someone for those things.  She loves him because of his dedication to helping others, his empathy and concern for the people that are suffering from whatever his vaccine prevents, for his hard work, for his integrity.  All of those qualities would be present, and just as attractive to her, even if he never succeeded, never received money or prizes or praise.

I’m not saying it’s easy to develop self-esteem.  Integrity is doing the right thing when no-one will find out.  Honesty can be challenging when lying to yourself and others will provide immediate gratification.  Living by your values can be tough when you want people to like you.  Building muscle in the gym is easier than building character.  Empathy is hard because we are inherently selfish creatures; it has to be taught, learned, and practiced.  So do patience, and discipline.

But there is no substitute for character.  You’re just feeding the monster if you try to build your self-esteem with anything outside of your control.