“Self-esteem is the disposition to experience oneself as competent to cope with the basic challenges of life and as worthy of happiness.”
In the six pillars of self-esteem, Canadian–American psychotherapist and writer Nathaniel Branden introduces the six pillars-six action-based practices for daily living that provide the foundation for self-esteem-and explores the central importance of self-esteem in five areas: the workplace, parenting, education, psychotherapy, and the culture at large.
“The greater the number of choices and decisions we need to make at a conscious level, the more urgent our need for self-esteem.”
“Of all the judgments we pass in life, none is as important as the one we pass on ourselves.”
The turbulence of our times demands strong selves with a clear sense of identity, competence, and worth. With a breakdown of cultural consensus, an absence of worthy role models, little in the public arena to inspire our allegiance, and disorientingly rapid change a permanent feature of our lives, it is a dangerous moment in history not to know who we are or not to trust ourselves. The stability we cannot find in the world we must create within our own persons. To face life with low self-esteem is to be at a severe disadvantage.
What is Self-Esteem?
Self-esteem, fully realized, is the experience that we are appropriate to life and to the requirements of life. More specifically, self-esteem is:
1. confidence in our ability to think, confidence in our ability to cope with the basic challenges of life; and
2. confidence in our right to be successful and happy, the feeling of being worthy, deserving, entitled to assert our needs and wants, achieve our values, and enjoy the fruits of our efforts.
“In turn, it is directly affected by how we act. Causation flows in both directions. There is a continuous feedback loop between our actions in the world and our self-esteem. The level of our self-esteem influences how we act, and how we act influences the level of our self-esteem.”
The value of self-esteem lies not merely in the fact that it allows us to feel better but that it allows us to live better—to respond to challenges and opportunities more resourcefully and more appropriately.
The more solid our self-esteem, the better equipped we are to cope with troubles that arise in our personal lives or in our careers; the quicker we are to pick ourselves up after a fall; the more energy we have to begin anew.
Self-concept is destiny. Or, more precisely, it tends to be. Our self-concept is who and what we consciously and subconsciously think we are—our physical and psychological traits, our assets and liabilities, possibilities and limitations, strengths and weaknesses. A self-concept contains or includes our level of self-esteem, but is more global. We cannot understand a person’s behavior without understanding the self-concept behind it.
If a self-concept cannot accommodate a given level of success, and if the self-concept does not change, it is predictable that the person will find ways to self-sabotage.
An inadequate self-esteem may reveal itself in a bad choice of mate, a marriage that brings only frustration, a career that never goes anywhere, aspirations that are somehow always sabotaged, promising ideas that die stillborn, a mysterious inability to enjoy successes, destructive eating and living habits, dreams that are never fulfilled, chronic anxiety or depression, persistently low resistance to illness, overdependence on drugs, an insatiable hunger for love and approval, children who learn nothing of self-respect or the joy of being.
In brief, a life that feels like a long string of defeats, for which the only consolation, perhaps, is that sad mantra, “So who’s happy?“
When self-esteem is low, our resilience in the face of life’s adversities is diminished. We crumble before vicissitudes that a healthier sense of self could vanquish. We are far more likely to succumb to a tragic sense of our existence and to feelings of impotence. We tend to be more influenced by the desire to avoid pain than to experience joy. Negatives have more power over us than positives. If we do not believe in ourselves—neither in our efficacy nor in our goodness—the universe is a frightening place.
“High-self-esteem people can surely be knocked down by an excess of troubles, but they are quicker to pick themselves up again.”
Self-Efficacy and Self-Respect
Self-esteem has two interrelated components. One is a sense of basic confidence in the face of life’s challenges: self-efficacy. The other is a sense of being worthy of happiness: self-respect.
Self-efficacy means confidence in the functioning of my mind, in my ability to think, understand, learn, choose, and make decisions; confidence in my ability to understand the facts of reality that fall within the sphere of my interests and needs; self-trust; self-reliance.
Self-respect means assurance of my value; an affirmative attitude toward my right to live and to be happy; comfort in appropriately asserting my thoughts, wants, and needs; the feeling that joy and fulfillment are my natural birthright.
“Self-efficacy and self-respect are the dual pillars of healthy self-esteem; absent either one, self-esteem is impaired. They are the defining characteristics of the term because of their fundamentality. They represent not derivative or secondary meanings of self-esteem but its essence.”
To have high self-esteem, then, is to feel confidently appropriate to life, that is, competent and worthy in the sense I have indicated. To have low self-esteem is to feel inappropriate to life; wrong, not about this issue or that, but wrong as a person. To have average self-esteem is to fluctuate between feeling appropriate and inappropriate, right and wrong as a person; and to manifest these inconsistencies in behavior, sometimes acting wisely, sometimes acting foolishly—thereby reinforcing the uncertainty about who one is at one’s core.
The Illusion of Self-Esteem
When self-esteem is low, we are often manipulated by fear. Fear of reality, to which we feel inadequate. Fear of facts about ourselves—or others—that we have denied, disowned, or repressed. Fear of the collapse of our pretenses. Fear of exposure. Fear of the humiliation of failure and, sometimes, the responsibilities of success. We live more to avoid pain than to experience joy.
The Six Practices
Since self-esteem is a consequence, a product of internally generated practices, we cannot work on self-esteem directly, neither our own nor anyone else’s. We must address ourselves to the source. If we understand what these practices are, we can commit to initiating them within ourselves and to dealing with others in such a way as to facilitate or encourage them to do likewise.
The six pillars of self-esteem:
The practice of living consciously
The practice of self-acceptance
The practice of self-responsibility
The practice of self-assertiveness
The practice of living purposefully
The practice of personal integrity
The Practice of Living Consciously
To live consciously means to seek to be aware of everything that bears on our actions, purposes, values, and goals—to the best of our ability, whatever that ability may be—and to behave in accordance with that which we see and know.
Living consciously is living responsibly toward reality. We do not necessarily have to like what we see, but we recognize that that which is, is, and that which is not, is not. Wishes or fears or denials do not alter facts.
Thus, when we live consciously we do not confuse the subjective with the objective. We do not imagine that our feelings are an infallible guide to truth. We can learn from our feelings, to be sure, and they may even point us in the direction of important facts, but this will entail reflection and reality testing, and this entails the participation of reason.
“So living consciously entails monitoring my actions relative to my goals, looking for evidence of alignment or misalignment. If there is misalignment, either my actions or my goals need to be rethought.”
The Practice of Self-Acceptance
Whereas self-esteem is something we experience, self-acceptance is something we do. Stated in the negative, self-acceptance is my refusal to be in an adversarial relationship to myself.
The concept has three levels of meaning,
The First Level
To be self-accepting is to be on my own side—to be for myself. In the most fundamental sense, self-acceptance refers to an orientation of self-value and self-commitment that derives from the fact that I am alive and conscious. As such, it is more primitive than self-esteem. It is a prerational, premoral act of self-affirmation—a kind of natural egoism that is the birthright of every human being and yet that we have the power to act against and nullify.
The Second Level
Self-acceptance entails our willingness to experience—that is, to make real to ourselves, without denial or evasion—that we think what we think, feel what we feel, desire what we desire, have done what we have done, and are what we are. It is the refusal to regard any part of ourselves—our bodies, our emotions, our thoughts, our actions, our dreams—as alien, as “not me.” It is our willingness to experience rather than to disown whatever may be the facts of our being at a particular moment—to think our thoughts, own our feelings, be present to the reality of our behavior.
The Third Level
Self-acceptance entails the idea of compassion, of being a friend to myself.
Self-acceptance does not deny reality, does not argue that what is wrong is really all right, but it inquires into the context in which the action was taken. It wants to understand the why. It wants to know why something that is wrong or inappropriate felt desirable or appropriate or even necessary at the time.
“Accepting, compassionate interest does not encourage undesired behavior but reduces the likelihood of it recurring.”
The Practice of Self-Responsibility
Self-responsibility is essential to self-esteem, and it is also a reflection or manifestation of self-esteem. The relationship between self-esteem and its pillars is always reciprocal. The practices that generate self-esteem are also natural expressions and consequences of self-esteem.
“To the extent that I evade responsibility, I inflict wounds on my self-esteem. In accepting responsibility, I build self-esteem.”
Self-responsibility is expressed through an active orientation to life. It is expressed through the understanding that no one is here on earth to spare us the necessity of independence, and through the understanding that without work, independence is impossible.
Never ask a person to act against his or her self-interest as he or she understands it. If we wish people to take some action or provide some value, we are obliged to offer reasons that are meaningful and persuasive in terms of their interests and goals.
The Practice of Self-Assertiveness
Self-assertiveness means honoring my wants, needs, and values and seeking appropriate forms of their expression in reality.
Its opposite is that surrender to timidity that consists of consigning myself to a perpetual underground where everything that I am lies hidden or stillborn—to avoid confrontation with someone whose values differ from mine, or to please, placate, or manipulate someone, or simply to “belong.
Self-assertion does not mean belligerence or inappropriate aggressiveness; it does not mean pushing to the front of the line or knocking other people over; it does not mean upholding my own rights while being blind or indifferent to everyone else’s. It simply means the willingness to stand up for myself, to be who I am openly, to treat myself with respect in all human encounters. It means the refusal to fake my person to be liked.
‘Self-assertiveness means the willingness to stand up for myself, to be who I am openly, to treat myself with respect in all human encounters.”
The Practice of Living Purposefully
To live without purpose is to live at the mercy of chance—the chance event, the chance phone call, the chance encounter—because we have no standard by which to judge what is or is not worth doing. Outside forces bounce us along, like a cork floating on water, with no initiative of our own to set a specific course. Our orientation to life is reactive rather than proactive. We are drifters.
To live purposefully is to use our powers for the attainment of goals we have selected: the goal of studying, of raising a family, of earning a living, of starting a new business, of bringing a new product into the marketplace, of solving a scientific problem, of building a vacation home, of sustaining a happy romantic relationship. It is our goals that lead us forward, that call on the exercise of our faculties, that energize our existence.
The Practice of Personal Integrity
Integrity is the integration of ideals, convictions, standards, beliefs—and behavior. When our behavior is congruent with our professed values, when ideals and practice match, we have integrity.
Observe that before the issue of integrity can even be raised we need principles of behavior—moral convictions about what is and is not appropriate—judgments about right and wrong action. If we do not yet hold standards, we are on too low a developmental rung even to be accused of hypocrisy. In such a case, our problems are too severe to be described merely as lack of integrity. Integrity arises as an issue only for those who profess standards and values, which, of course, is the great majority of human beings.
“When we behave in ways that conflict with our judgment of what is appropriate, we lose face in our own eyes.”
Integrity does not guarantee that we will make the best choice; it only asks that our effort to find the best choice be authentic—that we stay conscious, stay connected with our knowledge, call on our best rational clarity, take responsibility for our choice and its consequences, do not seek to escape into mental fog.
The Philosophy of Self-Esteem
The philosophy of self-esteem—a set of interrelated premises that inspire behaviors leading to a strong sense of efficacy and worth.
Human beings are ends in themselves, not means to the ends of others, and ought to be treated as such. An individual human being belongs neither to family nor community nor church nor state nor society nor the world. A human being is not property.
All adult human associations should be chosen and voluntary.
We should not sacrifice self to others nor others to self; we should discard the idea of human sacrifice as a moral ideal.
Relationships based on an exchange of values are superior to those based on the sacrifice of anyone to anyone.
A world in which we regard ourselves and one another as accountable for our choices and actions works better than a world in which we deny such accountability.
All the Best in your quest to get Better. Don’t Settle: Live with Passion.