What’s Self-Esteem? How Do I Get It? How Can I Get Rid of It, Once I’ve Got It?

The following is a note I posted to my Stanford psychotherapy training group today. It is a follow-up note from a dialogue I had during one of our Sunday hikes with a new member of our group. I’ll call him “Mike” to protect his identity, although that probably isn’t necessary. On the hike, Mike was arguing, quite persuasively, for basing self-esteem on accomplishments. After the hike, I had some additional thoughts about this approach to self-esteem, so posted my thinking. I am hopeful that some of the visitors to the website might enjoy the dialogue.

I apologize for the poor formatting. I will try to fix it on Monday when the help line is available again for my website.

Thanks Mike, for your kind note about the TV interview.

I’ve had some more thoughts about our dialogue on the hike comparing self-defense vs. acceptance paradox to combat negative thoughts re self-esteem, such as “I’m not good enough” or “I’m inferior” or “worthless” or whatever. If anyone in our group wants to comment, please post your thoughts or experiences to the list. Much of this is old, and will be familiar to most of you. If it is of interest to anyone, I would love to hear that, or if you have a different idea, or want to challenge some or all of it, fine also.

Negative thoughts that one is not good enough, as we all know, are at the core of depression, especially when combined with feelings of hopelessness. And the pain can feel so real and be so intense as to drive many people to thoughts of suicide. So we definitely want powerful tools to combat these thoughts.

How do we help people develop greater self-esteem? You can combat most negative thoughts with the Acceptance Paradox or the Self-Defense Paradigm or a combination of the two.

Let’s say that someone is proud of what he or she has achieved and therefore feels worthwhile and also lovable. That’s the essence of the self-defense paradigm. You modeled it beautifully, I thought, on the hike. Very impressive! However, there might be a few potential problems with this formulation of self-esteem as something you must earn.

1. Your self-esteem will depend on your achievements, so it is always contingent and going up and down, like a roller coaster ride–because sometimes we tend to fail, and sometimes we are more successful. So, in the Tuesday group, you may get anxious, thinking that “you” are “less worthwhile” because you are not particularly skilful in this or that skill that is being demonstrated. You may also feel you are less worthy of friendship and fear that others in the group will find you out and judge you, since they will also link self-esteem with skill or success.

2. Is it true that people who achieve more are more worthwhile than people who achieve less? Some highly successful individuals have done lots of horrible things to people.

3. You have to be successful to be lovable. In fact, if someone loves you and is attracted to you because of your success, money, power, or status, you may be in for some trouble!

4. What happens when you fail, or hit a bad patch, and don’t feel particularly successful? Does this mean you are suddenly less worthwhile, and less lovable?

5. And if you achieve a great deal, does it mean you are “more worthwhile” or “more lovable”? More worthwhile and lovable than who?

6. How much “success” does one need, on a scale from 0 to 100, to be “worthwhile” or “lovable”? Is there some magical cut-off point, such as 65, or 85, on the scale? If so, it means that billions of human are “worthless” and “unlovable.”

7. Self-esteem becomes something you have to constantly earn, so you are never truly secure. We can never guarantee endless successes.

8. You buy into the concept that there is such a thing as a “worthwhile human being,” and you also buy into the concept of “worthwhileness” as having meaning. Of course, many people have no motivation at all to let go of these seemingly precious ideas.

9. The system implies that some individuals are more or less worthwhile than others.

10. Specifics can be more or less worthwhile–for example, you could be better at this or that, and not so good at this or that, like dancing, or running, or using the Disarming Technique, or singing, or performing mental calculations. How does this make you more or less worthwhile as a human being?

11. When you fail, which is inevitable, you may have to deal with the actual failure plus on overlay of shame, depression, and anxiety.

12. The concept that we could be more or less worthwhile is the cause of most depression and a great deal of anxiety as well, especially social anxiety.

13. It is not true that people can or do love us for our success. They can admire or appreciate our success, but generally love us because we love them, and because of the warmth and support and commitment they feel in the relationship.

14. Most of our suffering, as the Buddha taught long ago, result from these abstract notions in the clouds, rather than from anything specific or real on the surface of the earth. I’m no good at tennis, but this causes not suffering because I don’t tell myself that I “should” be good at tennis, or that I am “less worthwhile” because I am not very good at tennis. In fact, everything about us could be improved a great deal, and everything is flawed. But those specific defects or deficiencies do not influence how we feel–on the distorted negative thoughts can cause the suffering of depression and anxiety.

There is more, but that’s all I can think of at the moment.

So how can we develop greater “self-esteem”? I think of the development of self-esteem as a ladder you can climb:

Step 1 on the ladder is conditional self-esteem. You decide you are worthwhile because of this or that skill, talent, feature or accomplishment. For example, you may tell a depressed child that she is worthwhile or special because she has pretty eyes, or a nice voice for singing, or an athletic skill, or good grades, or whatever. This is a step up from self-hatred and depression, and is sometimes promoted by parents and teachers.

But even as an adult, we may tell ourselves that we are worthwhile because, for example, we have a PhD, or good therapy skills, or a good income, etc. Often, therapists make the same mistake of trying to cheer up a depressed patient by pointing out their good qualities. I have never seen this help anyone, and have often seen this irritate patients who are depressed. I’ve seen it in group therapy groups, and in my workshops, too, when I do live demonstrations.

Or, in another version of conditional self-esteem, we can decide we are “lovable” and “worthwhile” because others have loved us. In this case, self-esteem depends on love as opposed to achievement, but both are contingent versions of self-esteem.

Or, you can decide, as many religious people do, that you are “worthwhile” because of your faith in God, or in your religion. Well, what happens when you suddenly doubt your faith? Are you now “less worthwhile”? And, do you believe you are “more worthwhile” than others who do not share your faith, or who have no religious faith at all?

Anytime you say, “I need substance X” to be worthwhile, you are potentially in trouble.

Step 2 is unconditional self-esteem. You decide you are worthwhile and lovable just because you are human. Ii is simply a decision you have made to love and accept yourself, just as you might decide to love your child–as a gift, or because your child is hurting and needs your love and comforting, and not because your child has “earned” your love through some accomplishment, like getting As in school.

And by the same token, you can declare that all human beings are worthwhile, and equally worthwhile. You can decide that we all have one unit of “worth” just because we exist as human beings.

As an aside, would this mean that we are now “more worthwhile” than animals? Lots of people think this way, including, perhaps, people who hunt for sport. Many humans treat animals shabbily, even horribly, just as Hitler decided that some humans are more or “less worthwhile” and chose to exterminate them, thinking he had a justification.

Step 3: Once you have achieved unconditional self-esteem, you can decide to throw it away, to get rid of it as fast as possible. You suddenly see “self-esteem” as just another perfectionistic (and meaningless) verbal trap, a waste of time. You discover that “self-esteem” and “worthwhileness” are something you never needed in the first place. Just another burden, like the equally meaningless concept of a “self.”

When you make the decision to get rid of your self-esteem, you can decide to get rid of your belief that you “have” or “are” a “self” as well. You may discover that you don’t need or want or have a “self.”

These are just some rambling thoughts. This is on a philosophical level–ultimately, in clinical settings, we have to do agenda setting. What is it the person wants help with?

If someone feels successful, and therefore worthwhile, and wants to preserve this system of thinking, he or she definitely has the right to do that. Perhaps, like an addiction, you may have to hit a low point to feel motivated to challenge the habit. And certainly, the idea that we are “special” or “superior” or “worthwhile” can be a heady one, something like getting high, perhaps. But the goal of therapy, to my way of thinking, is not to develop self-esteem, but to throw the concept away and to recognize it as meaningless.

It is my belief that this is part of what the Buddha promoted as “enlightenment,” but there are many forms of enlightenment. Letting go of the idea that you have a “self” is only one of them, and the “Great Death” can take many forms, I think.

Finally, I want to emphasize that for many negative thoughts that cause anxiety or depression, the combination of self-defense plus the acceptance paradox will be, by far, the most effective, or only effective, approach. For other negative thoughts, the self-defense paradigm will be, by far, the most effective, or only effective, approach. There is never any one single “best” approach to the relief of suffering, but many approaches.