Enhancing Your Self Esteem
Inner Realm, 1998
By Michael Isaacs
A pervasive problem of humankind is low self-esteem, whether we call it feelings of unworthiness, emptiness, inadequacy, or incompetence. To some degree it plagues everyone.
In this article, I will address the painful consequences of poor self-esteem, the causes, and a blueprint for healing.
The experience of low self-esteem may be conscious or unconscious. It is conscious if it is subject to our awareness. It is unconscious if the feelings are so uncomfortable that they are repressed from awareness. If unconscious, they can be covered over by alcoholism, drugs, promiscuity, a false sense of confidence and bravado, and workaholic behavior.
Poor self-esteem can lead to disastrous consequences in relationships, health, and work
In relationships, if we are unable to sufficiently love ourselves, how can we truly love another? Low self-esteem promotes excessive dependency or excessive withdrawal-two enemies of healthy relationships. For example, one client is locked into a marriage with a verbally abusive husband who constantly demeans her intelligence, her relatives, and her quest to follow spiritual practices. Despite her many positive attributes, including the capacity to be an independent woman, she does not yet have the self-confidence to choose whether to stay or leave the relationship.
In health, those with excessive feelings of unworthiness often become ill because of resultant depression, alienation, and loneliness. In his latest book, LOVE AND SURVIVAL, alternative medicine Doctor Dean Ornish cites recent scientific evidence to prove this. Another client of mine suffers from tremors, constant headaches, and frequent respiratory infections. She has come to understand that her poor self-image is directly related to the lack of protection, empathy, and love from her immediate family. With the reduction of self-criticism and self-blame, and the realization that she deserves to be happy, her physical symptoms abated.
An example of how a negative self-image can hurt the pocketbook is illustrated by the situation of a bright, well-educated client whom I will call Ken. He was a scapegoat for his parents and brothers who were themselves deeply insecure emotionally. They were jealous of his intelligence. His family’s lifelong putdowns were incorporated into his view of himself. Ken feels inadequate, empty, and disrespected. He works for menial wages in the family business where he is exposed to his father’s humiliating and insensitive remarks.
What are the root causes of unworthiness?
First, there is the universal condition of human beings (as contrasted with the animal kingdom) of a long period of early infancy. Therefore, we experience an extended and prolonged time of dependency, helplessness, and feeling small.
Second, we often encounter life experiences that cause us to feel like outsiders. This happened to Ken in relation to his father and brothers. It may happen to children who experience exclusion because dad and mom have each other, and they are too small and powerless to compete. Divorce is another life situation when a child experiences the physical separation of one parent and the feared loss of the custodial parent. In all these cases, a child is often left with a profound sadness and loss which can carry over into adult life as poor self-esteem and heightened abandonment fears.
Third, parental or other early caregivers frequently quashed or discouraged our normal childlike feelings. As one writer said, “we were not allowed to feel sad, mad, or glad.” Many of us were unduly criticized, demeaned, and verbally abused. Perhaps there was physical abuse as well. For such negative experiences or perceptions, a child can pay a high price by feeling bad, not good enough, and not deserving.
Fourth, there are many people who have excessive guilt and shame about their actions, thoughts, or words in the past and /or present.
Fifth, we suffer from our ignorance as to our true spiritual identity. The reality is that the Universe does not make junk. Or, to put it more elegantly, we are the reflections of the wisdom, life, peace, and love of a higher divine source and power. We are not bad, sinful, or unworthy. We are children of the Divine and are basically good.
How can we combat toxic inadequacy and low self-esteem?
1. Though inadequacy feelings are painful, be grateful that you are at least acknowledging them so that there is the possibility that they be remedied
2. Exercise high self-esteem muscles. If low self-esteem is reflected by too much passivity, risk asserting more; of low self-esteem is reflected in overly aggressive behavior, practice self-restraint.
3. Commit to staying on a regular path or paths for a long period of time. I refer to such modalities as psychotherapy, exercise, gardening, yoga, akido, and meditation. Stay with it despite the ups ands downs and refrain from judging your performance.
4. Nurture your self by affirmations, imagery, positive thinking, and communicating with supportive friends, groups, relatives, and nature.
5. Grow spiritually by such endeavors as spiritual meditation, sacred readings, retreats and seminars, and any other experience that leads to a realization of your goodness and to the awareness of a loving, non-punitive God within who can be relied on for companionship, guidance, supply, and feelings of being loved and appreciated.