If self-esteem is the health of the mind there are few topics of comparable urgency. The chaos of our times demands strong selves with a clear sense of identity, competence and worth. The stability that is absent in society must be found in our own persons. To face life with low self-esteem is a severe disadvantage. Of all the judgements that we pass in life, none is as important as the one we pass on ourselves. Consequently, it is the single most important psychological subject in the world.
The factors that influence and sustain it must be considered so that we pay attention to both the internal ideas and behaviours of an individual alongside the influence of the environment. Human beings cannot achieve their potential without healthy self-esteem. It is a powerful human need, essential to healthy adaptiveness, that is, to optimal functioning and self-fulfilment. To the extent that the need is frustrated we are held back in our development.
It is therefore dangerous to think that it can be easily built, that there are quick fixes, as this will lead to superficial progress, if any, because we need to put effort into raising it. Conversely, it is not the case that the level of self-esteem you have as an adult cannot be changed. In fact, the opposite is true, we underestimate our power to change and grow. If we make higher self-esteem our goal and take responsibility for our lives, we can go far. In order to realise what is possible we must answer a call to action and recognise that a self is to be actualised, not renounced, that participating actively in the process of our evolution will allow us to fulfil our potentialities.
Self-Esteem: Basic Principles
Self-Esteem: The Immune System of Consciousness
Self-esteem is a fundamental human need so the importance of working on it cannot be understated, we cannot be indifferent to our relationship with ourselves. It works its way within us with or without our knowledge so we must take action to improve it. Self-esteem is the experience that we are appropriate to life and its requirements. It is confidence in our ability to think, to cope with the challenges of life, and in our right to be happy and successful, to feel worthy, deserving, entitled to assert our needs and wants, achieve our values and enjoy the rewards of our efforts. It is not a gift that can be laid claim to, rather its possession over time is an achievement, the result of a practice kept day after day. To trust one’s mind and know that one is worthy of happiness is the essence of self-esteem. This is more than a judgement or feeling, it is a motivator, it inspires behaviour. In turn, it is also affected by how we act such that causation flows both ways. Our actions in the world influence our self-esteem which influences how we act.
Once we trust our mind and judgment, we can become more aware and work through our problems effectively by exercising the ability to think. Seeing that our life is better when we do so encourages us to continue trusting our mind. Conversely if we fail to we will become mentally passive, less persistent, so that we come to feel justified in distrusting our mind. With high-self-esteem I am more likely to persist in the face of difficulty whereas without it I will go through the motions. In this way, my view of myself will be reinforced either way because when I persevere, I am more likely to succeed than when I give up, such that whether we trust our minds or fail to we will find reasons to carry on doing so. If we respect ourselves and act in a way that shows this people will be likely to treat us as at our self-estimate so that we feel our initial belief was correct. If we lack self-respect we give others cause to follow suit, so that whatever we believe is true of ourselves is how they take us to be. The value of self-esteem lies in the fact that it allows us to feel and live better, to respond to challenges and opportunities more appropriately.
The level of our self-esteem has profound consequences for every aspect of our existence. A healthy self-esteem is positively correlated with traits that help us to achieve our goals and attain personal happiness such as rationality, realism and independence. Those with low-self-esteem are afraid of change, fear the new and are defensive. Adaptiveness and personal fulfilment are features of a healthy self-esteem, which is life supporting and enhancing. With it we seek the challenge of worthwhile goals whose achievement nurtures it further. On the other hand, without it we seek the safety of the familiar and undemanding so that it weakens.
The better our self-esteem the more equipped we are to cope with troubles in our lives, the quicker we are to pick ourselves up and begin anew. We become more ambitious and want to experience more in life, to express ourselves honestly, so that we are more open in communication because we believe our thoughts have value. The lower our self-esteem the less we aspire to and achieve, the more urgent the need to ‘prove’ ourselves, to fear clarity. We form more nourishing relationships because we do not expect rejection, humiliation or betrayal from encounters when we have a well-developed sense of personal value. It is likely that we will attract people with similar self-esteem. Unsurprisingly, self-esteem is one of the best predictors of personal happiness.
If we see ourselves as lovable we act in ways that will help us to have intimate relationships and appreciate other people for who they are. If we lack self-respect and enjoyment of who we are we have little to give to others. There is no greater barrier to romantic happiness than the fear that you are undeserving of love and deserve to be hurt. If our self-concept affirms this, we will find reasons why we are not lovable even if the facts point the other way. All we can give in relationships in that case is our unfulfilled needs, so that we tend to see others as sources of approval or disapproval rather than people to enjoy the adventure of life with.
If someone does love us we question why because it conflicts with our self-concept. If we do not accept ourselves, how can we accept another’s love for us. Since we ‘know’ that we are not worthy of love we become confused and see the feelings others have as unreliable or short-lived. In our insecurity we find ways to confirm our self-concept by taking issue with trivial things, self-sabotaging so that when the relationship fizzles out we can be sure that we were right. Our ‘knowledge’ is correct so it is the facts that need to be changed. In this way, there is a self-fulfilling prophecy that keeps us from finding love if we feel we have no right to it.
If we feel it is our fate to be unhappy our ‘knowledge’ of this tells us that reality should prove us right. When it does not we feel anxious because that is not how things are meant to be, so we find ways to make it adjust to how we imagined it. The possibility of happiness presently is too terrifyingly immediate, it is not ours to claim. Happiness anxiety is common, many feel like they are undeserving of it because of how they see themselves. Paradoxically, what is required of us is the courage to tolerate happiness without self-sabotaging as when we do we will realise that it is not to be feared, will not destroy us and may not even disappear. Only when we engage the destructive voices in inner dialogue, challenging their reasoning so that we can refute their nonsense, will we come to separate them from our self.
At times where we expect to be evaluated we may self-destruct before others get a chance to. Imposter syndrome makes us feel as if we are inept so that we act in ways that will elicit the condemnation we fear. If our illusion of self-esteem rests on the fragile support of never being challenged, if our insecurity finds signs of rejection where no rejection exists, we begin to self-destruct. Intelligence is no protection, brilliant people with low self-esteem act against their interests every day. When we doubt our minds, we discount its products and are not intellectually self-assertive because we associate it with a loss of love or disapproval if others disagree. Consequently, we mute our intelligence and dread being visible in case of conflict, but if we become invisible we will suffer more for not being seen.
The expectations we have about life usually become true because we can only achieve what we think is appropriate to us. These generate the actions that bring them into reality so that whether or not we feel something is possible we act accordingly. In this way, self-fulfilling prophecies occur and our original belief becomes stronger because we acted in a way that justified it. In fact, our implicit assumptions about our future powerfully affect motivation so that they are even better indicators of success than what has happened to us in the past. If we believe that learning is possible for us, that our lives can become fulfilling, that our relationships will bring us happiness, these things become appropriate to us.
Self-concept is destiny. It is who we think we are, our physical and psychological traits, strengths and weaknesses as well as possibilities and limitations. The behaviour of any person cannot be understood without appealing to it. If a person’s self-concept does not admit a certain level of success and they do not change it so that it can accommodate what they are now experiencing they will inevitably self-sabotage because they do not regard their present situation as something appropriate to them. Poor self-esteem places us in an adversarial relationship to our wellbeing so that when life goes well in ways that conflict with our deepest views of ourselves, we engage in self-destructive behaviour.
Self-Esteem as a Basic Need
The power of self-esteem derives from the fact that it is a profound need, that it is essential for effective functioning. Lacking it, we are impaired in our ability to function. Self-esteem is a need insofar as it has survival value, makes an essential contribution to life and is indispensable to healthy development. Its absence is dramatically expressed in needlessly reckless behaviour, drug overdoses or attempts at suicide. More commonly it is subtler and we feel that the dreams we once had no longer seem achievable, that our success feels uncharacteristic, while our living habits are unhealthy. Without positive self-esteem we lack the resilience to overcome the adversities of life and carry on. The desire to avoid pain becomes more important than experiencing joy, negatives have more power over us than positives. If we do not believe in ourselves we begin to see the universe as a frightening place.
Self-esteem is the immune system of consciousness, providing resistance, strength and a capacity for regeneration. In the same way that a healthy immune system does not prevent illness but helps us to recover quicker so too a healthy self-esteem allows us to heal from the events of life. To be sure, people with healthy self-esteem will still be met by troubles that will knock them down, they may even get anxiety or depression, but they are quicker to pick themselves up again. Resilience rather than imperviousness to suffering is the consequence of positive self-esteem.
Too much Self-Esteem?
There is no such thing as too much self-esteem, those who seem arrogant usually lack it alongside those who hold this to be true. A healthy self-esteem means that a person delights in their own existence, finds joy in being this person that they are, not in being better than someone. There is no comparison, only true self-expression.
Not Being ‘Enough’
It is possible to achieve much with a poor self-esteem insofar as we have the talent, drive and energy to do so in spite of feelings of inadequacy and unworthiness. However, we will not be nearly as effective as we could be and our accomplishments would be undercut. If they are not, then our capacity for satisfaction will be so that a feeling that we will never be enough remains even if our successes far outnumber our failures. This is because If I aim to prove I am enough the project goes on to infinity because the battle was already lost on the day I conceded the issue was debateable. It will always be one more victory or sexual conquest, but the void within remains unfilled. When we have unconflicted self-esteem joy is our motor, not fear, we wish to experience happiness, not avoid suffering. Self-expression wins over justifying and avoiding who we are so that our motive is not to prove our worth but to live our possibilities.
Challenges of the Modern World
It has become increasingly important to have a strong self-esteem in the secular age. As well as being an important psychological need it has also become an important economic need. Insofar as we have to think for ourselves about our way of life, the ideas that will guide it and the lifestyle our philosophy encourages. We are freer than any generation before us to choose the good life. No one is coming to rescue us, we are thrown on our own resources. There are more choices than ever before, everywhere we look there are limitless possibilities such that in order to adapt we must be autonomous, make our own decisions. We need to know who we are and be centred within ourselves so that we have no need for alien values, for goals that do not fulfil us. We must learn to think for ourselves, cultivate our own resources, taking full responsibility for the actions, values and choices that shape our lives.
Trusting and relying on ourselves is essential today because the amount of choice offered to us can be disorientating if we are not grounded as the people we are. The greater the number of choices and decisions we need to make at a conscious level, the more urgent the need for self-esteem. Otherwise, we may seek answers from others claiming to hold the truth, when they could not possibly give it to us. To stay true to ourselves in these times often means standing alone while society tries to influence us to conform. That there are as many options and challenges in the world today as there are is why the issue of self-esteem has become so urgent.
The Meaning of Self-Esteem
Self-esteem has two interrelated components: Self-efficacy and Self-respect. Self-efficacy means confidence in my ability to think and understand, to make decisions and face the challenges of life. It is self-reliance, I trust that my own mind will help me navigate reality. Experiencing it gives us a sense of control over ourselves so that we feel centred regardless of what is going on around us because we are certain that our resources will help us whatever happens. Self-respect is assurance of my value, the belief that I am worthy of happiness. I therefore feel comfortable putting my thoughts, needs and wants out there because I feel fulfilment is my natural birth right. Experiencing it gives us a benevolent outlook such that we can interact with others and create meaningful relationships without feeling that we need to forego our independence in order to share mutual regard.
Self-esteem is the disposition to experience oneself as competent to cope with the basic challenges of life and as worthy of happiness. This is what our self-evaluation concerns and consists of. To have high self-esteem is to feel confidently appropriate to life. That is, competent and worthy in the above sense.
The Root of our Need for Self-Esteem
Self-esteem is a human need because we evolved to rely on our capacity to think in order to survive. We therefore have a responsibility to use this consciousness in order to better adapt to the demands of life. Our mind and reason are essential because they allow us to make the decisions that we do, they are what our lives depend on. The problem is that we do not think automatically, we have to choose to and, failing to, we dim our awareness and restrict our freedom. Only by expanding our awareness can we make the appropriate decisions in our lives and raise our self-esteem. This is obvious enough, the choices that we make as to whether to expand or lower our awareness will have consequences for how we view our competence to cope with life’s challenges or our sense of worthiness. Allowing ourselves to think, we divine a solution based on our knowledge. Conversely, avoiding the issue we shrink back and lose control, feeling less effective. Our self-assessment cannot be divorced from our behaviour. The times at which our self-esteem goes up or down will usually be explainable in terms of how much awareness we decided to bring to the choice we make, whether we trust our mind, take into account our intuition or assert our needs.
Self-efficacy is about having confidence in our ability to think for ourselves, so that we trust that the choices we make will be right for us. This is not to say that we are beyond error but that we will be more likely to persevere in the quest to understand even in the face of difficulties, never to give in to helplessness, to stand firmly on our own feet. In the information age learning has become more important than ever and the people who trust their own minds, who will make mistakes and learn from them, are the ones who will be secure in their prospects. Those willing to persist and correct their errors will gain knowledge because they will master new skills and challenges. If we trust in our processes, in our minds, we expect success from our efforts. Efficacy is especially important in our relationships; we need to raise our consciousness in order to build them. Otherwise we lack competence in arguably the most vital sphere for a person.
Self-respect involves the expectation of friendship, love and happiness. These are natural to us because of who we are and what we do. It is then a conviction of our own value. We see our lives as worth nurturing, that we are deserving of the respect of others, that our personal fulfilment and happiness are important to work for.
Living successfully means achieving our goals and we can only do this if wee act appropriately. However, if we do not feel that we are worthy of the rewards of such action, that our value means we should not be the recipients, we would be unable to take care of ourselves, satisfy our need or enjoy our success. Unless we feel that we are right as a person we will not feel that we deserve success or happiness. In order to increase our self-respect we need to act in ways that will cause it to rise, this means a commitment to seeing our value, which will result in congruent behaviour. It has a root in satisfaction with our mental processes, more specifically, our moral choices. Each of us has a standard that we judge ourselves by, whether consciously or subconsciously, so that to the extent that we fail to satisfy it self-respect suffers. Consequently, personal integrity is important insofar as championing our values and ideals consistently leads to self-respect, to trusting and admiring ourselves.
Pride is the emotional reward of achievement, not a vice to be overcome, but a value to be attained. Where self- esteem says ‘I can’, pride says ‘I did’, it is then something to be enjoyed should our achievements result in it. Nevertheless, many find that no matter how successful they are they feel no pride, no sense of attainment. In many cases, this is because the goals they chose or the career path they took were not their own idea. Self-esteem cannot be supported by pursuing what does not reflect who we are. It takes courage to live by our own mind and judgement. Self- esteem is a summons to the hero within us.
The Face of Self-Esteem
Self-esteem expresses itself in a way of living that projects the pleasure one feels at being alive. Relaxation implies that we are not hiding from ourselves or at war with who we are. Chronic tension suggests an internal split, a self-avoidance that means we disown parts of ourselves.
Self-esteem in action
When all of the following are present in an individual self-esteem seems certain.
Rationality is the integrative function of consciousness. That is, it is the generation of principles based on facts (induction) and the application of principles to facts (deduction). It pursues an understanding of the relationship between these, it is based on a respect for facts. What seems ‘reasonable’ for others will, if in opposition to the facts, be rejected if we are rational. If we are in a friendly relationship to facts we will talk honestly about our accomplishments and shortcomings. A commitment to rationality also allows us to live consciously.
High-self-esteem is intrinsically reality-oriented, it affirms the facts of the matter so that what is, is and what is not, is not. One cannot cope with the challenges of life if they fail to distinguish between the real and unreal, between what is true and what they would like to be true. A respect for facts allows us to assess our abilities realistically and gain accurate knowledge of ourselves in the present.
Intuition is significant for self-esteem insofar as it represents high sensitivity to internal signals. A mind that has learned to trust itself is more likely to rely on this process, which can be linked to self-acceptance.
Those with healthy self-esteem value the productions of their own mind. They are self-sufficient in that they look to themselves for answers, rather than to others. They are likely to note their thoughts down because they see them as valuable, are certain that what they have to say is important. They may learn and be inspired by others, but they value their own thoughts and insights more than the average person does.
A practice of thinking for oneself is both a cause and a consequence of high self-esteem. The practice of taking full responsibility for our lives, for achieving our goals and attaining happiness, naturally follow from it and lead to it.
A mind that trusts itself is light on its feet. If we lack self-trust we will be likely to cling to the past when faced by new circumstances. Rigidity is often the response of a mind that does not trust itself to cope with the unfamiliar, whereas flexibility is a natural corollary of self-esteem because we respond quickly to novelty insofar as our eyes are open to seeing and not caught up in attachment to the past.
Able to manage change
Self-esteem does not find change frightening; it flows with reality while self-doubt fights it, speeds up reaction time while the latter slows it. The ability to manage change is then correlated with good reality orientation.
Willingness to admit mistakes
Insofar as self-esteem means a strong reality-orientation facts are a higher priority than beliefs, truth has more value than being right. Consciousness is more desirable than protective unconsciousness. That is, if we trust ourselves and respect reality then admitting and correcting an error is more important than pretending never to have made one. There would be no shame in making a mistake and saying that we were wrong. Denial and defensiveness derive from insecurity and feelings of inadequacy. Our self-esteem cannot be tied to an image of ‘being perfect’.
Benevolence and Cooperativeness
My relationship to others tends to mirror and reflect my relationship to myself. If I feel centred within myself, secure with my boundaries, confident in my ability to assert my needs, benevolence toward others will naturally result. I will come with a spirit of cooperation rather than doubt. Secure in my right to exist, unthreatened by certainty in others, I will cooperate with them to achieve shared goals insofar as this is to my self-interest.
The Illusion of Self-Esteem
If self-esteem is underdeveloped we are manipulated by fear so that avoiding pain becomes more important than experiencing joy. We might fear failure and feel helpless in the face of problems or fear facts about ourselves, that the unworthy aspects of our character might be exposed. Reality becomes the enemy of our self-esteem. These fears tend to sabotage the efficacy of our consciousness, worsening the initial problem. Our minds will only struggle for what we think is possible for us. Self-esteem affects our emotional incentives so that our feelings influence whether we think for ourselves and move toward efficacy. This is why the first steps of building self-esteem are difficult. We are challenged to raise the level of our consciousness in the face of emotional resistance. The idea that our unconsciousness makes life bearable must be overcome if there is to be any growth.
If we become prisoners of a negative self-image we allow it to dictate our actions. Defining ourselves as unworthy leads to a performance that takes this into account. To be sure, we can act differently on occasion but for the most part there is a resignation to our own state. Submitting to these feelings means that we no longer have to take risks or awaken from our passivity.
Poor self-esteem then not only inhibits thoughts but distorts them so that the most logical explanation is ignored in favour of the most damaging one that reinforces our negative self-image. Fear motivates it so that we aim to escape the terror of life, to seek safety, rather than to live. It leads us to avoid challenges and dread the unknown while high self-esteem thrives on them and seeks new frontiers. The health of the mind can be characterised by the basic principle of motivation at play. An individual is healthy to the extent that their motivation is derived from confidence, by a love of self and life, as opposed to fear.
Some may develop a spurious sense of self-esteem if the consciousness required to develop it authentically brings to light the real causes of its lack. It is painful to realise that we are inappropriate to existence so many explain away these feelings to deny their fears and rationalise their behaviour, taking on a persona of self-esteem. Pseudo self-esteem is the illusion of self-respect and self-efficacy without the reality.
Self-esteem should be sought through consciousness, responsibility and integrity if it is to be authentic. However, many pursue it by means that will not and cannot work such as popularity, material possessions or sexual conquests. Personal authenticity is what we should value but instead we wish to belong to the right groups so that self-assertion becomes less important than uncritical compliance. Self-respect through honesty is hard to attain so philanthropy, doing good things, is how we feel that we are good people. The possibilities for self-deception are endless but what we desire cannot be attained through what is outside us.
Self-esteem is an intimate experience, it resides in the core of one’s being. It is what I think or feel about myself, not what someone else does. Even if everyone around me loves me I may not love myself. I can attain any level of achievement and still feel I have accomplished nothing, project an image of assurance and feel inadequate. To be successful without a healthy self-esteem is to feel like an imposter anxiously awaiting exposure. The acclaim of others does not create our self-esteem, nor does anything outside of us. The tragedy of many people’s lives is that they look for it everywhere except within, so that they are doomed to fail in their search.
Positive self-esteem is best understood as a victory in the evolution of consciousness. Understanding this, it becomes foolish to think that making a positive impression on others will give us self-regard. It will no longer seem reasonable to say that we need to achieve something before we feel at peace with ourselves. If self-esteem is the judgment that I am appropriate to life, the experience of competence and worth, self-affirming consciousness in the form of a mind that trusts itself, no one can generate and sustain this experience except myself. The ultimate source of our self-esteem is and can only be internal, in what we do. If we seek it in externals, in the actions and responses of others, we undercut our development. To look to others as a source of our self-value is dangerous because it does not work and it exposes us to potentially becoming approval addicts.
The most effective means to liberate ourselves from preoccupation with the opinions of others is to raise the level of consciousness we bring to our own experience. The more we focus on our inner signals the less attention we pay to external ones, which gradually recede into proper balance. This entails listening to the body, to our emotions and learning to think for oneself.
The alternative to excessive dependence on the feedback and validation of others is a well-developed system of internal support. Then, the source of certainty lies within. The attainment of this state is essential to proper human maturity insofar as we become independent and no longer rely upon supportive feedback from our social environment. The condition of aloneness is manageable to a higher degree for the great creators and innovators who followed their vision without fearing the unexplored spaces that frighten others who have never looked outside their community for answers. ‘Genius’ then has a great deal to do with independence, courage and daring, in a word, with nerve. That is why it is admired. It cannot be taught but can be learned by each person. If human happiness, wellbeing, and progress are our goals, then it is a trait we must strive to nurture in ourselves.
Internal Sources of Self-Esteem
The Focus on Action
The individual, rather than the environment, is what we concern ourselves with. What matters most is not what others do but what we do. When looking at how to develop our self-esteem our focus must be on the practices we engage in everyday because every value in life can only be achieved and sustained through action. What determines the level of self-esteem is what the individual does; a person’s actions are decisive. Consequently, insofar as action within the world reflects action within the mind of the individual, internal processes are crucial. The six pillars of self-esteem, the practices that are indispensable to the health of the mind and the effective functioning of the person, are operations of consciousness. All involve choices which must be made day after day. A practice implies a discipline of acting in a certain way consistently. It is not occasional action but how we operate in our lives, a way of behaving that is also a way of being.
Volition and it’s Limits
Free will does not mean omnipotence. Many factors can make it easier or harder to raise consciousness to engage in focused thinking such as genetic predispositions toward anxiety and depression or developmental factors that make it hard for healthy self-esteem to emerge without therapy. Dysfunctional families create destructive environments in which obstacles are placed in the way of the appropriate use of our minds. For the most part, parents with good self-esteem have children who also do. Nevertheless,‘Invulnerables’ seem to be able to extract nourishment from a harsh environment to develop a powerful sense of value and dignity.
Within our psyche, there may be obstructions to thinking, subconscious defences that prevent us from becoming conscious to avoid pain. Consciousness is a continuum that exists on many levels, so an unresolved problem on one may subvert action at another if we remain unconscious of the deeper issue. In any case, our self-esteem will be affected by whether I try to bring consciousness to the problem.
What we do Know
While the biological and developmental factors that affect self-esteem remain unknown to us, we have considerable knowledge about the volitional practices that we can employ in our own lives to raise or lower it. If there is a commitment to understanding self-trust naturally follows, whereas avoidance of the effort works the other way. Mindfulness allows us to feel competent because we are more aware and likely to master a skill than those who live mindlessly. Integrity leads to self-respect while putting on a façade moves us away from it.
While we may not be able to change out pasts what we can do today to raise our self-esteem is considerable, if we understand its nature and commit ourselves to the practices that lead to it. If we are to help others develop theirs we must become what we wish to teach. What we say is rarely as influential as what we manifest in our behaviour.
Sentence-completion exercises can be used to strengthen self-esteem. It facilitates self-understanding, liberates self-expression and activates self-healing. Through it, we can come to see what it is that raises or lowers our self-esteem. Particular areas can be explored at deeper and deeper levels so that the six practices can be implemented in our daily lives.
The Six Practices
Self-Esteem is a consequence of internally generated practices so we cannot work on it directly. Rather, we must address ourselves to the source. Once we understand what these practices are we can commit to initiating them into ourselves. Any improvements in these practices generate benefits. Knowing what they are gives us the power to choose and integrate them into our way of life. This is the power to raise the level of our self-esteem. The point we start at is of no consequence because however difficult it may be at the start, we do not have to attain ‘perfection’ in these practices. We only need to raise our average level of performance to experience growth in self-efficacy and self-respect. Extraordinary changes in people’s lives can result from the smallest improvements in these practices because one small step invariably leads to another.
The Six Practices are:
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
Enlightenment is associated with waking up, with an expansion of consciousness. It is the highest manifestation of life; the higher the consciousness the more advanced the life form. Human consciousness, our mind, is our basic tool of survival and greater awareness identifies increasing maturity. The operation of this consciousness is volitional, we can choose whether to be thinking or unthinking beings, to bring attention to a problem or to ignore it. This self-management can be our glory or our burden. If we betray our minds self-esteem suffers. If we do not live mindfully, bringing the appropriate level of consciousness to our activities it is inevitable that our self-efficacy and self-respect will diminish. The evasion of facts that may be painful only keeps us stuck. Through the choices we make as to whether we are responsible toward reality, we establish the kind of person we are so that these are added up to constitute the experience we call ‘self-esteem’. Self-esteem is the reputation we acquire with ourselves. 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 – and to behave in accordance with what we see and know.
The Betrayal of Consciousness
Consciousness that does not become appropriate action is a betrayal of consciousness, mind invalidating itself. If I act contrarily to what I see and know I am avoiding consciousness. Living consciously means more than seeing and knowing, it means acting on what one sees and knows.
To live consciously does not require us to remain explicitly aware of everything we have ever learned as this is an impossibility. It also does not mean that we have to be focused on some problem every moment of our existence. Rather, context determines what mind state is appropriate. To operate consciously does not mean I always have to be in the same mental state but rather to be in the state appropriate to what I am doing. My purposes and values dictate which state is appropriate to the activity in the moment such that context determines the right level of consciousness.
Being Responsible toward Reality
Living consciously implies respect for the facts of reality. This includes the facts of our inner world, our needs, wants and emotions, and the outer world. How we feel things should be have no bearing on how they are in reality such that what we would like does not change what is. Consequently, we must live responsibly toward reality, because then we will not confuse the subjective with the objective. Whether we like what we see is a matter of indifference, we must recognise what is, accepting the facts of the matter without taking them to be otherwise. Only then can we be said to be living consciously.
The Specifics of Living Consciously
Living Consciously entails:
A mind that is active rather than passive
The most fundamental act of self-assertion, the choice to think and seek awareness. Another self-esteem virtue is also developed: Self-responsibility. Acknowledging that we are responsible for our own existence and happiness we realise that no one can make our decisions for us, that we therefore have to choose to be conscious and be guided by the clearest understanding of which we are capable.
An intelligence that takes joy in it’s own function
Consciousness should be a joy, rather than a burden. Our primary entertainment should come through learning such that any barriers to the assertion of consciousness must be overcome if we are to feel it become a greater source of satisfaction. Taking pleasure in the use of our mind is essential.
Being ‘in the moment’ without losing the wider context
Being present to what one is doing without thereby disconnecting ourselves from our knowledge allows us to be in the most resourceful state. Then we can do what we are doing while also being aware of the wider context such that our consciousness is not impoverished.
Reaching out toward relevant facts rather than withdrawing from them
Relevance is determined by our needs, wants, desires and goals. Searching for helpful information that may lead us to change our assumptions allows us to continually learn. Conversely, pretending not to have seen so that we can stay comfortable in our ignorance leads nowhere.
Being concerned to distinguish among facts, interpretations and emotions
Our feelings are not the voices of reality. What we perceive, what we interpret it to mean and how we feel about it are three seraparate questions that must be distinguished between if we are to have a grounding in reality, if self-efficacy is to remain undiminished. The facts are what they are, the rest is what my mind makes of it, which says more about me than external reality. Living consciously then requires being sensitive to these distinctions.
Noticing or confronting my impulses to avoid or deny painful realities
The earnest intention to be conscious is essential when it comes to facing painful realities. It is easier to deny these and at times unconsciousness appears seductive. However, it is at these times, when we feel pain or fear, that we need to open our eyes wider because it is there that a problem has arisen. Since these include facts that it is in our self-interest to consider we must overcome our avoidance impulses, this means being aware of them. This requires the most ruthless honesty of which we are capable. The sincerity of our intention is what matters most.
Being concerned to know ‘where I am’ relative to my various (personal and professional) goals and projects and whether I am succeeding or failing
Are we hoping to somehow get where we would like to be or are we holding ourselves to account? If we would like to be a writer, what are we doing to further that goal? Are we closer now than we were a year ago? Where are we at present relative to the fulfilment of that ambition? Are we bringing enough consciousness to our goal?
Being concerned to know if my actions are in alignment with my purposes
There should be congruence between our goals or purposes and the investment of our time and energy. Living consciously then requires that if there is a misalignment between our actions and goals such that we pay more attention to what matters least to us, these need to be rethought so that we bring the appropriate amount of energy to what we care about most. Monitoring our actions relative to our goals will help us to remain conscious and adjust these so that we can achieve them.
Searching for feedback from the environment so as to adjust or correct my course when necessary
The way we lead our lives in the pursuit of our goals might need to be changed if new information requires an adjustment of our plans and intentions. Feedback will then tell us that what we had been doing is no longer effective, that another way of operating may be more beneficial. By taking this into account, we live consciously rather than mechanically.
Persevering in the attempt to understand despite difficulties
In our pursuit of understanding and mastery we will be faced with difficulties. In that moment we have a choice, whether to persevere. If we persevere in the will to efficacy we may not initially find the solution to the problem but will eventually win out because we do not surrender to despair. We believe that it is possible for us if only we put the time and effort in. If we give up or fall into passivity, going through the motions, we shrink our consciousness, to escape the frustration that accompanied our efforts. To be sure, we can make a conscious decision to discontinue something if it is not worth the expenditure of energy and time required. Nevertheless, the world belongs to those who persevere. We should never resign ourselves to defeat in anything we regard as worthwhile without exhausting all possibilities, even if that means taking a rest and coming back to it.
Being receptive to new knowledge and willing to re-examine old assumptions
A high level of consciousness requires that there is an openness to new knowledge that might bear on our old assumptions. If we believe we already know and close ourselves to new ideas our attitude excludes the possibility of growth. Whatever our starting point improvements in our understanding are always possible so we must be receptive to new experience.
Being willing to see and correct mistakes
If we accept certain premises as true and become attached people may not wish to recognise contradictory evidence. However, living consciously implies that my first loyalty is to truth, not to making myself right. All of us are wrong sometimes so if we tied our (pseudo) self-esteem to being above error we shrink consciousness in misguided self-protection. To find it humiliating to admit an error is a certain sign of a flawed self-esteem.
Seeking always to expand awareness – a commitment to learning – therefore, a commitment to growth as a way of life
Only a lifelong commitment to learning can allow us to remain adaptive in our world, where the knowledge we have is multiplying rapidly. Anyone who thinks they have done with education is on a downward spiral toward increasing unconsciousness. In order to live consciously we must always be on the lookout for new information that will help us grow, so that we close our attention to nothing useful.
A concern to understand the world around me
We must be aware of the forces that shape our lives, of the full context the world we live in put us in. Not to be is to imagine we live in a vacuum unaffected by the social, cultural and physical environment and the effects these have on our health, happiness and attitudes. Living consciously entails a desire to understand this influence and a person of high intelligence with a philosophical disposition may take this concern farther. Our intention and its expression in action is of primary importance. A concern to know not only external reality but also internal reality, the reality of my needs, feelings, aspirations, and motives, so that I am not a stranger or a mystery to myself
I am not living consciously if my consciousness is used for everything but self-understanding. If all I know are an assortment of facts unrelated to myself I remain unconscious of the most important aspect of my life, my internal world. We should not be estranged from ourselves, disowning our needs, rationalising our emotions or behaviour. There must be an intention, a concern to know our needs, wants and mental processes. Self-examination requires mindfulness of how we are feeling so that we are always aware of what we are doing when we like ourselves and when we don’t. To notice I have to be interested and think the practice worthwhile, that there is value in knowing myself. It may bring up some troublesome facts but in the long run I will benefit more from consciousness than unconsciousness. It is then that I can decide whether my feelings help me, my emotions will allow me to understand my actions and reactions. Noticing my pattern of behaviour will tell me what gives me the desired result and what to avoid. Recognising the different voices in my head will help me to distinguish my true voice from the others and become free of their influence. Once we notice these things we can live our own lives consciously as autonomous human beings.
A concern to be aware of the values that move and guide me, as well as their roots, so that I am not ruled by values I have irrationally adopted or uncritically accepted from others
Obliviousness to the values guiding our actions will in the end lead to self-alienation because what our family or culture wants us to think is rarely supportive of our interests. These values subvert healthy self-esteem such that people wrongly come to think of personal worth in terms of achievement and status. Living consciously means reflecting on the values that set our goals and purposes and deciding whether they are truly our own.
A Note on Addiction
The avoidance of consciousness is evident in addiction – to the addict, consciousness is the enemy. Addictions usually form because a person wishes to avoid pain and fear, so they lower consciousness through alcohol or drugs, only to find that afterward their feelings return. To sustain this they lie to themselves about what they see and know, explain away what they know is true. Living consciously requires that we are brutally honest with ourselves, so that we never drown out the voice of reason to stay in the dark about what will help us.
Consciousness and the Body
The psychological may be somaticized so that breathing becomes shallow and muscles tighten so that the flow of feeling is obstructed and consciousness diminishes. Working to liberate blocked consciousness allows the person to feel more and become more aware. Freeing the body contributes to freeing the mind. If one is to operate at a higher level of consciousness a body armoured against feeling is a serious impediment.
Sentence Completions to Facilitate the Art of Living Consciously
Sentence completion work is a deceptively simple yet powerful tool for raising self-understanding, self-esteem and personal effectiveness. It rests on the premise that all of us have more knowledge than we are normally aware of, more wisdom than we use, more potentialities than show up in our behaviour. This process helps us activate these hidden resources. By doing it we set in motion a process that makes it impossible not to operate more consciously. The technique helps us to manage our attention, to discipline the mind. There is a discipline to maintain good self-esteem. The foundation is the discipline of consciousness itself. Insofar as completing the sentence stems forces us to think more deeply about the particular self-esteem value it leads to a higher level of awareness in the conduct of daily life.
Living consciously is both a practice and a mindset, an orientation toward life. Of course, it exists on a continuum, no one lives completely unconsciously and everyone can live more consciously. Naturally, certain areas of our lives will receive more consciousness than others. The way to tell which need more attention is usually as simple as deciding which we feel least effective in, where we are least satisfied. If we are honest, this will not be difficult to find out. Which need requires focus depends on where we are in our evolution. Once we recognise which areas are difficult to remain conscious in we can reflect on why this might be the case in order to move forward.
The Practice of Self-Acceptance
Without self-acceptance, self-esteem is impossible. The terms are so closely related that they are often conflated but the difference is that while the former is something we do the latter is something we experience. 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 side. At its core it is an orientation of self-value and self-commitment that derives from the fact I am alive and conscious. It is a pre-rational act of self-affirmation, a natural egoism that is our birth right but which we have the power to act against. Yet, to be self-rejecting at all means no growth will be possible. An attitude of self-acceptance inspires us to face ourselves without collapsing into self-hatred or calling into question our value. It is choosing to value myself, treating myself with respect, standing up for my right to exist. This initial self-affirmation is the base on which self-esteem develops.
The Second Level
Self-acceptance entails making it known to ourselves without evasion that we are what we are, that we have done what we have done, desire what we desire, feel what we feel and think what we think. No part of us, whether our body, emotions, thoughts, actions or dreams, is ‘not me’. The facts of our being at a particular moment are sacred. A willingness to experience every part of myself, never to dissemble when it comes to the thoughts and feelings I have, to the reality of my behaviour, has healing power. By accepting these as they are I can move forward with a greater understanding of myself. Accepting does not mean giving in to how I feel at a certain time, in most cases it will mean I recognise without agreeing and the negative feelings will usually fade.
Realism is necessary because unless I know what I think, how I feel or what I do I have no basis on which to deal with these. What we become aware of may be uncomfortable, but it is nonetheless what we are experiencing, so the reality of its occurrence must be respected. We do not have to admire these unwanted emotions and thoughts but we do need to open ourselves up to them and fully experience them.
Self-acceptance is the precondition of change and growth. Unless I know and accept what I am presently I cannot change what I am. Only when I make a point to know my true thoughts and feelings, whether or not they are ones I would like to have, can I know enough about myself to change them. If I go into denial and explain away painful thoughts or diminish feelings I would rather not have this self-deception will keep me from growing. I cannot learn from a mistake I do not accept having made or overcome a fear whose reality I deny. A trait can only be changed if I admit I have it. I cannot be truly for myself and build self-esteem if I do not accept myself.
The Third Level
Self-acceptance entails compassion, being a friend to myself. If we have done something wrong we do not deny reality, but ask why we did so. The context of the action will help us to understand why something felt desirable if it was not to our interests. To be sure, we recognise that we have made a mistake and take responsibility for it, but we also bring a compassionate interest to the issue in order to comprehend our behaviour such that undesired behaviour will become less likely. We should reproach ourselves as we would friends, with an accepting and compassionate outlook. because future behaviour will be shaped by self-concept. Benevolence toward ourselves is always important but especially so when we do something we regret. This is the virtue of self-acceptance.
If we make a point to look at ourselves in the mirror saying that ‘whatever the defects or imperfections of my body I accept them unreservedly’ we can begin to see the relationship between self-acceptance and self-esteem: A mind that honours sight honours itself. To be sure, accepting doesn’t mean liking, we may still wish to change these parts of ourselves but it remains the case that in that moment at which we look they constitute us. Consequently, if we are to be loyal to reality, seeing the facts for what they are, we become more comfortable with ourselves. The impulse to flee from awareness, to disown aspects of ourselves will keep us from liking what we see in the mirror and we cannot expect to love who we are if we reject our physical being. Moreover, acceptance will not only mean a more harmonious relationship to ourselves, a growth in self-efficacy and self-respect, it will also mean that the aspects of our self that we are motivated to change can be because we know the facts of what they are. We are not moved to change those things whose reality we deny. As for those things which we cannot change when we accept them we grow stronger and more centred.
Listening to Feelings
The act of experiencing and accepting our emotions is implemented through focusing on the feeling or emotion, allowing it to express itself, breathing deeply so my muscles can relax and making real to myself that it is mine, owning it. When we allow ourselves to experience and accept our emotion we can move to a deeper level of awareness where new information presents itself. Once we immerse ourselves in our emotions we may find that afterward a new problem remains but because we have let it into conscious awareness it is one that can be dealt with whereas before our feelings masked it. By embracing them it is capable of being dealt with.
A Personal Example
When younger the author thought that unwanted emotions needed to be ‘conquered’ and associated denying and disowning with strength. He felt loneliness and wanted to connect with people but explained this away as a weakness because he should be independent. So he acted like he didn’t care, did not give others much of a chance and opened up a chasm between himself and the rest of the world. He told himself that his thoughts and books were enough if he were self-reliant. If he had understood the naturalness of his desire for human contact he would have opened up and tried to find bridges of understanding between him and others. The effect of disowning on our self-esteem is great, if we do not admit that we feel what we feel, in this case a longing for human companionship, we are in an adversarial relationship to that part of us. When we learn to embrace the disowned parts of ourselves we grow in self-esteem. The first steps of healing and growth are awareness and acceptance – consciousness and integration. They are the fountainheads of personal development.
Contemplate an emotion that is not easy for you to face such as anxiety and allow it fully. Make a point not to resist it but to accept the experience without wishing it were otherwise. In this way, accept those unwanted emotions which are bubbling under the surface, waiting to become conscious before their work is done.
When Self-Acceptance seems Impossible
If a negative reaction is so overwhelming we do not feel we can be self-accepting we are forced to accept the resistance we have to doing so. Once we do it will usually begin to dissolve. If I accept that right now I refuse to accept that I feel angry, if we accept that resistance, it begins to collapse. When we acknowledge a block to self-acceptance it melts because its continued existence depends on opposition.
The two fallacies are that if we accept what we are we must approve of everything about us, and that we must be indifferent to change and improvement. Nevertheless, if we do not accept what is how can we find the inspiration to change it, if we deny and disown how can we grow? The paradox is that an acceptance of what is is a precondition of change, while denial of what is keeps us stuck in it. Only when I fully accept my characteristics, admit to myself that I have the strengths and weakness that I do, can I begin to change them.
The Ultimate Crime against Ourselves: The Disowning of Positives
Anything we can experience can be disowned, any act of self-expression can be rejected, our memories, thoughts and feelings can be rebelled against. We can be as frightened of our assets as our shortcomings. Our genius or beauty can cause as much anxiety as our depression. Our liabilities pose a problem of inadequacy while our strengths pose the challenge of responsibility. Anything that makes us stand out or alone, that calls for the awakening of the hero within us, is to be accepted fully. Our greatest crime against ourselves is not denying and disowning our shortcomings but our greatness, because it frightens us. All the same, just as a fully realised self-acceptance does not evade the worst within us, nor does it evade the best within us.
The Practice of Self-Responsibility
To feel competent and worthy of happiness we have to feel control over our existence. We must take responsibility for our actions and the fulfilment of our goals. This means we are responsible for our wellbeing and our life. This is a natural expression of self-esteem but also a cause of it. Self-responsibility is essential to self-esteem.As with the other pillars the line of causality is reciprocal, what improves our self-esteem is also improved by it.
The Action Implications of Self-Responsibility
I am responsible for the achievement of my desires
No one owes me the fulfilment of my wishes. If I have desires it is up to me to figure out how to satisfy them. I need to take responsibility for creating a plan and following it through. If I am unwilling to take responsibility for the attainment of my desires they are merely daydreams. For my desires to become serious I must answer in no uncertain terms what I am willing to do to get what I want.
I am responsible for my choices and actions
I am the chief causal agent of my life and behaviour. If my choices and actions are mine, I am their source. I need to own this fact and stay connected with it when I choose and act. Only then will I become truly responsible for my life.
I am responsible for the level of consciousness I bring to my work
We can choose how much awareness we bring to our daily activities. If we are being self-responsible we are more likely to operate at a higher level of consciousness.
I am responsible for the level of consciousness I bring to my relationships
In my interactions with others, I am responsible for the level of awareness I bring or fail to bring to any encounters. The people I choose to be friends with is also up to me so we must be present to what we do around others.
I am responsible for my behaviour with other people
I am responsible for how I speak and listen, for the promises I make, for the rationality or irrationality of my dealings. We evade responsibility when we try to blame others for our actions. It is only by owning our behaviour that we become responsible.
I am responsible for how I prioritise my time
Whether my choices about how I use my time and energy are incongruous with my values is my responsibility. If I claim to love learning but waste time procrastinating I need to rethink how I invest my energy. It is up to me how I use my time and what I do with it decides who I will become. It is the most important resource, one I must be responsible toward if I am to self-actualise.
I am responsible for the quality of my communications
How clear I am in relating my thoughts by speaking loudly and distinctly, checking to see whether the listener understood, is up to me.
I am responsible for my personal happiness
Happiness is my own affair, nothing anyone else says or does can give it to me without my assent. The decisions I take are what bring it around. Taking responsibility for my happiness is empowering, it places my life back in my hands and sets me free.
I am responsible for accepting or choosing the values by which I live
Choices and decisions are crucial when values are adopted so subjecting them to reason will allow me to revise them if they are no longer helping me. My responsibility toward the values I live by, to the fact that I get to choose them, sets me free.
I am responsible for raising my self-esteem
Self-esteem is not a gift I can receive from someone else, it is generated from within. To wait passively for something to raise it will only bring a lifetime of frustration. Our mind registers choices in the way we operate that affect our sense of self. If we betray ourselves and our powers, living mindlessly and purposelessly, we cannot acquire self-esteem. If we are to do so we cannot relieve ourselves of personal responsibility. Those that lack self-esteem begin to identify it as being ‘loved’, tying it to this idea and in this way remaining passive. They stay dependent when becoming an adult requires becoming responsible for ourselves, to be self-supporting psychologically.
We can only be responsible for what is within our control, the only consciousness over which we have volition is our own. Holding ourselves responsible for something beyond our control means we fail our expectations and cause problems for our self-esteem. Likewise, denying responsibility for matters in our control sets us back in our development of self-esteem. Hence, we are only responsible for what is up to us.
Self-responsibility shows up as an active orientation toward life and work rather than a passive one. If there is a problem we ask what we can do about it and implement our solution. That we are solution orientated means that we take the responsibility for finding a way out of our problem and do not put things off or look to others. If we avoid a responsibility that is ours to take however we try to excuse ourselves our self-esteem cannot remain unaffected.
To live self-responsibly we must have productive purposes insofar as work and exercising our intelligence toward useful ends supports our existence. Without productive goals and effort we remain children. In order to become independent we must ask ourselves how we can improve our condition, what needs to be done. Self-responsibility is expressed through an active orientation to life, through the understanding that no one can spare us the necessity of independence and that, without work, independence is impossible.
Thinking for Oneself
Living actively entails independent thinking rather than passive conformity. Independent thinking follows from living consciously, by the exercise of our own mind, and self-responsibility, thinking for oneself. Most people are other people, their opinions belong to someone else, they repeat opinions without coming to their own understanding. Either we use our own mind or uncritically accept what others say and the choice we make is crucial for how we experience ourselves and the life we create, if it is to be fulfilling we must commit to thinking for ourselves. Our intention, the nature of our goal, is important. Those who think for themselves, who try to understand things on their own terms and judge through their own reason the various aspects of their lives, strengthen self-esteem. Which itself results in a natural inclination to think independently.
The Moral Principle
In embracing self-responsibility we recognise that others do not exist for the satisfaction of our needs, that we are not morally entitled to treat others as a means to our ends, just as we are not a means to theirs. If we accept that people act in their own interest we are obliged to offer reasons that tie in with their goals. This mutual respect will also be extended to us. If self-responsibility means that we take into account our own goals and interests when we take a decision we can expect others to be responsible toward theirs and in this way understand that to foster goodwill between us and them we need to come from a position of cooperation.
No One is Coming
The moment we understand that no one is coming to save us, that if we do nothing our lives will not improve, we will be forced to take responsibility if we wish to actualise our potential. Otherwise it will remain unfulfilled and we will wait our whole lives for some inspiration, for someone to come or for something to switch in our mindset, a miracle. However, we will pay for our lives with this self-deception. Until we realise that we are alone, that no one ever was or will be coming to save us, that making our lives right is our own affair, we will take it into our hands and never loosen our grip.
The Practice of Self-Assertiveness
Self-assertiveness is integral to a healthy self-esteem. A subtle fear of it in most people can be shown by asking them to assert their right to exist. They will rarely say it convincingly and will raise their voice as if anticipating an attack. It is difficult to be truly self-assertive because in many cases this will mean this will mean being who we are openly, not concealing parts of ourselves in order to be liked. Yet, this is essential to a strong self-esteem, which in any case depends on how we view what we do, not what others think of it.
What is Self-Assertiveness
Self-assertiveness means honouring my needs, wants and values, seeking appropriate forms in which to express them in reality. Its lack will mean that who we are remains a mystery to others because one will hide their true selves to ‘belong’. It is not belligerence, overpowering other people in order to move forward our own agenda. It is the willingness to stand up for myself, to be who I am openly, to treat myself with respect in all encounters. It means the refusal to fake my person to be liked. To practice self-assertiveness is to live authentically, to speak and act from my innermost convictions and feelings, as a way of life. It is a rule but appropriate self-assertiveness pays attention to context. To respect the difference between situations isn’t to sacrifice our authenticity but to be realistic. Silence can suggest disagreement, refusing to smile at a joke shows what we think. It is not necessary or possible to voice all our thoughts. What is necessary is to know what we think and to remain real. In every situation there is a choice between authenticity or inauthenticity, being real or fake. It is up to us to ensure that we are true to who we are.
What Self-Assertiveness is and is not
- The assertion of consciousness entails the choice to see, to think and be aware of the world outside us and within us. Asking questions and challenging authority are acts of self-assertion. To think for oneself and to stand by what we think is the root of self-assertion. While healthy assertiveness requires the ability to say no, it is ultimately tested not by what we are against but by what we are for. We should not only oppose what we disagree with but live and express our values, have integrity. It begins with thinking but until we bring ourselves into the world self-assertiveness is not realised. To hold values is not self-assertion until we pursue them and stand by them. To aspire is not self-assertion but bringing our aspirations into reality is. To dream our lives away is not self-assertion, to be able to say at the end that we lived it on our own terms, is.
- To practice self-assertiveness consistently is to be committed to my right to exist, which proceeds from the knowledge that my life does not belong to others and that I am not on earth to live up to anyone else’s expectations. Our life is in our own hands, it is our responsibility. Surrendering to the fear this responsibility might confer, failing to stand up for our right to exist as autonomous people, subverts self-esteem. We need the conviction that our ideas and wants are important, that we are not selfish if we stand up for ourselves and do what we would like. It takes courage to honour what we want and fight for it. Self-surrender and sacrifice are easier but after we give something we had a deep yearning for up we are likely to feel regret on account of betraying ourselves.
- Without appropriate self-assertiveness we are spectators, not participants. Healthy self-esteem asks that we leap into the arena, to develop our ideas and fight for them, doing everything in our power to give it substance.
- Self-assertion entails the willingness to confront rather than evade the challenges of life and to strive for mastery. As we expand the boundaries of our ability to cope, self-efficacy and self-respect likewise expand. Committing ourselves to learning and taking on challenges raises personal power. We put ourselves out into the world and assert our existence. If we are struggling to understand something it is an act of self-assertion to persevere. When we acquire new skills, learn new knowledge, commit to reaching a higher level of competence, we practice self-assertiveness. When we can socialise without betraying our standards and convictions, we are asserting ourselves.
Fear of Self-Assertiveness
If one believes that it is more desirable to fit in than to stand out, they will not embrace the virtue of self-assertiveness. They tell themselves that if they express who they are they will evoke disapproval. That if they love and affirm who they are they will evoke resentment. Or if they are happy with themselves others will become jealous. If they stand out, they may be compelled to stand alone. So they remain passive and suffer a loss of self-esteem. They feel threatened by individuation because they imagine that it results in separateness. However, a well realised person will have become individuated (self-realised, become autonomous) and will have developed a capacity for intimacy in relationships. It is then a precondition for a healthy society, in which there will be self-respecting individuals. It is therefore essential to have the courage to be who you are.
Some people stand and move as if they have no right to the space they occupy. They speak as if their intention is not to be heard by others, mumbling or speaking faintly. It is obvious that they do not feel they have a right to exist, they embody a lack of self-assertiveness in the extreme such that their poor self-esteem is obvious. When they learn to speak and move with more assurance, after some initial anxiety, they experience a rise in self-esteem. It is not always apparent when we fail to assert ourselves, sometimes we forget that we remained silent and surrendered, or capitulated, that we misrepresented our beliefs and feelings in a way that corroded our self-respect and dignity. When we do not express ourselves, do not assert our being, do not stand up for our values in appropriate contexts, we inflict a wound on our sense of self. The world does not do it to us, we do it to ourselves.
The temptation to self-betrayal can be worst with those we care about the most because if we value their approval we may censor our reactions in order not to lose it. In this way we might treasure the opinion of people we admire above all others, and forego our self-assertiveness around them such that over time we damage our self-regard by trying to avoid conflict that may elicit disapproval. A valuable lesson is that surrenders of this kind do not work but only postpone the confrontations that are necessary for a relationship to remain intimate. No amount of admiration for another person can justify sacrificing our own judgement. No one is worth impressing. That is, if we have to change ourselves or dissemble in order to appeal to them such that we damage our self-esteem, it is never worth doing so. In any case, being honest about our real thoughts and feelings will lead to more intimacy whereas a façade will lead to a superficial relationship. Therefore, there is no time at which pretending to be someone other, holding different beliefs and feelings than we really do, can be justified.
The actions that support healthy self-esteem are also expressions of it. Self-assertiveness both supports self-esteem and is a manifestation of it. One of the ways we build self-esteem is by being self-assertive when it is not easy to do so. There are always times when self-assertiveness calls on our courage. If we resolve to answer the call whenever we hear it we will grow in self-esteem by virtue of expressing ourselves authentically.
The Practice of Living Purposefully
To live without purpose is to be at the mercy of chance because we have no standard by which to judge what is worth doing. External forces push us around into choices that do not serve our interests if we have no initiative of our own and fail to set a specific course. Our orientation to life is reactive rather than proactive and we drift through it. To live purposefully is to use our powers for the attainment of goals we have selected, that of studying, actualising our potential and sustaining relationships. It is our goals that lead us forward, that call on the exercise of our faculties, that enliven our existence. Living Purposefully means taking responsibility for doing the actions necessary to achieve my goals. It overlaps significantly with self-responsibility.
Productivity and Purpose
Living purposefully is living productively, making ourselves competent to life. Productivity is the act of supporting our existence by bringing our thoughts into reality, setting our goals and working for their achievement. We choose to support our existence by setting productive goals commensurate with our abilities. In this way, we move to realise our purpose by working toward it consistently, day after day, so we no longer go through life without a sense of direction.
Efficacy and Purpose
Fundamental efficacy is built through the mastery of particular forms of efficacy related to the attainment of particular tasks. These achievements do not ‘prove’ our worth but the process of achieving is the means by which we develop our effectiveness, our competence at living. I cannot have efficacy if I do nothing efficaciously. Therefore, productive work has the potential of being a powerful self-esteem builder.
The purposes that move us need to be specific to be realised, precisely defined so that we know exactly what it is that we need to do, or otherwise what we need to change. To live purposefully is to be concerned with what we are trying to achieve and the best way to get there. Answering this will require a high level of consciousness. In relationships where people think love is enough to solve problems without their action, conflict is rarely resolved. Purposes unrelated to a plan of action do not get realised, they exist only as frustrated yearnings. Daydreams do not produce the experience of efficacy.
To live purposefully and productively requires that we cultivate within ourselves a capacity for self-discipline. Self-Discipline is the ability to organise our behaviour over time in the service of specific tasks. It involves deferring immediate gratification for a long-term goal. Like all self-esteem virtues self-discipline is a survival virtue, meaning that it is a requirement of a successful life. We cannot function effectively, or feel competent to cope with the challenges of life, in its absence. It is essential if we are to enjoy the sense of being in control of our existence.
What Living Purposefully Entails
Living purposefully is a fundamental orientation that applies to every aspect of our existence. It means that we live and act by intention. It distinguishes those who have control over their lives.
Taking Responsibility for formulating one’s goals and purposes consciously
If we are to be in control of our own life, we need to know what we want and where we wish to go. It is down to us to decide what our purpose in life is over the next few years and what the ultimate goal that we are trying to reach is so we can consciously move toward it and make the right amount of effort.
Being concerned to identify the actions necessary to achieve one’s goals
If our purposes are to be purposes and not daydreams, we need to decide how to achieve them from where we are starting. What actions might be necessary to do so? If needed we may even need to create sub-purposes along the way to our ultimate purpose and create plans for these. Success in life belongs to those who take responsibility for thinking these steps out.
Monitoring behaviour to check that it is in alignment with one’s goals
If resistance to doing what one has committed to do arises being conscious of our actions relative to our purposes will help us to manage our behaviour if it is moving us away from what is required of us. The solution to this may be to rededicate ourselves to the clearly defined purpose and action plan we have embarked on to achieve it. Or we may need to rethink our goals and purposes.
Paying attention to the outcomes of one’s action, to know whether they are leading where one wants to go
Our goals may be clear and our actions congruent, but they may not lead where we wish to go if we failed to consider certain facts. As a result, it is important to pay attention to the outcomes of our actions, so that we can tell whether we are achieving our goals and also see if there are other consequences we never intended. As ever, living purposefully entails living consciously.
Thinking Clearly about Purposeful Living
- Life is impossible without goal fulfilment. Without it aimlessness and passivity will be our natural state. With nothing to strive for, we would have nothing to live for. A life without purpose, without the joys of achievement, can barely be said to be human.
- That the practice of living purposefully is essential to healthy self-esteem should not be taken to mean that the measure of an individual’s worth is their external achievements. The root of our self-esteem is not our achievements but those internally generated practices that make it possible for us to achieve, that is, all the self-esteem virtues. The source of achievement lies in its cause, self-esteem, not in itself. It is the effect of the power that healthy self-esteem confers.
- Productive achievement may be an expression of high self-esteem but it is not its primary cause. One may wish to avoid their interpersonal problems by losing themselves in work as an avoidance strategy to avoid the reality of their situation. If a person makes the error of identifying self with work, rather than the internal virtues that make work possible, if self-esteem is tied to accomplishments, success, income or being the breadwinner economic circumstances beyond their control can lead to depression. Males are especially socialised to identify worth and masculinity with being the provider for their family. Yet our efficacy and worth can never be a function of our earnings. If we are passed over for a job despite being the best candidates for reasons outside our control, such as a preference for age, we would feel a loss of personal effectiveness or, potentially, a diminished self-esteem. In order to avoid falling into the trap of this error we have to be well centred and understand that some forces operate beyond personal control and should therefore not have significance for self-esteem. They may feel anxiety but in any case they do not interpret these problems in terms of personal worth. When a question of self-esteem is involved the question to ask is whether the matter is within my direct, volitional control or causally linked to what is. If not, it is irrelevant to self-esteem and should be perceived to be, however painful or devastating the problem may be on other grounds.
- We need to balance projecting goals into the future with appreciating and living in the present. Living purposefully entails being blind neither to the future nor the present, but to integrate both into our experience and perceptions. If our goal is to ‘prove’ ourselves or escape a fear of failure, this balance is hard to come by. Anxiety, not joy, is our motor. If our aim is self-expression rather than self-justification, the balance comes more naturally. We will still need to act on our purpose everyday, but the anxiety of flawed self-esteem will not come in the way of this.
If I dream of becoming a writer I must think about how to go about learning to write. This will mean writing, not pleasant reveries in which I imagine that I will start someday, I must write now. Having a purpose without action is nothing more than a daydream, it will lead nowhere until I monitor what I do in relation to what I want to achieve and find that they match. If I don’t do something nothing is going to change. For growing in self-esteem consistent kindness by intention is important.
The Practice of Personal Integrity
Integrity is the integration of ideals, convictions, standards, beliefs and behaviour. When our behaviour is congruent with our professed values, we have integrity. When our actions conflict with what we think is appropriate we lose face in our own eyes and respect ourselves less. If this continues, we may cease to trust ourselves. Self-esteem suffers and the breach of integrity can only be healed by practicing it again. Personal integrity comes down to whether we are honest, reliable and trustworthy, whether we do what we say we admire and avoid what we deplore. It asks that our effort to find the best choice be authentic, that we stay conscious and take responsibility for it, making it with the best knowledge we have of ourselves.
Integrity means congruence, words and behaviour must match. It means keeping our word, honouring our commitment, not breaking promises, practicing what we preach, living honestly no matter who we are with. We trust those who do what they say they will, whose actions remain bound to their values.
When we Betray our Standards
When I act against what I regard as right, if my actions clash with my values, then I act against my judgement and betray my mind. Hypocrisy is self-invalidating, mind rejecting itself. A lack of integrity undermines my sense of self as no rejection can damage me. Telling ourselves only we will know is a lie because it suggests that others judgements are more important. Nevertheless, when it comes to self-esteem I have more to fear from my own judgement than from anyone else’s. In the inner courtroom of my mind, mine is the only judgement that counts. There is no escape from this ego, this ’I’ at the centre of my consciousness. I cannot avoid myself. People who live for an illusion in someone else’s mind, which they hold more important than their knowledge of the truth, can never enjoy good self-esteem. In any case, most of the issues of integrity are small ones but when all the choices we make toward these come together they have an impact on our sense of self. A tragedy of many lives is that people greatly underestimate the self-esteem consequences of hypocrisy and dishonesty. Rather than being simply uncomfortable to lie, the spirit itself is contaminated.
Dealing with Guilt
It only makes sense to feel guilt when we are personally responsible for something happening. Self-reproach should only arise when we are clear about what is in our power and find that what went wrong was our fault. To restore our sense of integrity after such a breach for which we are personally responsible we must go through five steps. We must own, accept and take responsibility for the action. We seek to understand why we did what we did compassionately. We acknowledge what we have done to whoever it is we have wronged. We aim to make amends for the harm caused. Finally, we commit ourselves to behaving differently in the future. Until we have done this self-esteem remains unsatisfied. When guilt is a consequence of failed integrity, only an act of integrity can resolve it.
What if Our Values are Irrational?
If the standards we have come to accept deny us our needs or reject our nature such that affirming them would lead toward self-destruction we must question these. If we have been taught that enjoyment of life on earth is bad, that pleasure is a sin, ‘hypocrisy’ to these values may be all that keeps us alive. In such a case we must summon the courage to challenge the assumptions we have absorbed about what good is. In order to have integrity we must live consciously, so that we are aware of the standards we live by, and self-responsibly, so that we decide which values we would rather profess without looking to others. We would have to think about our deepest values and question whether they fit our understanding or do violence to our true nature. This requires independent thinking, the higher the level of consciousness the more we live by explicit choice and the more naturally integrity comes to us.
On Following your Own Bliss
Live consciously, take responsibility for your choices and actions, respect the rights of others and follow your own bliss. Take what you want and pay for it. A moral life requires serious reflection.
Each time we act dishonestly, take advantage of another’s trust or show ourselves to be unreliable because we say one thing and do another, our self-respect diminishes. Any betrayal lowers rather than raises our self-esteem, because even if we are seen better in others peoples eyes we know what we have done and because our personal worth cannot be sustained through what others think about us, we lower it every time we look for approval through hypocrisy or betrayal. Consequently, we must live with integrity because in the end we answer to ourselves. Our ‘reasons’ for breaches of integrity do not alter facts. Lies do not work. If we make them in order to protect our self-esteem by avoiding a conflict among our values and actions, when the facts come out it will be damaged all the more. The truth has to be told and the more we procrastinate the worse the consequences for our self-esteem and others. Living with integrity asks that we stay true to what we know and live in line with our standards and values as we conceive them consistently.
Keeping your Integrity in a Corrupt World
It is easier to practice integrity in a society where people are held accountable for their actions because such a culture would support morality. The challenge for people today is to maintain high personal standards while living in a morally depraved time. The practice of personal integrity has become a lonely and heroic undertaking. If integrity is a source of self-esteem then, never more so than today, it is also an expression of self-esteem. Honesty is the best policy.
The Principle of Reciprocal Causation
The behaviours that generate good self-esteem are also expressions of good self-esteem. That is, living consciously is both a cause and effect of self-efficacy and self-respect, alongside all the other practices. The more we live consciously the more we trust our minds and respect our worth. Once we do this it becomes more natural to live consciously because we recognise that our minds are our own and are our most important tool. The more I live with integrity the better my self-esteem, and if I have good self-esteem it feels natural to live with integrity.
The dynamics involved here mean that practicing these virtues over time gives us a felt need for them. If we have made self-responsibility second nature passivity and dependence will be difficult to live with and will feel unworthy of us. If I have been consistent in my integrity, dishonesty on my part will disturb me and I will feel the need to resolve this dissonance. Once we understand the practices we have the power to choose them. The power to choose them is the power to raise the level of our self-esteem, from whatever point we may be starting and however difficult it may be in the early stages. We begin where we are and build our self-esteem from there. The practices are ideals that guide us and as such they do not have to be lived perfectly to be beneficial to us in our lives. Small improvements make a difference. The virtues that self-esteem asks of us are also ones that life asks of us.
The Philosophy of Self-Esteem
To the extent that the six practices are integrated into our daily life self-esteem is supported and strengthened. Without them it is undermined and subverted. Practices are essential but our beliefs and convictions also support self-esteem. Convictions are important because they give rise to emotions and actions (practices). They are a crucial factor in the development of an individuals self-esteem. What people think and believe, what they tell themselves, influences what they feel and do. In turn, they experience their feelings and actions as having meaning for who they are. Of course, action has the last word, a belief without it means nothing. However, since beliefs affect actions, since beliefs have action implications, we need to examine them in their own right. There are beliefs, convictions deeply grounded in our being, that lead toward the practices. These premises have the power to evoke emotion and to stimulate and guide behaviour. Insofar as beliefs lie behind our actions we can think about those ideas that inspire behaviours that lead to a strong sense of efficacy and worth as the ‘philosophy of self-esteem’.
Beliefs about the Self that Support Self-esteem
I am of high value to myself
I have a right to honour my needs and want, to treat them as important
I am not here on earth to live up to someone else’s expectations, my life belongs to me
I am lovable
I am admirable
I will usually be liked and respected by the people I like and respect
I deserve to be treated with respect by everyone
If someone I like does not return my feeling this is not a reflection on my personal worth
No other individual or group has the power to determine how I will think and feel about myself
I trust my mind
If I persevere I can understand
If I persevere with my goals I am competent enough to achieve them
If my goals are rational I deserve to achieve at what I attempt
I am competent to cope with the basic challenges of life
I am worthy of happiness
I am ‘enough’
I have a right to make mistakes in order to learn
I am able to rise again from defeat
I do not sacrifice my judgement, pretend that my convictions are different than they are, to win popularity or approval
It is not what ‘they’ think, it is what I know. What I know is more important to me than a mistaken belief in someone else’s mind
Happiness and success are natural conditions to me
Self-development and self-fulfilment are appropriate moral goals
My happiness and self-realisation are noble purposes
The more conscious I am of what bears on my interests, values, needs and goals the better my life will work
I am better served by correcting my mistakes than pretending not to have made them
I am better served by holding my values consciously and examining them
I am better served by facing rather than avoiding unpleasant facts
If I understand the world around me I will be more effective
To remain effective I need to keep expanding my knowledge; learning needs to be a way of life
The better I know and understand myself, the better the life I can create
At the most fundamental level, I am for myself
At the most fundamental level, I accept myself
I accept the reality of my thoughts, even if I do not agree with them, I do not deny or disown them
I can accept my feelings and emotions without liking or being controlled by them. I do not deny or disown them
I can accept that I have done what I have done, even when I regret or condemn it. I do not deny or disown my behaviour
I accept that what I think, feel or do is an expression of myself at the moment it occurs. I am not bound by these but I do not evade their reality
I accept the reality of my problems, but I am not defined by them.
I am responsible for my existence
I am responsible for the achievement of my desires
I am responsible for my choices and actions
I am responsible for the level of consciousness I bring
I am responsible for my behaviour
I am responsible for how I prioritise my time
I am responsible for my communication
I am responsible for my personal happiness
I am responsible for choosing and accepting the values by which I live
I am responsible for raising my self-esteem,no one else can give me self-esteem
In the ultimate sense, I accept my aloneness, that no one is coming to make my life right or save me, that earning the experience of self-efficacy and self-respect is my own affair
The need for self-responsibility is natural
It is appropriate for me to express my thoughts, convictions and feelings
I have a right to express myself in appropriate ways in appropriate contexts
I have a right to stand up for my convictions
I have a right to treat my values and feelings as important
It serves my interests for others to see and know who I am
Only I can appropriately choose the goals and purposes for which I live
If I am to succeed, I need to learn how to achieve my goals and purposes. I need to develop and then implement a plan of action.
If I am to succeed, I need to pay attention to the outcome of my actions
I serve my interests by reality checking, looking for feedback that bears on my beliefs, actions and purposes
I must practice self-discipline not as a ‘sacrifice’ but as a natural precondition of being able to achieve my desires
I should practice what I preach
I should keep my promises
I should honour my commitments
I should deal with other human beings fairly
I should strive for moral consistency
I should strive to make my life a reflection of my inner vision of the good
My self-esteem is far more valuable than any short-term rewards for its betrayal
Beliefs about Reality that Support Self-esteem
That which is, is; facts are what they are
Self-chosen blindness does not make the unreal real or the real unreal
Respect for the facts of reality brings more satisfying results than defying them
Survival and wellbeing depend on the appropriate exercise of consciousness, avoiding the responsibility of awareness is not adaptive
In principle, consciousness is reliable, knowledge is attainable, reality is knowable
Values that nurture and support an individual’s life and fulfilment are superior to those that threaten them
Human beings are ends in themselves
All adult human associations should be chosen and voluntary
We should not sacrifice self to others or others to self
Relationships based on an exchange of values are better
A denial of personal accountability does not serve anyone’s self-esteem
The moral, rationally understood, is the practical
Agreeing with any of the above does not yet indicate that it is integral to our belief system. The ideas qualify as beliefs only if they are experienced as true at a deep level and manifest in behaviour. If they are genuinely experienced, they tend to inspire consciousness, self-acceptance, self-responsibility, self-assertiveness, purposefulness and integrity. They are powerful motivators for the kind of actions that support psychological wellbeing. Applied to the six pillars they have functional utility, that is, they are adaptive; they are the fuel of self-esteem.
A Standard of Value
In the same way that the six pillars provide a frame of reference from which to consider beliefs, so they provide a standard of value by which to consider whether a value or teaching supports and encourages the six pillars or undermines them. Whether it leads toward increased self-esteem or away from it. If the nurturing of self-esteem is our purpose then it is appropriate to know how self-esteem is likely to be affected by the practices or philosophies we espouse.