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Self-help ebook

% The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem % Nathaniel Branden % _


Let us identify the most important factors on which self-esteem depends.

If self-esteem is the health of the mind, then few subjects are of comparable urgency

The turbulence of our times demands strong selves with a clear sense of identity, competence, and worth.

With a breakdown of cultural consensus, an absence of worthy role models, little in the public arena to inspire our allegiance, and disorientingly rapid change a permanent feature of our lives; with all that it is a dangerous moment in history not to know who we are, or not to trust ourselves.

The stability we cannot find in the world, we must create within our own persons. To face life with low self-esteem is to be at a severe disadvantage.

These considerations are part of my motivation in writing this program, which in essence, consists of my answers to four questions:

  1. What is self-esteem?
  2. Why is self-esteem important?
  3. What can we do to raise the level of our self-esteem?
  4. What role do others play in influencing our self-esteem?

Self-esteem is shaped by both internal, and external factors. By internal, I mean factors residing within or generated by the individual: ideas or beliefs, practices or behaviours. By external, I mean factors in the environment, such as messages verbally or non-verbally transmitted, or experiences evoked by parents, teachers, significant others, organisations, and culture.

I examine self-esteem from the inside, and the outside:

What is the contribution of the individual to his or her self-esteem?, and What is the contribution of other people?

I first lectured on self-esteem, and it's impact on love, work, and the struggle for happiness, in the late 1950's, and published my first articles on the subject in the 1960's. The challenge then was to gain understanding of it's importance. Self-esteem was not yet an expression in widespread use. Today, the danger may be that the idea has become fashionable: it is on everyone's tongue. Which is not to say that it is better understood. Yet, if we are unclear about it's precise meaning and about the specific factors it's successful obtainment depends on -- if we are careless in our thinking, or succumb to the oversimplifications and sugar-coatings of pop-psychology, then the subject will suffer a fate worse than being ignored: it will become trivialised.

In working with self-esteem, we need to be aware of two dangers.

  1. Oversimplifying what healthy self-esteem requires, thereby catering to peoples hungering for quick-fixes, and effortless solutions
  2. Surrendering to a kind of fatalism or determinism, that assumes that individuals either have self-esteem, or they haven't. In other words -- everyone's destiny is set in the first few years of life, and there's not much to be done about it, except perhaps years of psychotherapy.

Both views encourage passivity. Both obstruct our vision of what is possible.

My experience is that most people under-estimate their power to change and grow. They believe implicitly that yesterday's pattern must be tomorrow's. They do not see that choices do exist. They rarely appreciate how much they can do on their own behalf, if genuine growth and higher self-esteem are their goals, and if they are willing to take responsibility for their own lives.

The belief that they are powerless becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. This program, ultimately, is a call to action. It is addressed to all men and women to participate actively, in the process of their evolution, as well as to psychologists, parents, teachers, and those responsible for the culture of organisations.

This program is about what is possible.

Self-Esteem: The Immune System of Consciousness

There are realities we cannot avoid. One of them is the importance of self-esteem.

Regardless of what we do or do not admit we cannot be indifferent to our self-evaluation. However, we can run from this knowledge if it makes us uncomfortable. We can shrug it off, evade it, declare that we are only interested in "practical" matters and escape into baseball, or the evening news, or the financial pages, or a shopping spree, or a sexual adventure, or a drink.

Yet, self-esteem is a fundamental human need. It's impact requires neither our understanding nor our consent. It works it's way within us -- with or without our knowledge. We are are free to seek the dynamics of self-esteem, or remain unconscious of them, but in the latter case, we remain a mystery to ourselves, and endure the consequences.

Let us look at the role of self-esteem in our lives.

A Preliminary Definition

By "self-esteem", I mean much more than that innate sense of self, that presumably, is our human birthright -- that spark that psychotherapists and teachers seek to fan in those they work with. That spark is only the anteroom of self-esteem.

Self-esteem, fully realised, is the experience that we are appropriate to life, and to the requirements of life. More specifically, self-esteem is:

  1. Confidence in our ability to think, confidence in our ability to cope with the basic challenges of life; and,
  2. Confidence in our right to be successful, and happy, the feeling of being worthy, deserving. entitled to assert our needs and wants, achieve our values, and enjoy the fruits of our efforts.

Later I will refine this definition.

I do not share the belief that self-esteem is a gift we have only to claim (by reciting affirmations, perhaps). On the contrary, its possession over time represents an achievement. The goal of this book is to examine the nature and roots of that achievement.

The Basic Pattern

To trust one's mind, and to know that one is worthy of happiness, is the essence of self-esteem. The power of this conviction about oneself lies in the fact that it is more than a judgement or a feeling. It is a motivator; it inspires behaviour. In turn, it is directly directly affected by how we act. Causation flows in both directions. There is a continuous feedback loop between our actions and the world, and our self-esteem.

If I trust my mind and judgement, I am more likely to operate as a thinking being. Bringing appropriate awareness to my activities, my life works better. This reinforces my mind. If I distrust my mind, I am more likely to be mentally passive. When my actions lead to disappointing or painful results, I feel justified in distrusting my mind.

With high self-esteem, I am more likely to persist in the face of difficulties. With low self-esteem, I am more likely to give up, or go through the motions of trying without really giving my best. If I persevere, the likelihood is that I will succeed more often than I fail, I don't the likelihood is that I will fail more often that I succeed. Either way, my view of myself will be reinforced If I respect myself, and require that others deal with me respectfully, I send out signals and behave in ways that increase the likelihood that others will respond appropriately. When they do, I am reinforced and confirmed in my initial belief.

If I lack self-respect and accept discourtesy, abuse, or exploitation from others as natural, I unconsciously transmit this, and some people will treat me at my self-estimate. When this happens, and I submit to it, my self-respect deteriorates still more.

The value of self-esteem lies not merely in the fact that it allows us to feel better, but that it allows us to live better -- to respond to challenges and opportunities more resourcefully, and more appropriately.

The Impact of Self-Esteem: General Observations

The level of our self-esteem has profound consequences for every aspect of our existence. How we operate in the workplace, how we deal with people, how high we are likely to rise, how much we are likely to achieve. In the personal realm, it helps determine with whom we are likely to fall in love, how we interact with our spouse, children, and friends, and what level of personal happiness we attain. There are positive correlations between healthy self-esteem, and a variety of other traits that bear directly on our capacity for achievement, and for happiness.

Healthy self-esteem correlates with rationality, realism, intuitiveness, creativity, independence, flexibility, ability to manage change, willingness to admit and correct mistakes, benevolence, and co-operativeness.

Poor self-esteem correlates with irrationality, blindness to reality, rigidity, fear of the new and unfamiliar, inappropriate conformity, or inappropriate rebelliousness, defensiveness, over-compliant, or over-controlling behaviour, and fear of, or hostility toward people.

High self-esteem seeks the challenge and stimulation of worthwhile and demanding goals. Low self-esteem seeks the safety of the familiar and undemanding.

The more solid our self-esteem, the better equipped we are to cope with troubles that arise in our personal lives, or in our careers. And, the quicker we are to pick ourselves up after a fall, the more energy we have to begin anew.

The higher our self-esteem, the more ambitious we tend to be. Not necessarily in a career or financial sense, but in terms of what we hope to experience in life -- emotionally, intellectually, creatively, spiritually. The lower our self-esteem, the less we aspire to, the less we are likely to achieve.

Either path tends to be self-reinforcing, and self-perpetuating.

The higher our self-esteem, the stronger the drive to express ourselves, reflecting the sense of richness within. The lower our self-esteem, the more urgent the need to "prove" ourselves, or to forget ourselves by living mechanically and unconsciously.

The higher our self-esteem, the more open, honest, and appropriate our communications are likely to be -- because we believe our thoughts have value and we welcome rather than fear clarity. The lower our self-esteem, the more muddy, evasive, and inappropriate our communications are likely to be because of uncertainty about our own thoughts and feelings, and our anxiety about the listeners response.

The healthier our self-esteem, the more inclined we are to treat others with respect, benevolence, good will and fairness -- since we do not tend to perceive them as a threat, and since self-respect is the foundation of respect for others.

We tend to feel most comfortable, most "at home", with persons whose self-esteem level resembles our own. Opposites may attract about some issues, but not this one. High self-esteem individuals tend to be drawn to high self-esteem individuals.

We do not see a passionate love affair for example, with persons at opposite ends of the self-esteem continuum. Just as we are not likely to see a passionate romance between intelligence and stupidity. I am speaking of passionate love -- not a brief infatuation or a sexual episode, which can operate by a different set of dynamics.

Medium self-esteem individuals are typically attracted to medium self-esteem individuals. Low self-esteem seeks low self-esteem in others -- not consciously of course, but by the logic of that of that which leads us to feel we have encountered a soul mate.

The most disastrous of relationships are those between persons who think poorly of themselves. The union of two abysses does not produce a height. It is not difficult to see the importance of self-esteem in the arena of intimate relationships.

There is no greater barrier to romantic happiness, than the fear that I am undeserving of love, and that my destiny is to be hurt. Such fears give birth to self-fulfilling prophecies.


If I enjoy a fundamental sense of efficacy and worth, and experience myself as loveable, then I have a foundation for appreciating and loving others -- I have something to give. I am not trapped in feelings of deficiency.

If I lack respect and enjoyment of who I am, I have very little to give -- except my unfilled needs. In my emotional impoverishment, I tend to see other people essentially as sources of approval or disapproval. I do not appreciate them for who they are in their own right. I see only what they can or cannot do for me. I am not looking for people whom I can admire and with whom I can share the excitement and adventure of life -- I'm looking for people who will not condemn me, and perhaps, will be impressed by my persona -- the face I present to the world. My ability to love remains undeveloped.

We have all heard the observation that "if you do not love yourself you will be unable to love others". Less well-understood, is the other half of the story -- If I do not feel loveable, it is very difficult to believe that anyone loves me. If I do not accept myself, how can I accept your love for me? Your warmth and devotion are confusing -- they confound my self-concept, since I know I am not loveable. Thus, even if I consciously disown my feelings -- even if I try to insist or try to insist that I am wonderful -- my poor self-concept remains deep within to undermine my attempts at relationships. Unwittingly, I become a saboteur at relationships. I attempt love, but the foundation of inner security is not there. Instead, there is the secret fear that I am destined only for pain, so I pick someone who will inevitably reject and abandon me. Or, if I pick someone with whom happiness might be possible, I subvert the relationship by demanding excessive reassurances, or by venting irrational possessiveness, or by making catastrophes of small frictions, or by seeking control through subservience or domination -- by finding ways to reject my partner, before my partner can reject me.

Everyone knows the famous Groucho Marx joke that he "would never join a club that would have [him] for a member". That is exactly the idea by which some low self-esteem people operate their love life.

If you love me, you obviously are not good enough for me. Only someone who will reject me is an acceptable object of my devotion. Note that it is not always necessary to destroy the relationship entirely. It may be acceptable that the relationship continue, providing I am not happy. I may engage in a project called "Struggling to be Happy", or "Working on our Relationship". I may read books on the subject, participate in seminars, attend lectures, or enter psychotherapy with the announced aim of being happy in the future, but not now. Not today. The possibility of happiness in the present is too terrifyingly immediate.

Happiness anxiety, as I call it, is very common. Happiness can activate internal voices saying "I don't deserve this", or "It will never last", or "I'm riding for a fall", or "I'm killing my mother and father, by being happier than they were!", or "Happiness is only an illusion", or "Nobody else is happy so why should I be?".

What is required for many of us is the courage to tolerate happiness without self-sabotage. Until such time as we lose the fear of it, and realise that it will not destroy us, and it need not disappear.

One day at a time, I will tell clients: "See if you can get through today without doing anything to undermine or subvert your good feelings. And if you fall of the wagon, don't despair. Pull yourself back up, and recommit yourself to happiness. Such perseverance is self-esteem building.

Self-Fulfilling Prophecies

Self-esteem creates a set of implicit expectations about what is possible and appropriate to us. These expectations tend to generate the actions that turn them into realities, and the realities tend to confirm and strengthen the original beliefs.

Self-esteem, high or low, tends to be a generator of self-fulfilling prophecies. Self-concept is destiny. Or, more precisely, it tends to be. Our self-concept is who and what we consciously think we are -- our physical and psychological traits, our assets and liabilities, possibilities and limitations, strengths and weaknesses. A self-concept includes our level of self-esteem, but is more global. We cannot understand a person's behaviour, without understanding the self-concept behind it.

People sabotage themselves at the height of their success all the time. They do so when success clashes with their implicit beliefs of what is appropriate to them. It is frightening to be flung beyond the limits of one's idea of who one is. If a self-concept can not accommodate a given level of success, and the self-concept does not change, it is predictable that the person will find ways to self-sabotage. Poor self-esteem places us in an adversarial relationship with our well-being.

Too Much Self-Esteem?

The question is sometimes asked -- "Is it possible to have too much self-esteem?". No it is not. No more than it is possible to have to much physical health, or too powerful an immune system. Sometimes self-esteem is confused with boasting, or bragging, or arrogance. These traits reflect not too much self-esteem, but too little. They reflect a lack of self-esteem. Persons of high self-esteem are not driven to make themselves superior to others. They do not seek to prove their value by measuring themselves against a comparative standard. Their joy is in being who they are, not in being better than someone else.

I recall reflecting on this issue one day while watching my dog playing in the back yard. She was running about, sniffing flowers, chasing flowers, leaping into the air, showing a great job in being. I'm sure she was not thinking she was more glad to be alive, than the dog next door. She was simply delighting in her own existence. That image captures something essential of how I understand the experience of healthy self-esteem.

People with troubled self-esteem are often uncomfortable in the presence of those with higher self-esteem. They may feel resentful and declare "They have too much self-esteem.", but what they are really making, is a statement about themselves. The sad truth is, whoever is successful in this world runs the risk of being a target. People of low achievement often envy people of high achievement. Those who are unhappy often envy and resent those who are happy. And those of low self-esteem sometimes like to talk about the danger of having, as they put it, too much self-esteem.

Self-esteem as a Basic Need

When Nothing is "Enough"

A poor self-esteem does not necessarily mean that we will be incapable of achieving any real values. Some of us may have the talent, energy and drive to achieve a great deal, in spite of feelings of inadequacy, or unworthiness. An example is the highly productive work-aholic who is driven to prove his worth to, say, a father who predicted he would always be a loser. But a poor self-esteem does mean that we will be less effective, and less creative than we have the power to be, and it means that we will be crippled in our ability to find joy in our achievements. Nothing we do will ever feel like "enough".

If my aim is to prove I am enough, the project goes on to infinity -- because the battle was already lost the day I conceded the issue was debatable. So it is always "One more victory". One more promotion. One more sexual conquest. One more company. One more piece of jewelry. A larger house, a more expensive car, another award. Yet the void within remains unfilled.

In today's culture, some frustrated people who hit this impasse announce that they have decided to pursue a spiritual path, and renounce their egos. This enterprise is doomed to failure. An ego, in the mature and healthy sense, is precisely what they have failed to attain. They dream of giving away what they do not possess. No-one can successfully by-pass the need for self-esteem.

A word of caution

If one error is to deny the importance of self-esteem, another is to claim too much for it. In their enthusiasm, writers today seem to suggest that a healthy sense of self-value is all we need to assure happiness and success. The matter is more complex than that. A well developed sense of self is a necessary condition of our well-being, but not a sufficient condition. It's presence does not guarantee fulfilment, but it's lack guarantees some level of anxiety, frustration, or despair.

Self-esteem is not a substitute for a roof over one's head, or food in one's stomach, but it increases the likelihood that one will find and meet such needs.

Self-esteem is not a substitute for the knowledge and skills one needs to operate effectively in the world, but it increases the likelihood that one will acquire them.

The Challenges of the Modern World

The survival value of self-esteem is especially evident today. We have reached a moment in history when self-esteem, which has always been a supremely important psychological need, has also become a supremely important economic need. It is the attribute imperative for adaptiveness in an increasingly complex, challenging and competitive world. In the past few decades, the United States has shifted from a manufacturing society to an information society. We now live in a global economy characterised by rapid change, accelerating scientific and technological breakthroughs, and an unprecedented level of competitiveness. These developments create demands for higher levels of education and training than were required of previous generations. Everyone acquainted with business culture knows this. What is not understood is that these developments also create new demands on our psychological resources. Specifically, these developments ask for a greater capacity for innovation, self-management, responsibility, and self-direction.

A modern business can no longer be run by a few people who think and many people who just do what they are told. Today organisations need not only an unprecedentedly higher level of knowledge and skill among all those who participate, but also a higher level of independence, self-reliance, self-trust, and the capacity to exercise initiative. In a word: self-esteem.

The challenge extends further than the world of business: we are freer than the generation before us to choose our own religion, philosophy, or moral code. To adopt our own lifestyle. To select our own criteria for the good life. We no longer have unquestioning faith in tradition. We no longer believe that government leads to salvation, nor church, nor labour unions, nor big organisations of any kind. We have more choices and options than ever before in every area. Frontiers of limitless possibilities now face us in whatever direction we look. To be adaptive in such an environment, we have a greater need for personal autonomy. This is because there is no widely accepted code of values and rituals to spare us the challenge of individual decision making. We must learn to think for ourselves. To cultivate our own resources, and to take responsibility for the choices, values and actions that shape our lives. The greater the number of choices and decisions we need to make at a conscious level, the more urgent our need for self-esteem.

The Meaning of Self-Esteem

Self-esteem has two, interrelated, components:

  1. A sense of basic confidence in the face of life's challenges. This is self-efficacy,
  2. A sense of being worthy of happiness. This is self-respect.

Self-efficacy means:

  • Confidence in the functioning of my mind;
  • In my ability to think, understand, learn, choose, and make decisions
  • Confidence in my ability to understand the facts of reality, all within the sphere of my interests and needs
  • Self-trust, and self-reliance

Self-respect means:

  • "Assurance of my value". It means,
  • An affirmative attitude toward my right to live and to be happy. It means,
  • Comfort, in appropriately asserting my thoughts, wants and needs. It means,
  • The feeling that joy and fulfilment are my natural birthright.

We will need to consider these two ideas in more detail, but for the moment, consider the following:

If an individual felt inadequate to face the challenges of life -- if an individual lacked fundamental self-trust, confidence in his or her mind -- we would recognise a self-esteem deficiency, no matter what other assets he or she possessed. Or, if an individual lacked a basic sense of self-respect -- felt unworthy or undeserving the love or respect of others, not entitled to happiness, fearful of asserting thoughts, wants or needs -- again, we would recognise a self-esteem deficiency, no matter what other positive attributes he or she exhibited.

Self-efficacy and self-respect are the dual foundations of healthy self-esteem. Absent either one: self-esteem is impaired. They are the defining characteristics of self-esteem.

Within a given person there will be inevitable fluctuations in self-esteem levels, much as there are fluctuations in all psychological states. We need to think in terms of a person's average level of self-esteem. While we sometimes speak of self-esteem as a conviction about oneself, it is more accurate to speak of it as a disposition to experience oneself a particular way.

What way? Let me sum it up, in a formal, precise definition:

Self-esteem is the disposition to experience oneself as competent to cope with the basic challenges of life, and as worthy of happiness. Now, the value of a precise definition, is that it allows us to distinguish a particular aspect of reality from all others, so that we can think about it, and work with it with clarity and focus. If we wish to know what self-esteem depends on -- how to nurture it in our children, support it in schools, encourage it in organisations, strengthen it in psychotherapy, or develop it in ourselves, we need to know what precisely we are aiming at. We are unlikely to hit a target we cannot see. If our idea of self-esteem is vague, the means we adopt to build it will reflect this vagueness. Am I suggesting that the definition of self-esteem is written down in stone? Not at all. Definitions are contextual. They relate to a given level of knowledge. As knowledge grows, definitions tend to become more precise. I may find a better more exact way to capture the essence of the concept during my lifetime, or perhaps someone else may. But within the context of the knowledge we now possess, I can think of no alternative formulation that identifies with more precision the unique aspect of human experience we are exploring.

To have high self-esteem then, is to feel confidently appropriate to life. To have low self-esteem, is to feel inappropriate to life. To feel wrong. Not about this issue or that, but wrong as a person. To have average self-esteem is to fluctuate between feeling appropriate and inappropriate. Right and wrong, as a person. It is also to manifest these inconsistencies in behaviour -- sometimes acting wisely, sometimes acting foolishly, thereby reinforcing the uncertainty about who one is at one's core.


I have given the name Self-efficacy to that experience of basic power or confidence that we associate with healthy self-esteem, and

Self-respect to the experience of dignity and personal worth.

While their meaning is clear in a general way, I want to examine them more closely.

First, self-efficacy. To be efficacious in the basic, dictionary sense, is to be capable of producing a desired result. Confidence in our basic efficacy is confidence in our ability to learn what we need to learn and do what we need to do in order to achieve our goals, insofar as success depends on efforts. Rationally, we do not judge our competence in the sense meant here by factors outside our control. Self-efficacy is not the conviction that we can never make an error. It is the conviction that we are able to think, to judge, to know, and to correct our errors. It is trust in our mental process and abilities. Self-efficacy is not the certainty that we will be able to master any and every challenge that life presents. It is the conviction that we are capable in principle of learning what we need to learn, and that we are committed to doing our rational and conscientious best to master the tasks and challenges entailed by our values. Self-efficacy is deeper than confidence in our specific knowledge and skills based on past successes and accomplishments, although it is clearly nurtured by them. It is confidence in what made it possible for us to acquire knowledge and skills, and to achieve successes. It is confidence in our ability to think, confidence in our consciousness and how we choose to use it. Again, it is trust in our processes, and as a consequence to expect success for our efforts. The distinction between trust in our processes, and some particular area of knowledge, is of the highest importance in virtually every sphere of endeavour. In a world in which the total of human knowledge is doubling about every 10 years, our security can rest only on our ability to learn. No-one can expect to be equally competent in all areas, and no-one needs to be. Our interests, values and circumstances determine the areas in which we are likely to concentrate.


Now lets consider the second component of self-esteem, self-respect. Just as self-efficacy entails the expectation of success as natural, so self-respect entails the expectations of friendship, love, and happiness as natural, as a result of who we are and what we do. We can isolate the two components conceptually, for the sake of analysis, but in the reality of our daily experience they constantly overlap and involve each other. Self-respect is the conviction of own value. It is not the delusion that we are perfect, or superior to everyone else, it is not comparative or competitive at all -- it is the conviction that our life and well-being are worth acting to support, protect, and nurture. That we are good, and worthwhile, and deserving of the respect of others, and that our happiness and personal fulfilment are important enough to work for.

To appreciate why our need for self-respect is so urgent, consider this: To live successfully we need to pursue and achieve values. To act appropriately, we need to value the beneficiary of our actions. We need to consider ourselves worthy of the rewards of our actions. Absent this conviction, we will not know how to take care of ourselves, protect our legitimate interests, satisfy our needs or enjoy our own achievements. Thus, our experience of self-efficacy also will be impaired.

If we respect ourselves, we tend to act in ways that confirm and reinforce this respect, such as requiring others to deal with us appropriately. If we wish to raise the level of our self-respect, we need to act in ways that will cause it to rise, and this begins with a commitment to the value of our own person.

The need to see ourselves as good is the need to experience self-respect. It emerges very early. As we develop from childhood, we progressively become aware of the power to choose our actions -- we become aware of our responsibility for the choices we make. We acquire our sense of being a person. The experience and need to feel that we are right. Right as a person. In our characteristic way of functioning. This is the need to feel that we are good.

The Face of Self-Esteem

The level of our self-esteem is not set once and for all in childhood. It can grow as we mature, or, it can deteriorate. There are people whose self-esteem was higher at the age of 10 than at the age of 60, and the reverse is also true. Self-esteem can rise and fall and rise again over the course of a lifetime. Mine certainly has. I can think back over my history and observe changes in the level of my self-esteem that reflect choices I made in the face of particular challenges. I can recall instances where I made choices I am proud of, and others I bitterly regret. Choices that strengthen my self-esteem, and others that lowered it. We all can. With regard to choices that lower self-esteem, I think of times when I was unwilling to see what I saw, and know what I knew. Times when I needed to raise awareness, but instead I lowered it. Times when I needed to examine my feelings, and I disowned them. Times when I needed to announce a truth, and instead I clung to silence. Times when I needed to walk away from a relationship that was harming me, and instead I struggled to preserve it. Times when I needed to stand up for my strongest feelings, and assert my deepest needs, and instead I waited for a miracle to deliver me.

Any time we have to act -- to face a challenge, to make a moral decision -- we affect our feelings about ourselves for good or bad depending on the nature of our response, and the mental processes behind it; And if we avoid action and decisions in spite of their obvious necessity, that too, affects our sense of self.

Our need for self-esteem is the need to know we are functioning as our life and well-being require.

What does self-esteem look like? There are some fairly simple and direct ways in which self-esteem manifests itself in ourselves, and in others. None of these items taken in isolation is a guarantee, but when all are present together, self-esteem seems certain:

  • Self-esteem expresses itself in a face, manner, and way of talking and moving that projects the pleasure one takes in being alive.
  • It expresses itself in an ease of talking of accomplishments or shortcomings with directness and honesty, since one is in a friendly relationship to facts.
  • It expresses itself in the comfort one experiencing when giving and receiving compliments, expressions of affection, appreciation, and the like.
  • It expresses itself in an openness to criticism, and a comfort about acknowledging mistakes, because one's self-esteem is not tied to the image of being perfect.
  • It expresses itself when one's words and movements tend to have a quality of ease and spontaneity, reflecting the fact that one is not at war with oneself.
  • It expresses itself in the harmony between what one says and does, and how one looks, sounds and moves.
  • It expresses itself in an attitude of openness to and curiosity about new ideas, new experiences, new possibilities of life
  • It expresses itself in the fact that feelings of anxiety and insecurity, if they appear, will be less likely to intimidate or overwhelm, since accepting them, managing them, and rising above them, rarely feels impossibly difficult.
  • It expresses itself in the ability to enjoy the humorous aspects of life in oneself and others.
  • It expresses itself in ones flexibility in responding to situations and challenges, since one trusts ones mind and does not see life as doom or defeat.
  • It expresses itself in ones comfort with assertive behaviour in oneself, and others.
  • It expresses itself in an ability to preserve equality of harmony and dignity under conditions of stress.

Physical manifestations of self-esteem include:

  • Eyes that are alert, bright, and lively,
  • Shoulders that are relaxed, yet erect,
  • Hands that tend to be relaxed and graceful,
  • Arms that tend to hang in an easy, natural way,
  • A posture that tends to be unstrained, erect, well balanced,
  • A walk that tends to be purposeful, and,
  • A voice that tends to be modulated with an intensity appropriate to the situation, and with clear pronunciation.

Notice that the theme of relaxation occurs again and again. Relaxation implies that we are not hiding from ourselves -- not denying our feelings, and are not at war with who we are.

Inner tension conveys some form of internal split. Some form of self-avoidance, or self-repudiation. Some aspect of the self being disowned, or held on a very tight leash.

The Illusion of Self-Esteem

When self-esteem is low, we are often manipulated by fear. Fear of reality to which we feel inadequate. Fear of facts about ourselves, or others, that we have denied, disowned, or repressed. Fear of the collapse of our pretences. Fear of exposure. Fear of the humiliation of failure, and sometimes, the responsibilities of success. We live more to avoid pain, than to experience joy.

If we feel that crucial aspects of reality with which we must deal are hopelessly close to our understanding, if we face the key problems of life with a basic sense of helplessness, if we feel that we dare not pursue certain lines of thought because of the unworthy features of our own character that will be brought to light -- if we feel in any sense whatever, that reality is the enemy of our self-esteem -- these spheres tend to sabotage the efficacy of consciousness, thereby worsening the initial problem.

If we face the basic problems of life with an attitude of "Who am I to know?", "Who am I to decide?", or "It is dangerous to be conscious", or "It is futile to try to think or understand" -- we are undercut at the outset. A mind does not struggle for that which it regards as impossible, or undesirable.

If low self-esteem dreads the unknown and unfamiliar, high self-esteem seeks new frontiers. If low self-esteem avoids challenges, high self-esteem desires and needs them. Low self-esteem looks for a chance to be absolved, high self-esteem looks for an opportunity to admire.

In these opposite principles of motivation, we have a guide to the health of the mind, or spirit. We can say that an individual is healthy to the extent, that the basic motivation is that of motivation by confidence. The degree of motivation by fear is the measure of underdeveloped self-esteem.

Sometimes we see people who enjoy worldly success, are widely esteemed, or who have a public veneer of assurance, yet are deeply dissatisfied, anxious or depressed. They may project the appearance of self-efficacy and self-respect -- they may have the persona of self-esteem -- but they do not possess the reality. How might we understand them? We have noted that to the extent we fail to develop authentic self-esteem, the consequences varying degrees of anxiety, insecurity and self doubt. This is the sense of being in effect, inappropriate to existence. Of course, no-one thinks of it in these terms. Perhaps instead one thinks something is wrong with me or I'm lacking something essential. This state tends to be painful, and because it is painful, we are often motivated to evade it, to deny our fears, rationalise our behaviour, create the appearance of a self-esteem we do not possess. We may develop what I have called "pseudo self-esteem".

Pseudo Self-Esteem

Pseudo self-esteem is the illusion of self-efficacy and self-respect, without the reality. It is a self-protective device to diminish anxiety and to provide a spurious sense of security. A device to assuage our need for authentic self-esteem, while allowing the real causes of it's lack to remain unexamined. Nothing is more common than to pursue self-esteem by means that will not and cannot work. Instead of seeking self-esteem through conscious responsibility and integrity, we may seek it through popularity, material acquisitions, or sexual exploits. Instead of valuing personal authenticity, we may value belonging to the right clubs, or the right church, or the right political party. Instead of seeking self-respect through honesty, we may seek it through philanthropy -- "I must be a good person -- I do good works!". Instead of striving for the true power of confidence, we pursue the so called power of manipulating or controlling other people. The possibilities for self-deception are almost endless.

Self-esteem is an intimate experience. It resides in the core of one's being. It is what I think and feel about myself. Not what someone else thinks or feels about me. This simple fact can hardly be over-emphasised. I can be loved by my family, my mate and my friends, and yet not love myself. I can be admired by my associates, and yet regard myself as worthless. I can project an image of assurance and poise that fools almost everyone, and yet secretly tremble with a sence of my inadequacy. I can fulfill the expectations of others, and yet fail my own. I can win every honour, and yet feel I have accomplished nothing. I can be adored by millions, and yet wake up each morning with a sickening sense of fraudulence and emptiness.

Internal Sources of Self-Esteem

The Focus on Action

The tragedy of many people's lives is that they look for self-esteem in every direction except within, and so they fail in their search. The ultimate search for self-esteem is, and can only be internal. In what we do, not what others do. When we seek it in externals, we invite tragedy. I do not wish to suggest that a psychologically healthy person is unaffected by the feedback he or she receives from others -- we are social beings, and others certainly contribute to our self perceptions -- but there are immense differences among people in the relative importance to their self-esteem, of the feedback they receive. Persons for whom it is almost the only factor of importance, and persons for whom the importance is a good deal less. This is merely another way of saying: There are immense difference among people in the degree of their autonomy.

Having worked for many years with persons who are unhappily pre-occupied with the opinions of others, I am persuaded that the most effective means of liberation is by raising the level of consciousness one brings to one's own experience. The more one turns up the volume on one's inner signals, the more external signals tend to recede into proper balance. This entails:

  • Learning to listen to the body,

  • Learning to listen the emotions, and,

  • Learning to think for oneself.

  • What must an individual do to generate and sustain self-esteem?

  • What patterns of actions must be adopted?

  • What is the responsibility of you and me as adults?

In answering these questions, we develop a standard by which to answer the questions:

  • What must a child to, if he or she is to enjoy self-esteem?
  • What is the desirable path of childhood development? And also:
  • What practice should caring parents and teachers seek to evoke, stimulate, and support self-esteem in children?

In approaching the roots of self-esteem, why do we put our focus on practices? That is, on mental or physical actions. The answer is that every value pertaining to life requires action to be achieved, sustained or enjoyed. We pursue and maintain our values in the world through action. It is a person's actions that are decisive. What determines the level of self-esteem is what the individual does within the context of his or her knowledge and values, and since action in the world is a reflection of action within the mind of the individual, it is ultimately the internal processes that are crucial.

We shall see that the six pillars of self-esteem -- the practices indispensable to the health of the mind, and the effective functioning of the person -- are all operations of consciousness, all involve choices. They are choices that confront us every hour of our existence. Note that practice, the term practice, implies a discipline of acting a certain way over and over, consistently. It is not action by fits and starts, or even an appropriate response to a crisis -- rather it is a way of operating day by day, in big issues and small -- a way of behaving that is also a way of being.

The Six Practices

Since self-esteem is a consequence, we cannot work on self-esteem directly, neither our own, or anyone else's. We must address ourselves to the source. If we understand what these internal practices are, we can commit to initiating them within ourselves, and to dealing with others in such a way as to facilitate or encourage them to do likewise.

To encourage self-esteem in the schools, or in the workplace, for instance, is to create a climate that supports and reinforces the practices that strengthen self-esteem. What then does healthy self-esteem depend on? What are the practices of which I speak? I will name six that are demonstrably crucial. I call them "the six pillars of self-esteem". It will not be difficult to see why any improvements in these practices generate unmistakeable benefits.

Once we understand these practices, we have the power to choose them -- to work on integrating them into our way of life. The power to do so, is the power to raise the level of our self-esteem, from whatever point we may be starting, and however difficult the project may be in the early stages. One does not have to attain "perfection" in these practices -- one only needs to raise one's average level of performance to experience growth in self-efficacy and self-respect. I have often witnessed the most extraordinary changes in peoples lives as a result of relatively small improvements in these practices. In fact, I encourage clients to think in terms of small steps rather than big ones, because big ones can intimidate (and paralyse), small ones seem more attainable, and one small step leads to another.

Here are The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem:

  1. The practice of living consciously
  2. The practice of self-acceptance
  3. The practice of self-responsibility
  4. The practice of self-assertiveness
  5. The practice of living purposefully
  6. The practice of personal integrity

Lets now examine each of them in turn.

Pillar 1: The Practice of Living Consciously

The First Pillar of Self-Esteem is The Practice of Living Consciously.

In virtually all of the great spiritual and philosophical traditions of the world there appears some form of the idea that most humans beings are sleep walking through their own existence. Enlightenment is identified with waking up. Evolution and progress are identified with an expansion of consciousness. Why is consciousness so important? Because for all species that possess it, consciousness is the basic tool of survival. It is the ability to be aware of the environment in some form, at some level, and to guide action accordingly. I use "consciousness" here in it's primary meaning -- that is the state of being conscious or aware of some aspect of reality. To the distinctively human form of consciousness with it's capacity for concept formation and abstract thought, we give the name "mind". We are beings for whom consciousness at the conceptional level is volitional. This means that the design of our nature contains some extraordinary options -- that of seeking awareness, or not bothering, or actively avoiding it. That of seeking truth, or not bothering, or actively avoiding it. That of focusing our mind, or not bothering, or choosing to drop to a lower level of consciousness. This capacity for self-management is our glory , and at times, our burden. If we do not bring an appropriate level of consciousness to our activities -- if we do not live mindfully -- the inevitable penalty is a diminished sense of self-efficacy and self-respect. We cannot feel competent and worthy while conducting our lives in a mental fog. Our mind is our basic tool of survival -- betray it, and self-esteem suffers.

Through the thousands of choices we make between thinking and non-thinking -- being responsible toward reality or evading it -- we establish a sense of the kind of person we are. Consciously, we rarely remember these choices, but deep in our psyche they are added up, and the sum is that experience we call self-esteem.

Self-esteem is the reputation we acquire with ourselves. We are not all equal in intelligence, but intelligence is not the issue. The principle of living consciously is unaffected by intelligence. To live consciously means to seek to be aware of everything that bears on our actions, purposes, values and goals. Seek to the best of our ability, whatever that ability may be, and then to behave in accordance with that which we see and know.

The Betrayal of Consciousness

This last point bears emphasis. Consciousness that is not translated into appropriate action is a betrayal of consciousness. Living consciously means more than seeing and knowing. It means acting on what one sees and knows. Thus, I can recognise that I have been hurtful or unfair to my spouse or child or my friend, and I need to make amends. But I don't want to admit I made a mistake so procrastinate, claiming I am still "thinking" about the situation. This is the opposite of living consciously. At a fundamental level it is an avoidance of consciousness.

Living consciously is living responsibly towards reality. We do not necessarily have to like what we see, but we recognise that wishes or fears or denials do not alter facts. If I desire a new outfit, but need the money for rent, my desire does not transform reality and make the purchase rational. If a statement is true, my denying it will not make it false. When we live consciously we do not confuse the subjective with the objective. We do not imagine that our feelings are an infallible guide to truth. We can learn from our feelings to be sure, and they may even point us in the direction of important facts, but this entail the participation of reason.

Let us look more closely at what the practice of living consciously includes.

The Specifics of Living Consciously

Living consciously entails:

  • A mind that is active, rather than passive,
  • An intelligence that takes joy in it's own function,
  • Being "in the moment" without losing the wider context,
  • Reaching out toward relevant facts, rather than withdrawing from them,
  • Being concerned to distinguish among facts, interpretations and emotions,
  • Noticing and confronting any impulses to avoid or deny painful or threatening realities,
  • Being concerned to know where I am, relative to my various goals and projects, and whether I am succeeding or failing.
  • Being concerned to know if my actions are in alignment with my purposes, searching for feedback from my environment so as to adjust my course when necessary,
  • Persevering in the attempt to understand in spite of difficulties,
  • Being receptive to new knowledge, and willing to re-examine old assumptions,
  • Being willing to see and correct mistakes,
  • Seeking always to expand awareness, a commitment to learning, and therefore a commitment to growth as a way of life,
  • A concern to understand the world around me,
  • 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,
  • 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.

A Personal Example

All of us can look back and think of times when we did not bring to some concern as much consciousness as was needed. We tell ourselves "If only I had thought more", "If only I had not been so impulsive", "If only I had checked the facts more carefully". I think of my first marriage, when I was 22 years old. I think of all the signs that we were making a mistake -- the numerous conflicts between us, the incompatibilities in some of our values, the ways in which at the core, we were not each others "type". Why then, did I proceed? Because of our shared commitment to certain ideas and ideals. Because of sexual attraction. Because I desperately wanted to have a woman in my life. Because she was the first person from whom I did not feel alienated and I lacked confidence that another would come along. Because I naively imagined that marriage could solve all the problems between us. There were "reasons", to be sure.

Still, if someone had said to me (or if I had somehow thought to say to myself), "If you were to bring a higher level of consciousness to your relationship with Barbara, and do so steadily, day after day, what do you suppose might happen?" I have to wonder what I might have been led to face and come to grips with. To a mind that is receptive, so simple yet provocative a question can have astonishing potency.

The fact was, I examined neither the feelings driving me toward marriage, nor the feelings signaling danger, I did not confront the logical and obvious questions Why marry now? Why not wait until more is resolved between you? And because of what I did not do, my self- esteem suffered a subtle wound -- some part of me knew I was avoiding awareness-although it would be years before I fully understood this.

There is an exercise that I give to therapy clients today that I wish I had known about then. The course of my life over the next decade or so might have been different. I will discuss this exercise and others like it below, but for the moment let me say this. If for two weeks I had sat at my desk each morning and wrote the following incomplete sentence in my notebook: "If I bring a higher level of consciousness to my relationship with Barbara --" and then wrote to 10 endings as rapidly as I could, without rehearsing, censoring, planning, or "thinking," I would have found myself making more and more conscious, explicit, and inescapable all the deep reservations I had about this relationship as well as my process of avoidance and denial.

I have given this exercise to clients who are confused or conflicted about some relationship, and the result almost invariably is major clarification. Sometimes the relationship radically improves; sometimes it ends. Had I known to use this technique, I would have had to face the fact that loneliness was driving me more than admiration. If Barbara had done a similar exercise, she would have realised that she was no more rational than I in what we were preparing to do. Whether we would have had the courage and wisdom to stay at this higher level of awareness is something I can only speculate about now. That one wakes up for a time is no guarantee that one will remain awake. Still, judging from the experience of my clients, it would have been extraordinarily difficult for us to persist blindly on our course because we would no longer have been blind, and opening one door clears the way to opening another and then another.

Sentence Completions to Facilitate the Art of Living Consciously

In the course of this program, I will give you suggestions for sentence completion exercises. Sentence completion work is a deceptively simple yet uniquely powerful tool for raising self-understanding, self-esteem and personal effectiveness. It rests on the premise that all of us have more knowledge that we normally are aware of. Sentence completion is a tool for accessing and activating these "hidden resources".

The essence of this procedure is to write an incomplete sentence, a sentence stem, and to keep adding different endings -- the sole requirement being that each ending be a grammatical completion of the sentence. We want a minimum of 6 endings, and 10 is plenty.

There are two ways to approach this. You may want to have a pen and paper handy, and do these exercises in the course of the program as you hear them, or, you may want to first listen to the tape in it's entirety to get the overall flow, then return to the exercises at your leisure.

Here's what's important: Work as rapidly as possible -- no pauses to "think", no worrying if any particular ending is true, reasonable or significant -- any ending is fine, just keep going!

When doing sentence completion this way, we work with a notebook, typewriter or computer. An alternative is to do the sentence completions into a tape recorder -- in which case you keep repeating the stem sentence into a recorder, each time completing it with a different ending. You play the work back later to reflect on it.

How might we use the technique to facilitate the process of learning to live more consciously? First thing in the morning, before proceeding to the day's business, sit down and write the following sentence stem:

  • Living consciously to me means --

Then, as rapidly as possible, without pausing for reflection, write as a least half a dozen endings for that. Do not worry if your endings are literally true, make sense, or are "profound." Write anything, but write something. A minimum of 6, 10 is plenty.

As an example of how it might go perhaps you'll write "Living consciously to me means -- really listening to my children", "-- being in the present", "-- remembering the things I've got to do today", "-- noticing the emotional mood of my spouse and children", "-- thinking about the consequences of my actions", "-- thinking about my choices and decisions before I translate them into action", "-- noticing how I'm affecting by things people say or do", "-- noticing how people are affected by things I say or do", and so on.

When you're done, go on to the next stem, which is:

  • If I bring 5 percent more awareness to my activities today --

And when you've done that, go onto this stem:

  • If I pay more attention to how I deal with people today --

And finally:

  • If I bring 5 percent to my most important relationships today --

Sentence Completions (Contd.)

When you're finished, proceed with your day's business. At the end of the day, as your last task before dinner, do 6 to 10 endings each, for the following stems:

  • When I reflect on how I would feel if I lived more consciously --
  • When I reflect on what happens when I bring 5 percent more awareness to my activities --
  • When I reflect on what happens when I bring 5 percent more awareness to my most important relationships --

Do this exercise every day, Monday through Friday for the first week. Do not read what you wrote the day before. Naturally there will be many repetitions, but also new endings will inevitably occur. Your energising all of your psyche to work for you. An average session should not take longer than 10 minutes. If it takes much longer, you are thinking too much.

Some time each weekend, re-read what you have written for the week, and then write a minimum of 6 endings for this stem:

  • If any of what I have been writing this week is true, it might be helpful if I --

In doing this work the idea is to empty your mind of any expectations of what will happen, or what is supposed to happen. Do not impose any demands on the situation. Try to empty your mind of expectations. Do the exercise, go about your days activities, and merely notice any differences in how you feel or how you operate. You will discover that you have set in motion forces that make it virtually impossible for you to avoid operating more consciously.

In addition to my psychotherapy practice, I conduct weekly ongoing self-esteem groups, where many of my self-esteem building strategies are continually tested. Sentence completion exercises have proven to be powerful in quietly and gently generating change. No-one has ever done this particular consciousness exercise for a month or two without showing signs of operating at a higher level of awareness in the conduct of daily life. The exercise is an adrenaline shot into the psyche.

After you have worked with these stems for say two weeks, you will acquire a sense for how the procedure works, then you can begin to use other stems to help raise your awareness with regard to particular issues of concern.

A Challenge

Living consciously is both a practice and a mindset -- an orientation toward life, and clearly, it exists on a continuum. No-one lives entirely unconsciously, and no-one is incapable of expanding his or her consciousness. If we reflect on this issue we will notice that we tend to be more conscious in some areas of our life than in others. I have worked with athletes and dancers who are exquisitely aware of the slightest nuances within their bodies, and yet who are quite unaware of the meaning of their emotions. We all know people who are brilliantly conscious in the area of work and are catastrophes of unconsciousness in their personal relationships.

The ways we know what area of our life needs more awareness. We look at the area of our life that is working least satisfactorily. We notice where the pains and frustrations are. We observe where we feel least effective. If we are willing to be honest, this is not a difficult task. Once you identify the areas in your life where you are at your most conscious, and also the areas where you are least conscious, the next step is to reflect on what seems to be difficult about staying in high-level mental focus in the troublesome areas. You might find it stimulating to consider the following questions:

  • If you choose to be more conscious at work, what might you do differently?
  • If you choose to be more conscious in your most important relationships, what might you do differently?
  • If you choose to pay more attention to how you deal with people -- associates, employees, customers, spouse or friends -- what might you do differently?

A Challenge (Contd.)

  • If you feel fear or reluctance to expand consciousness in any of these areas, what are the imagined negatives you are avoiding?
  • If, without self-reproach, you bring more consciousness to your fears or reluctance, what might you notice?
  • If you wanted to feel more powerful and effective in the areas where your consciousness has been less than it needs to be, what are you willing to do?

Pillar 2: The Practice of Self-Acceptance

The Second Pillar of Self-esteem, is Self-Acceptance.

Without self-acceptance, self-esteem is impossible. In fact, it is so intimately bound up with self-esteem that one some times sees the two ideas confused. Yet they are different in meaning, and each needs to be understood in its own right. Whereas self-esteem is something we experience, self-acceptance is something we do.

The First Level

To be self-accepting, is to be on my own side -- to be for myself. In the most fundamental sense, self-acceptance refers to an orientation of self-value and self-commitment that derives from the fact that I am alive and conscious. As such, it is more primitive than self-esteem. It is a pre-rational, pre-moral act of self-affirmation, it is a kind of natural egoism that is the birthright of every human being. Some people are self-rejecting at so deep a level that no growth work can even begin until and unless this problem is addressed. If it is not, no treatment will hold, no new learning will be properly integrated, no significant advances can be made.

An attitude of basic self-acceptance entails the declaration "I choose to value myself, to treat myself with respect, to stand up for my right to exist." This primary act of self-affirmation is the base on which self-esteem develops.

It can lie sleeping and then suddenly awake. It can fight for our life, even when we are filled with despair. When we are on the brink of suicide, it can make us pick up the telephone and call for help. From the depths of anxiety or depression, it can lead us to the office of a psychotherapist. After we have endured years of abuse and humiliation, it can fling us finally into shouting "No'" When all we want to do is lie down and die, it can impel us to keep moving. It is the voice of the life force. It is "selfishness," in the noblest meaning of that word. If it goes silent, self-esteem is the first casualty.

The Second Level

Self-acceptance entails our willingness to experience -- without denial or evasion -- that we think what we think, feel what we feel, desire what we desire, have done what we have done, and are what we are. It is our willingness to experience rather than to disown whatever may be the facts of our being at a particular moment.

The willingness to experience and accept our feelings carries no implication that emotions are to have the last word on what we do. I may not be in the mood to work today; I can acknowledge my feelings, experience them, accept them -- and then go to work. I will work with a clearer mind because I have not begun the day with self-deception.

Often,when we fully experience and accept negative feelings, we are able to let go of them; they have been allowed to have their say and they relinquish center stage.

Self-acceptance is the willingness to say of any emotion or behavior, "This is an expression of me, not necessarily an expression I like or admire, but an expression of me nonetheless, at least at the time it occurred." It is the virtue of realism, that is, of respect for reality, applied to the self.

If I am thinking these disturbing thoughts, I am thinking them; I accept the full reality of my experience. If I am feeling pain or anger or fear or inconvenient lust, I am feeling it -- what is true, is true -- I do not rationalise, deny, or attempt to explain away. I am feeling what I am feeling and I accept the reality of my experience. If I have taken actions of which I am later ashamed, the fact remains that I have taken them -- I do not twist my brain to make facts disappear. I am willing to stand still in the presence of what I know to be true. What is, is.

The Second Level (Contd.)

To "accept" is more than simply to "acknowledge" or "admit." It is to experience, stand in the presence of, contemplate the reality of, absorb into my consciousness. I need to open myself to and fully experience unwanted emotions, not just perfunctorily recognise them.

Accepting does not necessarily mean liking, enjoying or condoning. I can accept what is, and be determined to evolve from there. It is not acceptance but denial that leaves me stuck. I cannot be truly for myself -- I cannot build self-esteem -- if I cannot accept myself.

The Third Level

Self-acceptance also entails the idea of compassion, of being a friend to myself.

Suppose I have done something that I regret, or of which I am ashamed, and for which I reproach myself. Self-acceptance does not deny reality, does not argue that what is wrong is really all right, but it inquires into the context in which the action was taken. It wants to understand the why. It wants to know why something that is wrong or inappropriate felt desirable or appropriate or even necessary at the time.

We do not understand another human being when we know only that what he or she did is wrong, unkind, destructive, or whatever. We need to know the internal considerations that prompted the behavior. There is always some context in which the most offensive actions can have their own kind of sense. This does not mean they are justified, only that they can be understandable.

I can condemn some action I have taken and still have compassionate interest in the motives that prompted it. I can still be a friend to myself. This has nothing to do with alibiing, rationalising, or avoiding responsibility. A good friend might say to me, "This was unworthy of you. Now tell me, What made it feel like a good idea, or at least a defensible one?". This too, is what I can say to myself.

Just as when we need to reproach or correct others, we should wish to do so in ways that do not damage self-esteem -- so we should bring this same benevolence to ourselves. This is the virtue of self-acceptance.

An Exercise

By way of introducing clients to the idea of self-acceptance, I often like to begin with a simple exercise. It can offer a profound learning experience.

Stand in front of a full-length mirror and look at your face and body. Notice your feelings as you do so. I am asking you to focus not on your clothes or your makeup but on you. Notice if this is difficult or makes you uncomfortable. It is good to do this exercise naked.

You will probably like some parts of what you see more than others. If you are like most people, you will find some parts difficult to look at for long because they agitate or displease you. In your eyes there may be a pain you do not want to confront. Perhaps you are too fat or too thin. Perhaps there is some aspect of your body you so dislike that you can hardly bear to keep looking at it. Perhaps you see signs of age and cannot bear to stay connected with the thoughts and emotions these signs evoke. So the impulse is to escape, to flee from awareness, to reject, deny, disown aspects of your self.

Stay focused on your image in the mirror a few moments longer, and say to yourself, "Whatever my defects or imperfections, I accept myself unreservedly and completely." Stay focused, breathe deeply, and say this over and over again for a minute or two without rushing the process. Allow yourself to experience fully the meaning of your words.

You may find yourself protesting, "But I don't like certain things about my body, so how can I accept them unreservedly and completely?" But remember: "Accepting" does not necessarily mean "liking.". "Accepting" does not mean we cannot imagine or wish for changes or improvements. It means experiencing, without denial or avoidance, that a fact is a fact. In this case, it means accepting that the face and body in the mirror are your face and body and that they are what they are.

Even though you may not like or enjoy everything you see when you look in the mirror, you are still able to say, "Right now, that's me. And I don't deny the fact. I accept it." That is respect for reality. When clients commit to do this exercise for two minutes every morning and again every night for two weeks, they soon begin to experience the relationship between self-acceptance and self-esteem.

An Exercise (Contd.)

That relationship is: a mind that honors sight, honors itself, but more than that: How can self-esteem not suffer, if we are in a rejecting relationship to our own physical being? Is it realistic to imagine we can love ourselves while despising what we see in the mirror.

Those who do this exercise make another important discovery. Not only do they enter a more harmonious relationship with themselves, not only do they begin to grow in self-efficacy and self-respect, but if aspects of the self they do not like are within their power to change, they are more motivated to make the changes, once they have accepted the facts as they are now. We are not moved to change those things whose reality we deny. What about those things we cannot change? When we accept them we grow stronger and more centered; when we curse and protest them, we disempower ourselves.

When Self-Acceptance Feels Impossible

Suppose our negative reaction to some experience is so overwhelming that we feel we cannot practice self-acceptance with regard to it?

Let us say, the feeling, thought, or memory is so distressing and agitating that acceptance feels out of the question. We feel powerless not to block and contract. The solution is not to try to resist our resistance. It is not useful to try to block a block. Instead, we need to do something more artful. If we cannot accept a feeling (or a thought ora memory), we should accept our resistance. In other words, start by accepting where we are. Be present to the now and experience it fully. If we stay with the resistance at a conscious level, it will usually begin to dissolve.

When we fight a block it grows stronger. When we acknowledge, experience, and accept it, it begins to melt because it's continued existence requires opposition.

Sometimes in therapy, when a person has difficulty accepting a feeling, I will ask if he or she is willing to accept the fact of refusing to accept the feeling. I asked this once of a client who was a clergyman and who had great difficulty in owning or experiencing his anger; just the same, he was a very angry man. My request disoriented him. "Will I accept that I won't accept my anger?" he asked me. When I answered, "That's right," he thundered, "I refuse to accept my anger and I refuse to accept my refusal!" I asked, "Will you accept your refusal to accept your refusal? We've got to begin somewhere. Let's begin there."

I asked him to face the group and say "I'm angry" over and over again. Soon he was saying it very angrily indeed.

Then I had him say "I refuse to accept my anger," which he shouted with escalating vigor.

Then I had him say "I refuse to accept my refusal to accept my anger," which he plunged into ferociously.

Then I had him say "But I am willing to accept my refusal to accept my refusal," and he kept repeating it until he broke down and joined in the laughter of the group.

"If you can't accept the experience, accept the resistance," he said, and I answered, "Right. And if you can't accept the resistance, accept your resistance to accepting the resistance. Eventually you'll arrive at a point you can accept. Then you can move forward from there..."

Listening to Feelings

Both accepting and disowning are implemented through a combination of mental and physical processes.

The act of experiencing and accepting our emotions is implemented through:

  1. Focusing on the feeling or emotion, then,
  2. Breathing gently and deeply, allowing muscles to relax, allowing the feeling to be felt, and finally,
  3. Making real that this is my feeling. This is what we call owning it.

In contrast, we deny and disown our emotions through:

  1. Avoiding awareness of their reality, then,
  2. Constricting our breathing and tightening our muscles to cut off or numb feeling, and finally,
  3. Disassociating ourselves from our own experience.

Two Fallacies

We typically encounter two fallacious assumptions when people have difficulty with the idea of self-acceptance. One is the belief that if we accept who and what we are, we must approve of everything about us. The other is the belief that if we accept who and what we are, we are indifferent to change or improvement.

But of course the question is: If we cannot accept what is, where will we find the motivation to improve? If I deny and disown what is, how will I be inspired to grow?

There is a paradox here: Acceptance of what is, is the precondition of change. And denial of what is leaves me stuck in it.

Sentence Completions to Facilitate Self-Acceptance

Lets try some sentence completion exercises designed to facilitate self-acceptance.

Each morning, write 6 to 10 endings for the following sentence stems as rapidly as possible (again, do not worry if your endings are literally true, make sense or are profound):

  • Self-acceptance to me means --
  • If I am more accepting of my body --
  • When I deny and disown my body --
  • If I am more accepting of my conflicts --

Sentence Completions to Facilitate Self-Acceptance (Contd.)

That's all. When you're finished, proceed with your day's business. In the evening, do 6 to 10 endings each for the following stems:

  • When I deny or disown my conflicts --
  • If I am more accepting of my feelings --
  • When I deny and disown my feelings --
  • If I am more accepting of my thoughts --
  • When I deny and disown my thoughts --

Do this exercise every day, Monday through Friday. On the weekend, read over what you have written, and then write 6 to 10 endings for this stem:

  • If any of what I have been writing is true, it might be helpful if I --

The Ultimate Crime Against Ourselves: The Disowning of Positives

Anything we have the possibility of experiencing, we have the possibility of disowning, either immediately or later, in memory. As the philosopher Nietzsche wrote: " 'I did it,' says memory. 'I couldn't have,' says pride, and remains relentless. Eventually memory yields.". I can rebel against my memories, thoughts, emotions, actions. I can reject rather than accept virtually any aspect of my experience.

I can refuse to accept my sensuality. I can refuse to accept my spirituality. I can disown my sorrow; I can disown my joy. I can repress the memory of actions of which I am ashamed; I can repress the memory of actions of which I am proud. I can deny my ignorance; I can deny my intelligence. I can refuse to accept my limitations; I can refuse to accept my potentials. I can conceal my weaknesses; I can conceal my strengths. I can deny my feelings of self-hatred; I can deny my feelings of self-love. I can pretend that I am more than I am; I can pretend that I am less than I am. I can disown my body; I can disown my mind. We can be as frightened of our assets as of our shortcomings -- as frightened of our genius, ambition, excitement, or beauty as we are of our emptiness, passivity, depression, or unattractiveness. If our liabilities pose the problem of inadequacy, our assets pose the challenge of responsibility.

The greatest crime we commit against ourselves is not that we may deny and disown our shortcomings but that we deny and disown our greatness-because it frightens us. If a fully realised self-acceptance does not evade the worst within us, neither does it evade the best.

Pillar 3: The Practice of Self-Responsibility

The Third Pillar of Self-Esteem, is The Practice of Self-Responsibility.

To feel competent to live and worthy of happiness, I need to experience a sense of control over my existence. This requires that I be willing to take responsibility for my actions and the attainment of my goals. This means that I take responsibility for my life and well-being.

Self-responsibility is essential to self-esteem, and it is also a reflection or manifestation of self-esteem. The relationship between self-esteem, and it's pillars is always reciprocal: The practices that generate self-esteem are also natural expressions and consequences of self-esteem.

The practice of self-responsibility entails these realisations:

  • 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 to my work.
  • I am responsible for the level of consciousness I bring to my relationships.
  • I am responsible for my behavior with other people -- coworkers, associates, customers, spouse, children, friends.
  • I am responsible for how I prioritise my time.
  • I am responsible for my personal happiness.
  • I am responsible for accepting or choosing the values by which I live.
  • I am responsible for raising my self-esteem.

The Practice of Self-Responsibility (Contd.)

Once when I was lecturing to a group of psychotherapists on the six pillars of self-esteem, one of them asked me, "Why do you put your emphasis on what the individual must do to grow in self-esteem? Isn't the source of self-esteem the fact that we are children of God?" I have encountered this question a number of times.

Whether one believes in a God, and whether one believes we are God's children, is irrelevant to the issue of what self-esteem requires. Let us imagine that there is a God and that we are his/her/its children. In this respect, then, we are all equal. Does it follow that everyone is or should be equal in self-esteem, regardless of whether anyone lives consciously or unconsciously, responsibly or irresponsibly, honestly or dishonestly? Earlier in this book we saw that this is impossible. There is no way for our mind to avoid registering the choices we make in the way we operate and no way for our sense of self to remain unaffected. If we are children of God, the questions remain: What are we going to do about it? What are we going to make of it? Will we honor our gifts or betray them? If we betray ourselves and our powers, if we live mindlessly, purposelessly, and without integrity, can we buy our way out,can we acquire self-esteem, by claiming to be God's relatives? Do we imagine we can thus relieve ourselves of personal responsibility?

Whatever role a belief in God may play in our lives, surely it is not to justify a default on consciousness, responsibility, and integrity.

A Clarification

In stressing that we need to take responsibility for our life and happiness, I am not suggesting that a person never suffers through accident or through the fault of others, or that a person is responsible for everything that may happen to him or her.

I do not support the grandiose notion that "I am responsible for every aspect of my existence and everything that befalls me." Some things we have control over; others we do not. If I hold myself responsible for matters beyond my control, I put my self-esteem in jeopardy, since inevitably I will fail my expectations. If I deny responsibility for matters that are within my control, again I jeopardise my self-esteem. I need to know the difference between that which is up to me and that which is not. The only consciousness over which I have volitional control is my own.


It is easy enough in work situations to observe the difference between those who practice self-responsibility and those who do not. Self-responsibility shows up as an active orientation to work (and to life) rather than a passive one.

If there is a problem, men and women who are self-responsible ask, "What can I do about it? What avenues of action are possible to me?" If something goes wrong, they ask, "What did I overlook? Where did I miscalculate? How can I correct the situation?" They do not protest, "But no one told me what to do! " or "But it's not my job!" They indulge neither in alibis nor in blaming. They are typically solution oriented.

In every organisation we encounter both types: those who wait for someone else to provide a solution and those who take responsibility for finding it. It is only by grace of the second type that organisations are able to operate effectively.

A Personal Example

In the overall conduct of my life, I would say that I have always operated at a fairly high level of self-responsibility. I did not look to others to provide for my needs or wants. But I can think of a time when I failed my own principles rather badly, with painful results.

In my twenties I formed an intense relationship with novelist-philosopher Ayn Rand. Over the course of eighteen years, our relationship passed through almost every form imaginable: from student and teacher to friends and colleagues to lovers and partners-and, ultimately, to adversaries. The story of this relationship is the dramatic centerpiece of Judgment Day. In the beginning and for some years, the relationship was nurturing, inspiring, valuable in many ways; I learned and grew enormously. But eventually it became constricting, toxic, destructive-a barrier to my further intellectual and psychological development.

I did not take the initiative and propose that our relationship be redefined and reconstituted on a different basis. I told myself I did not want to cause pain. I waited for her to see what I saw. I looked to her rationality and wisdom to reach the decision that would be right for both of us. In effect, I was relating to an abstraction, the author of The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, rather than to the concrete woman in front of me. I did not confront the fact that her agenda was very different from mine and that she was totally absorbed in her own needs. I delayed facing the fact that nothing would change unless I made it change. And because I delayed, I caused suffering and humiliation to us both. I avoided a responsibility that was mine to take. No matter what explanations I gave myself, there was no way for my self-esteem to remain unaffected. Only when I began to take the initiative did I begin the process of regaining what I had lost.

We often see this pattern in marriages. One partner sees before the other that the relationship is finished. But he or she does not want to be "the bad guy," the one to end things. So instead manipulation begins, to lead the other to make the first move. It is cruel, degrading, lacking in dignity, and hurtful to both people. It is self-demeaning and self- diminishing.

To the extent that I evade responsibility, I inflict wounds on my self-esteem. In accepting responsibility, I build self-esteem.

The Moral Principle

Embracing self-responsibility not merely as a personal preference but as a philosophical principle entails one's acceptance of a profoundly important moral idea. In taking responsibility for our own existence we implicitly recognise that other human beings are not our servants and do not exist for the satisfaction of our needs. We are not morally entitled to treat other human beings as means to our ends, just as we are not a means to theirs.

Sentence Completions to Facilitate Self-Responsibility

In my therapy practice and my self-esteem groups, I work with a great number of sentence stems that allow clients to explore the psychology of self-responsibility. I offer a representative sampling here. Each morning, as rapidly as possible, write 6 to 10 endings for the following sentence stems:

  • Self-responsibility to me means --
  • At the thought of being responsible for my own existence --
  • If I accepted responsibility for my own existence, that would mean --
  • When I avoid responsibility for my own existence --
  • If I accept 5 percent more responsibility for the attainment of my own goals --
  • When I avoid responsibility for the attainment of my goals --
  • If I took more responsibility for the success of my relationships --
  • Sometimes I keep myself passive by --

If you keep a journal and over time write six to ten endings for each of these incomplete sentences, not only will you learn a great deal but it will be almost impossible not to grow in the practice of self-responsibility.

The best way of working is to do the foregoing stems Monday through Friday, then do the following weekend stem:

  • If any of what I have been writing is true, it might be helpful if I --

No One Is Coming

Having worked with people for so many years with the aim of building self-esteem, I have always been on the lookout for decisive moments in psychotherapy, instances when a "click" seems to occur in the client's mind and new forward motion begins.

One of the most important of such moments is when the client grasps that no-one is coming. No-one is coming to save me. No-one is coming to make life right for me. No-one is coming to solve my problems. If I don't do something different, nothing is going to get better.

Some years ago, in my group therapy room, we hung on the wall a number of sayings that I often found useful in my work. A client made me a gift of several of these sayings done in needlepoint, each with a frame. One of these sayings was "no-one is coming". One day a group member with a sense of humour challenged me about it: "Nathaniel, it's not true!", he said, "You came!". "Correct", I admitted, "but I came to say that no-one is coming".

Pillar 4: The Practice of Self-Assertiveness

The fourth pillar of self-esteem is the practice of self-assertiveness.

Self-assertiveness means honouring my wants needs and values, and seeking appropriate forms of their expression in reality.

It's opposite is that surrender to timidity that consists of consigning myself to a perpetual underground, where everything I am lays hidden or stillborn. To avoid confrontation with someone whose values differ from mine, or to please, placate or manipulate someone, or, simply, to "belong".

Self-assertion does not mean belligerence, or inappropriate aggressiveness. It does not mean pushing to the front of the line, or knocking other people over. It does not mean upholding my own rights by being blind or indifferent to everyone else's.

It simply means the willingness to stand up for myself, to be who I am openly, to treat myself with respect in all human encounters.

To practice self-assertiveness is to live authentically -- to speak and act for my inner-most convictions and feelings -- as a way of life, as a rule -- allowing for the obvious fact that there may be particular circumstances in which I may justifiably choose not to do so.

Appropriate self-assertiveness pays attention to context. The forms of self-expression appropriate when playing on the floor with a child are obviously different than at a staff meeting. In every context there will be appropriate and inappropriate forms of self-expression. Sometimes self-assertiveness is manifested through volunteering an idea or paying a compliment. Sometimes through a polite silence that signals non-agreement. Sometimes by refusing to smile at a tasteless joke. While appropriate self-expression varies with the context -- in every situation there is a choice to be authentic or unauthentic; real or unreal. If we do not want to face this of course we will deny that we have a choice -- we will assert that we are helpless, but the choice is always there.

What Self-Assertiveness Is and Is Not

Let's examine what self-assertiveness is, and is not.

  1. The first and basic act of self-assertion is the assertion of consciousness. This entails the choice to see, think, to be aware, to send the light of consciousness outward toward the world and inward toward our own being. To ask questions is an act of self-assertion. To challenge authority is an act of self-assertion. To think for oneself -- and to stand by what one thinks -- is the root of self-assertion. To default on this responsibility is to default on the self at the most basic level.

Note that self-assertiveness should not be confused with mindless rebelliousness. "Self-assertiveness" without consciousness is not self-assertiveness; it is drunk-driving.

Sometimes people who are essentially dependent and fearful choose a form of assertiveness that is self-destructive. It consists of reflexively saying "No!" when their interests would be better served by saying "Yes." Their only form of self-assertiveness is protest -- whether it makes sense or not. We often see this response among teenagers -- and among adults who have never matured beyond this teenage level of consciousness.

While healthy self-assertiveness requires the ability to say no, it is ultimately tested not by what we are against but by what we are for. A life that consists only of a string of negations is a waste and a tragedy.

Self-assertiveness asks that we not only oppose,what we deplore but that we live and express our values. In this respect, it is intimately tied to the issue of integrity.

  1. To practice self-assertiveness logically and 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 here on earth to live up to someone else's expectations. To many people, this is a terrifying responsibility. It means that Mother and Father and other authority figures cannot be counted on as protectors. It means they are responsible for their own existence -- and for generating their own sense of security.

To practice self-assertiveness consistently I need the conviction that my ideas and wants are important. Unfortunately, this conviction is often lacking. When we were young, many of us received signals conveying that what we thought and felt or wanted was not important.

It often takes courage to honor what we want and to fight for it. For many people, self-surrender and self-sacrifice are far easier. They do not require the integrity and responsibility that intelligent selfishness requires.

  1. Within an organisation, self-assertiveness is required not merely to , have a good idea but to develop it, fight for it, work to win supporters for it, do everything within one's power to see that it gets translated into reality. It is the lack of this practice that causes so many potential contributions to die before they are born.

As a consultant, when I am asked to work with a team that has difficulty functioning effectively on some project, I often find that one source of the dysfunction is one or more people who do not really participate, do not really put themselves into the undertaking. Why? Because of some feeling that they do not have the power to make a difference, they do not believe that their contribution can matter. In their passivity they became saboteurs. A project manager remarked to me, "I'd rather worry about handling some egomaniac who thinks he's the whole project than struggle with some self-doubting but talented individual whose insecurities stop him from kicking in what he's got to offer."

Without appropriate self-assertiveness, we are spectators, not participants. Healthy self-esteem asks that we leap into the arena -- that we be willing to get our hands dirty.

Persons with an underdeveloped sense of identity often tell themselves, if I express myself, I may evoke disapproval. If I love and affirm myself, I may evoke resentment. If I am too happy with myself, I may evoke jealousy. If I stand out, I may be compelled to stand alone. Such people remain frozen in the face of such possibilities -- and pay a terrible price in loss of self-esteem.

  1. Self-assertion entails the willingness to confront rather than evade the challenges of life and to strive for mastery. When we expand the boundaries of our ability to cope, we expand self-efficacy and self-respect. When we commit ourselves to new areas of learning, when we take on tasks that stretch us, we raise personal power. We thrust ourselves further into the universe. We assert our existence.

When we are attempting to understand something and we hit a wall, it is an act of self-assertiveness to persevere. When we undertake to acquire new skills, absorb new knowledge, extend the reach of our mind across unfamiliar spaces -- when we commit ourselves to moving to a higher level of competence -- we are practicing self-assertiveness.

When we learn how to be in an intimate relationship without abandoning our sense of self, when we learn how to be kind without being self-sacrificing, when we learn how to cooperate with others without betraying our standards and convictions, then, we are practicing self-assertiveness.

Examples of Self-Assertiveness

Some people stand and move as if they have no right to the space they occupy. Some speak as if their intention is that you not be able to hear them, either because they mumble or speak faintly or both. Some signal at the most crudely obvious level that they do not feel they have a right to exist. These people embody lack of self-assertiveness in its most extreme form. Their poor self-esteem is obvious. In therapy, when such men and women learn to move and speak with more assurance, they invariably report a rise in self-esteem.

Not all manifestations of non-self-assertiveness are obvious. The average life is marked by thousands of unremembered silences, surrenders, capitulations, and misrepresentations of feelings and beliefs that corrode dignity and self-respect. When we do not express ourselves, do not assert our being, do not stand up for our values in contexts where it is appropriate to do so, we inflict wounds on our sense of self. The world does not do it to us -- we do it to ourselves.

Consider the example of a young man sits alone in the darkness of a movie theater, deeply inspired by the drama unfolding before him. The story touches him so deeply that tears come to his eyes. He knows that in a week or so he will want to come back and see this film again. In the lobby he spots a friend who was at the same screening, and they greet each other. He searches his friend's face for clues to his feelings about the movie; but the face is blank. The friend inquires, "How'd you like the picture?" The young man feels an instant stab of fear; he does not want to appear "uncool." He does not want to say the truth -- "I loved it. It touched me very deeply." So instead he shrugs indifferently and says, "Not bad." He does not know that he has just slapped his own face; or rather, he does not know it consciously. His diminished self-esteem knows it.

A woman is at a cocktail party where she hears someone make an ugly racial slur that causes her inwardly to cringe. She wants to say, "I found that offensive." She knows that evil gathers momentum by being uncontested. But she is afraid of evoking disapproval. In embarrassment she looks away and says nothing. Later, to appease her sense of uneasiness, she tells herself, "What difference does it make? The man was a fool" But her self-esteem knows what difference it makes.

A Personal Example

I have already mentioned the relationship with Ayn Rand a month before my twentieth birthday and that came to an explosive parting of the ways eighteen years later. Among the many benefits that I received from her in the early years, one was an experience of profound visibility. I felt understood and appreciated by her to an extent that was without precedent. What made her response so important was the high esteem in which I held her; I admired her enormously.

Only gradually did I realise that she did not tolerate disagreement well. Not among intimates. She did not require full agreement among acquaintances, but with anyone who wanted to be truly close, enormous enthusiasm was expected for every deed and utterance. I did not notice the steps by which I learned to censor negative reactions to some of her behavior -- when, for example, I found her self-congratulatory remarks excessive or her lack of empathy disquieting or her pontificating unworthy of her. I did not give her the kind of corrective feedback everyone needs from time to time.

In later years, after the break, I often reflected on why I did not speak up more often. The simple truth was, I valued her esteem too much to place it in jeopardy. I had, in effect, become addicted to it. In exchange for the intoxicating gratification of being treated as a demigod by the person I valued above all others and whose good opinion I treasured above all others, I leashed my self-assertiveness in ways that over time were damaging to my self-regard.

In the end, I learned an invaluable lesson. I learned that surrenders of this kind do not work; they merely postpone confrontations that are inevitable and necessary. I learned that the temptation to self-betrayal can sometimes be worst with those about whom we care the most. I learned that no amount of admiration for another human being can justify sacrificing one's judgment.

Sentence Completions to Facilitate Self-Assertiveness

The following sentence stems can facilitate reaching a deeper understanding of self-assertiveness. Each morning for each stem, write 6 to 10 endings as rapidly as possible.

  • Self-assertiveness to me means --
  • If I lived 5 percent more self-assertively today --
  • If I brought more awareness to my deepest needs and wants --
  • If I were willing to voice my thoughts and opinions more often --
  • When I suppress my thoughts and opinions --

And, as before, on the weekend, after rereading the week's stems, write 6 to 10 endings for this one:

  • If any of what I have been writing is true, it might be helpful if I --


Once again we can appreciate that the actions that support healthy self-esteem 'are also expressions of healthy self-esteem. Self- assertiveness both supports self-esteem and is a manifestation of it. It is a mistake to look at someone who is self-assured and say, "Well, it's easy for her to be self-assertive, she has good self-esteem." 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.

Pillar 5: The Practice of Living Purposefully

The Fifth Pillar of Self-Esteem is The Practice of Living Purposefully.

I have a friend in his late sixties who is one of the most brilliant and sought-after business speakers in the country. A few years ago he reconnected with a woman he had known and loved many years earlier, with whom he had been out of touch for three decades. She, too, was now in her sixties. They fell passionately in love.

Telling me about it one evening at dinner, my friend had never looked happier. It was wonderful to be with him and to see the look of rapture on his face . Thinking, perhaps, of the two divorces in his past, he said, wistfully and urgently, "God, I hope I handle things right this time. I want this relationship to succeed so much. I wish, I mean I want -- I hope -- you know, that I don't screw up." I was silent and he asked, "Got any advice?"

"Well, yes, I do," I answered. "If you want it to work, you must make it your conscious purpose that it work. " He leaned forward intently, and I went on. "I can just imagine what your reaction would be if you were at IBM and some executive said, 'Gee, I hope we handle the marketing of this new product properly. I really want us to succeed with this, and I wish --' You'd be all over him in a minute saying, 'What is this hope stuff? What do you mean, you wish?' My advice is, apply what you know about the importance of purpose -- in business -- to your personal life.

His elated smile said eloquently that he understood.

This leads me to the subject of living purposefully.

To live without purpose is to live at the mercy of chance -- the chance event, the chance phone call, the chance encounter -- because we have no standard by which to judge what is or is not worth doing. Outside forces bounce us along, like a cork floating on water, with no initiative of our own to set a specific course. Our orientation to life is reactive rather than proactive. We are drifters.

To live purposefully is to use our powers for the attainment of goals we have selected: the goal of studying, of raising a family, of earning a living, of starting a new business, of bringing a new product into the marketplace, of sustaining a happy romantic relationship. It is our goals that lead us forward, that call on the exercise of our faculties, that energise our existence.

Productivity and Purpose

To live purposefully is, among other things, to live productively, which is a necessity of making ourselves competent to life. Productivity is the act of supporting our existence by translating our thoughts into reality, of setting our goals and working for their achievement, of bringing knowledge, goods, or services into existence.

Self-responsible men and women do not pass to others the burden of supporting their existence. It is not the degree of a person's productive ability that matters here but the person's choice to exercise such ability as he or she possesses. Nor is it the kind of work selected that is important, provided the work is not intrinsically antilife, but whether a person seeks work that offers an outlet for his or her intelligence, if the opportunity to do so exists.

The purposes that move us need to be specific if they are to be realised. I cannot organise my behavior optimally if my goal is merely "to do my best." The assignment is too vague. My goal needs to be precisely defined, for example: to earn a specific sum of money in commissions by the end of the year; exercise on the treadmill for 30 minutes, 4 times a week; to achieve a specific market niche by a specific means by a specific target date. With such specificity, I am able to monitor my progress, compare intentions with results, modify my strategy or my tactics in response to new information, and be accountable for the results I produce.

To live purposefully is to be concerned with these questions: What am I trying to achieve? How am I trying to achieve it? Why do I think these means are appropriate? Does the feedback from the environment convey that I am succeeding or failing? Is there new information that I need to consider? Do I need to make adjustments in my course, or in my strategy, or in my practices? Do my goals and purposes need to be rethought? Thus, to live purposefully means to live at a high level of consciousness.

It is easier for people to understand these ideas as applied to work than to personal relationships. That may be why more people make a success of their work life than of their marriages. Everyone knows it is not enough to say "I love my work." One must show up at the office and do something. Otherwise, the business moves toward non-existence.

In intimate relationships, however, it is easy to imagine that "love" is enough, that happiness will just come, and if it doesn't, this means we are wrong for each other. People rarely ask themselves, "If my goal is to have a successful relationship, what must I do? What actions are needed to create and sustain trust, intimacy, continuing self-disclosure, excitement, growth?"

Purposes unrelated to a plan of action do not get realised. They exist only as frustrated yearnings. Or more precisely -- as daydreams. 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 behavior over time in the service of specific tasks. No-one who is without the capacity for self-discipline can feel competent to cope with the challenges of life. Self-discipline requires the ability to defer immediate gratification in the service of a remote goal. This is the ability to think, plan, and live long-range. Neither an individual nor a business can function effectively, let alone flourish, in the absence of this practice.

One of the challenges of effective parenthood or effective teaching is to communicate a respect for the present that does not disregard the future, and a respect for the future that does not disregard the present. To master this balance is a challenge to all of us. It is essential if we are to enjoy the sense of being in control of our existence.

A purposeful, self-disciplined life does not mean a life without time or space for rest, relaxation, recreation, random or even frivolous activity. It merely means that such activities are chosen consciously, with the knowledge that it is safe and appropriate to engage in them. And in any event, the temporary abandonment of purpose also serves a purpose, whether consciously intended or not: that of regeneration.

What Living Purposefully Entails

The practice of living purposefully entails the following 4 core issues:

  1. Taking responsibility for formulating one's goals and purposes consciously.
  2. Identifying the actions necessary to achieve one's goals.
  3. Monitoring behavior to check that it is in alignment with one's goals.

What Living Purposefully Entails (Contd.)

  1. Paying attention to the outcomes of one's actions, to know whether they are leading where one wants to go.

Thinking Clearly About Purposeful Living

  1. As an example of the confusions that can surround the issue of living purposefully, consider the extraordinary statement made by psychiatrist Irvin D. Yalom in his book Existential Psychotherapy. He writes, "The belief that life is incomplete without goal fulfillment is not so much a tragic existential fact of life as it is a Western myth, a cultural artifact."

But, if there is anything we know, it is that life is impossible without "goal fulfillment" -- impossible on every level of evolution, from the amoeba to the human being. It is neither "a tragic existential fact" nor a "Western myth" but rather the simple nature of life.

The alternative to "goal fulfillment" is passivity and aimlessness. Is it a tragedy that such a state does not yield a joy equal to the joys of achievement?

Incidentally, let us remember that "goal fulfillment" is not confined to "worldly" goals. A life of study or meditation has its own kind of purposefulness -- or it can have. But a life without purpose can hardly be said to be human.

  1. To observe that the practice of living purposefully is essential to fully realised self-esteem should not be understood to mean that the measure of an individual's worth is his or her external achievements. The root of our self-esteem is not our achievements but those internally generated practices that, among other things, make it possible for us to achieve -- all the self-esteem virtues we are discussing here. Steel industrialist Andrew Carnegie once stated, "You can take away our factories, take away our trade, our avenues of transportation and our money -- leave us with nothing but our organisation -- and in four years we could reestablish ourselves." Carnegie's point was that power lies in the source of wealth, not in the wealth; in the cause, not the effect. The same principle applies to the relationship between self-esteem and external achievements.

  2. Productive achievement may be an expression of high self-esteem, but it is not its primary cause. Consider a person who is brilliantly talented and successful at work, but is irrational and irresponsible in his or her private life. Such a person may want to believe that the sole criterion of virtue is productive performance and that no other sphere of action has moral or self-esteem significance. And such a person may hide behind work in order to evade feelings of shame and guilt stemming from other areas of life. Then, productive work becomes not so much a healthy passion as an avoidance strategy, a refuge from realities one feels frightened to face.

In addition, if a person's self-esteem is tied primarily to accomplishments, success or income, the danger is that economic circumstances beyond the individual's control may lead to the failure of the business or the loss of a job, flinging him into depression or acute demoralisation.

On occasion I have counseled older men and women who found themselves unemployed, passed over in favor of people a good deal younger who were in no way better equipped, or even as well equipped, for the particular job. I have also worked with highly talented young people who suffered from a reverse form of the same prejudice, a discrimination against youth in favor of age -- where, again, objective competence and ability were not the standard. In such circumstances, often those involved suffer a feeling of loss of personal effectiveness. Such a feeling is only a hairline away from a sense of diminished self- esteem-and often turns into it. It takes an unusual kind of person to avoid falling into the trap of this error. It takes a person who is already well centered and who understands that some of the forces operating are beyond personal control and, strictly speaking, and should not have significance for self-esteem. It is not that they may not suffer or feel anxiety for the future; it is that they do not interpret the problem in terms of personal worth.

When a question of self-esteem is involved, the question to ask is: Is this matter within my direct, volitional control? Or is it at least linked by a direct line of causality · to matters within my direct, volitional control? If it isn't, it is irrelevant to self-esteem and should be perceived to be, however painful or even devastating the problem may be on other grounds.

Personal Examples

When I think of what living purposefully means in my life, I think first of taking responsibility for generating the actions necessary to achieve my goals. Living purposefully overlaps significantly with self-responsibility.

I think of a time when I wanted something I could not afford that represented a significant improvement in my way of living. A fairly large expenditure of money was involved. For several years I remained uncharacteristically passive about finding a solution. Then one day I had a thought that certainly was not new to me and yet somehow had fresh impact: If I don't do something, nothing is going to change: This jolted me out of my procrastination, of which I had been dimly aware for a long time but had not confronted. I proceeded to conceive and implement a project that was stimulating, challenging, profoundly satisfying and worthwhile -- and that produced the additional income I needed.

In principle, I could have done it several years earlier. Only when I became bored and irritated with my own procrastination; only when I decided, "I commit myself to finding a solution over the next few weeks"; only when I applied what I know about living purposefully to my own situation -- only then did I launch myself into action and toward a solution.

When I did, I noticed that not only was I happier but also that my self-esteem rose.

When I told this story in one of my self-esteem groups, I was challenged by someone who said, "That's okay for you. But not everyone is in a position to develop new projects. What are we to do?" I invited him to talk about his own procrastination and about the unfulfilled desire involved. "If you made it your conscious purpose to achieve that desire," I asked, "what might you do?" After a bit of good-natured prompting, he began to tell me.

Here are some stem sentences that my clients find helpful in deepening their understanding of the ideas we've been discussing:

  • Living purposefully to me means --
  • If I bring 5 percent more purposefulness to my life today --
  • If I operate 5 percent more purposefully in my marriage --
  • If I operate 5 percent more purposefully with my friends --
  • If I am 5 percent more purposeful about my deepest yearnings --

And once again, as a summary weekend stem:

  • If any of what I have been writing is true, it might be helpful if I --

Living purposefully is a fundamental orientation that applies to every aspect of our existence. It means that we live and act by intention. It is a distinguishing characteristic of those who enjoy a high level of control over their life

The Practice of Personal Integrity

The Sixth Pillar of Self-Esteem, is The Practice of Personal Integrity.

As we mature and develop our own values and standards (or absorb them from others), the issue of personal integrity assumes increasing importance in our self-assessment.

Integrity is the integration of ideals, convictions, standards, beliefs and behavior. When our behavior is congruent with our professed values, when ideals and practice match, we have integrity:

When we behave in ways that conflict with our judgment of what is appropriate, we lose face in our own eyes. We respect ourselves less. If the policy becomes habitual, we trust ourselves less or cease to trust ourselves at all.

At the simplest level, personal integrity entails such questions as: Am I honest, reliable, and trustworthy? Do I keep my promises? Do I do the things I say I admire and do I avoid the things I say I deplore? Am I fair and just in my dealings with others?


Integrity means congruence. Words and behavior match. There are people we know whom we trust and others we do not. If we ask ourselves the reason, we will see that congruence is basic. We trust congruency and are suspicious of incongruence. Studies disclose that many people in organisations do not trust those above them. Why? Lack of congruence. Beautiful mission statements unsupported by practice. The doctrine of respect for the individual disgraced in action. Slogans about customer service on the walls unmatched by the realities of daily business. Sermons about honesty mocked by cheating. Promises of fairness betrayed by favoritism. In most organisations, however, there are men and woman whom others trust. Why? They keep their word. They honor their commitments. They don't just promise to stick up for their people, they do it. They just don't preach fairness, they practice it. They don't just counsel honesty and integrity, they live it.

When We Betray Our Standards

To understand why lapses of integrity are detrimental to self-esteem, consider what a lapse of integrity entails. If I act in contradiction to a moral value held by someone else but not by me, I mayor may not be wrong, but I cannot be faulted for having betrayed my convictions. If, however, I act against what I myself regard as right, if my actions clash with my expressed values,· then I act against my judgment, I betray my mind. Hypocrisy, by its very nature, is self-invalidating. It is mind rejecting itself. A default on integrity undermines me and contaminates my sense of self. It damages me as no external rebuke or rejection can damage me.

I may give sermons on honesty to my children yet lie to my friends and neighbors; I may become righteous and indignant when people do not keep their commitments to me but disregard my commitments to others; I may preach a concern with quality but indifferently sell my customers shoddy goods; I may outmaneuver a colleague in the office and appropriate her achievements. And I may evade my hypocrisy, I may produce any number of rationalizations, but the fact remains I launch an assault on my self-respect that no rationalisation will dispel

If I am uniquely situated to raise my self-esteem, I am also uniquely situated to lower it.

One of the great self-deceptions is to tell oneself, "Only I will know."

Only I will know I am a liar; only I will know I deal unethically with people who trust me; only I will know I have no intention of honoring my promise. The implication is that my judgment is unimportant and that only the judgment ofothers counts. But when it comes to matters of self- esteem, I have more to fear from my own judgment than from anyone else's; In the inner courtroom of my mind, mine is the only judgment that counts. My ego, the "I" at the center of my consciousness, is the judge from whom there is no escape. I can avoid people who have learned the humiliating truth about me. I cannot avoid myself.

I recall a news article I read some years ago about a medical re- searcher of high repute who was discovered to have been faking his data for a long time while piling up grant after grant and honor after honor. There was no way for self-esteem not to be a casualty of such behavior, even before the fakery was revealed. He knowingly chose to live in a world of unreality, where his achievements and prestige were equally unreal. Long before others knew, he knew. Impostors of this kind, who live for an illusion in someone else's mind, which they hold as more important than their own knowledge of the truth, do not enjoy good self-esteem.

Most of the issues of integrity we face are not big issues but small ones, yet the accumulated weight of of choices has an impact on our sense of self. As I mentioned earlier I conduct weekly ongoing "self-esteem groups" for people who have come together for a specific purpose, to grow in self-efficacy and self-respect. One evening I gave the group this sentence stem: If I bring 5 percent more integrity into my life --

Here are the endings that were expressed:

  • If I bring 5 percent more integrity into my life --

I'd tell people when they do things that bother me.

I wouldn't pad my expense account.

I'd be truthful with my husband about what my clothes cost.

I'd tell my parents I no longer believe in God.

I wouldn't be so ingratiating to people I dislike.

I wouldn't laugh at jokes I think stupid and vulgar.

I'd put in more of an effort at work.

I'd help my wife more with chores, as I promised.

I'd tell customers the truth about what they're buying.

I wouldn't just say what people want to hear.

The ease and speed of people's responses point to the fact that these matters are not very far beneath the surface of awareness, although there is understandable motivation to evade them. People greatly underestimate the self-esteem costs and consequences of hypocrisy and dishonesty. They imagine that at worst all that is involved is some discomfort. But it is the spirit itself that is contaminated.

Dealing with Guilt

The essence of guilt, is moral self-reproach. I did wrong when it was possible for me to do otherwise. Guilt always carries the implication of choice and responsibility, whether or not we are consciously aware of it. For this reason, it is imperative that we be clear on what is and is not in our power -- what is and is not a breach of integrity. Otherwise, we run the risk of accepting guilt inappropriately.

For example, suppose someone we love is killed in an accident. Even though we may know the thought is irrational, we may tell ourselves, "Somehow I should have prevented it." Perhaps this guilt is fed in part by our regrets over actions taken or not taken while the person was alive. The survivor feels, "If only I had done such and such differently, this terrible accident would not have occurred." Thus, "guilt" can serve the desire for efficacy by providing an illusion of efficacy.

The protection of self-esteem requires a clear understanding of the limits of personal responsibility. Where there is no power, there can be no responsibility, and where there is no responsibility, there can be no reasonable self-reproach. Regret, yes; guilt, no.

The idea of Original Sin -- of guilt where there is no possibility of innocence, no freedom of choice, no alternatives available -- is anti-self- esteem by its very nature. The very notion of guilt without volition or responsibility is an assault on reason as well as on morality.

Let us think about guilt and how it can be resolved in situations where we are personally responsible. Generally speaking, five steps are needed to restore one's sense of integrity with regard to a particular breach.

  1. We must own the fact that it is we who have taken the particular action. We must face and accept the full reality of what we have done, without disowning or avoidance. We own, we accept, we take responsibility.

  2. We seek to understand why we did what we did. We do this compassionately, but without evasive alibiing.

  3. If others are involved, as they often are, we acknowledge explicitly to the relevant person or persons the harm we have done, and convey our understanding of the consequences of our behavior.

  4. We take any and all actions available that might make amends for or minimize the harm we have done.

  5. We firmly commit ourselves to behaving differently in the future .

Without all these steps, we may continue to feel guilty over some wrong behavior, even though it happened years ago, even though our psychotherapist might have told us everyone makes mistakes, and even though the wronged person may have offered forgiveness. None of that may be enough; self-esteem remains unsatisfied.

Sometimes we try to make amends without ever owning or facing what we have done. Or we keep saying "I'm sorry." Or we go out of our way to be nice to the person we have wronged without ever addressing the wrong explicitly. Or we ignore the fact that there are specific actions we could take to undo the harm we have caused. Sometimes, of course, there is no way to undo the harm, and we must accept and make our peace with that. But if we do not do what is possible and appropriate, guilt tends to linger on.

When guilt is a consequence of failed integrity, nothing less than an act of integrity can redress the breach.

What if Our Values Are Irrational?

While it is easy enough to recognize at a commonsense level the relationship between self-esteem and integrity, the issue of living up to our standards is not always simple. What if our standards are irrational or mistaken?

We may accept or absorb a code of values that does violence to our nature and needs. For example, certain religious teachings implicitly or explicitly damn sex, damn pleasure, damn the body, damn ambition, damn material success, damn (for all practical purposes) the enjoyment of life on earth. If children are indoctrinated with these teachings, what will the practice of "integrity" mean in their lives? Some elements of "hypocrisy" may be all that keeps them alive.

Once we see that living up to our standards appears to be leading us toward self-destruction, the time has come to question our standards rather than simply resigning ourselves to living without integrity. We must summon the courage to challenge some of our deepest assumptions concerning what we have been taught to regard as "the good".

One area in which living consciously and integrity clearly intersect is in the need to reflect on the values we have been taught, the shared assumptions of our family or culture, the roles we may have been assigned. We need to question whether they fit our own perceptions and understanding, or whether they do violence to the deepest and best within us, to what is sometimes called "our true nature."

One of the penalties for living unconsciously is that of enduring unrewarding lives in the service of self-stultifying ends never examined or not chosen with awareness by the individuals involved. The higher the level of consciousness at which we operate, the more we live by explicit choice and the more naturally does integrity follow as a consequence.

On Following Your Own Bliss

Discussing the complexities of moral decision making in a lecture, I was once asked what I thought of Joseph Campbell's counsel to "Follow your own bliss. " Did I believe it was ethically appropriate? I answered that while I liked what I believed to be Campbell's basic intention, his statement could be dangerous if divorced from a rational context. I suggested this modification: "Live consciously -- take responsibility for your choices and actions-respect the rights of others -- and follow your own bliss." I added that as a piece of moral advice I loved the Spanish proverb" 'Take what you want:' said God, 'and pay for it.'".

On Following Your Own Bliss (Contd.)

But of course complex moral decisions cannot be made simply on the basis of statements such as these, helpful though they may sometimes be. A moral life requires serious reflection.

A Personal Example

I have said that moral decisions are not always easy and that sometimes, rightly or wrongly, we experience our choices as agonizingly complex and difficult.

To offer a personal example, many years ago I was married to a woman I was very attached to but no longer loved; my romance with Ayn Rand was fading but not "officially" terminated. Both relationships were painfully unresolved when I met and fell passionately in love with a third woman I would later marry: Patrecia, who would die at the age of 37. For a long time my mind was a chaos of conflicting loyalties, and I handled things very badly. I did not tell the truth to my wife or to Ayn as soon as I could have -- never mind the reasons. "Reasons" do not alter facts.

It was a long road, but at its end was painfully acquired knowledge I had possessed at the beginning -- that the truth had to be told and that by procrastinating and delaying I merely made the consequences for everyone more terrible. I succeeded in protecting no one, least of all myself. If part of my motive was to spare people I cared about, I inflicted a worse pain than they would otherwise have experienced. If part of my motive was to protect my self-esteem by avoiding a conflict among my values and loyalties, it was my self-esteem that I damaged. Lies do not work.

Sentence Completions to Facilitate the Practice of Integrity

If we examine our lives, we may notice that our practice of integrity exhibits inconsistencies. There are areas where we practice it more and areas where we practice it less. Rather than evade this fact, it is useful to explore it. It is worthwhile to consider: What stands in the way of my practicing integrity in every area of my life? What would happen if I lived my values consistently?

Here are sentence stems that can aid the process of exploration:

  • Integrity to me means --
  • If I bring 5 percent more integrity to my work --
  • If I bring 5 percent more integrity to my personal realtionships --
  • If I am willing to look at the areas where I do not practice integrity --

On the weekend, again work with this sentence stem:

  • If any of what I have been writing is true, it might be helpful if I --

If you choose to bring a high level of awareness to what you produce, in doing these sentence stems you may discover that living with greater integrity has become realisable.

Keeping Your Integrity in a Corrupt World

In a world where we regard ourselves and are regarded by others as accountable for our actions, the practice of integrity is relatively easier than in a world where the principle of personal accountability is absent. A culture of accountability tends to support our moral aspirations.

The challenge for people today, and it is not an easy one, is to maintain high personal standards while feeling that one is living in a moral sewer.

Grounds for such a feeling are to be found in the behavior of our public figures, the horror of world events, and in our so-called art and entertainment, so much of which celebrates depravity, cruelty, and mindless violence. All contribute to making the practice of personal integrity a lonely and heroic undertaking.

If integrity is a source of self-esteem, then it is also, and never more' so than today, an expression of self-esteem.

The Principle of Reciprocal Causation

Indeed, this leads to an important question. About all six pillars it might be asked, "To practice them, does one not need already to possess self- esteem? How then can they be the foundation of self-esteem?"

In answering, I must introduce what I call the principle of reciprocal causation. By this I mean that behaviors that generate good self-esteem are also expressions of good self-esteem. Living consciously is both a cause and an effect of self-efficacy and self-respect. And so is self-acceptance, self-responsibility, all the other practices I describe.

The more I live consciously, the more I trust my mind and respect my worth; and if I trust my mind and respect my worth, it feels natural to live consciously. The more I live with integrity, the more I enjoy good self-esteem; and if I enjoy good self-esteem, it feels natural to live with integrity.

Another noteworthy aspect of the dynamics involved here is that the practice of these virtues over time tends to generate a felt need for them. If I habitually operate at a high level of consciousness, unclarity and fog in my awareness will make me uncomfortable. If I have been consistent in my integrity, I will experience dishonesty on my part as disturbing and will feel a thrust to resolve the dissonance and restore the inner sense of moral cleanliness.

Once we understand the practices I have described, we have the power (at least to some extent) 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 the project may be in the early stages.

An analogy to physical exercise may be helpful. If we are in poor physical condition, exercise is typically difficult; as our condition improves, exercise becomes easier and more enjoyable. We begin where we are -- and build our strength from there. Raising self-esteem follows the same principle.

These practices are ideals to guide us. And -- this can hardly be overemphasized -- they do not have to be lived "perfectly" 100 percent of the time in order to have a beneficent impact on our lives. Small improvements make a difference.

External Influences: Self and Others

The practices and beliefs we have discussed pertain to "internal" factors that bear on self-esteem; that is, they exist or are generated from within the individual. We will turn now to an examination of "external" factors, that is, factors originating in the environment.

What is the role and contribution of other people? What is the potential impact of parents, teachers, managers, culture in which one lives? These are the questions I will address in the remainder of this program.

Nurturing a Child's Self-Esteem

Let's begin with parents.

The proper aim of parental nurturing is to prepare a child for independent survival as an adult. An infant begins in a condition of total dependency. If his or her upbringing is successful, the young man or woman will have evolved out of that dependency into a self-respecting and self-responsible human being who is able to respond to the challenges of life competently and enthusiastically.

It is an old and excellent adage that effective parenting consists first of giving a child roots (to grow) and then wings (to fly) . The security of a firm base -- and the self-confidence one day to leave it. Children do not grow up in a vacuum. They grow up in a social context.

Parental behavior alone does not decide the course of a child's psychological development. Apart from the fact that sometimes the most important influence in a child's life is a teacher, or a grandparent, or a neighbor, external factors are only part of the story, never the whole. We are beings whose consciousness is volitional, so, beginning in childhood and continuing throughout our life we make choices that have consequences for the kind of person we become and the level of self-esteem we attain.

To say that parents can make it easier or harder for a child to develop healthy self-esteem is to say that parents can make it easier or harder for a young person to learn the six practices and make them a natural and integral part of his or her life. The six practices provide a standard for assessing parental policies: Do these policies encourage or discourage consciousness, self-acceptance, self-responsibility, self-assertiveness, purposefulness, and integrity? Do they raise or lower the probability that a child will learn self-esteem-supporting behaviors?


A child who is treated with love tends to internalize the feeling and to experience him or herself as lovable. Love is conveyed by verbal expression, nurturing actions, and the joy and pleasure we show in the sheer fact of the child's being.

An effective parent can convey anger or disappointment without signaling withdrawal of love. An effective parent can teach without resorting to rejection. The value of the child as a human being is not -- should not be --on trial.

Love is not felt to be real when it is always tied to performance, tied to living up to Mother's or Father's expectations, and is withdrawn from time to time as a means of manipulating obedience and conformity. Love is not felt to be real when the child receives subtle or unsubtle messages to the effect, "You are not enough."

Unfortunately, many of us received such messages. You may have potential, but you are unacceptable as you are. You need to be fixed. One day you may be enough, but not now. You will be enough only if you fulfill our expectations.

"I am enough" does not mean "I have nothing to learn and nowhere to grow to." It means "I accept myself as a value as I am." We cannot build self-esteem on a foundation of "I am not enough." To convey to a child "You are not enough" is to subvert self-esteem at the core. No child feels loved who receives such messages.


A child whose thoughts and feelings are treated with acceptance tends to internalize the response and to learn self-acceptance. Acceptance is conveyed, not by agreement (which is not always possible) but by listening to and acknowledging the child's thoughts and feelings, and by not chastising, arguing, lecturing, psychologising, or insulting.

If a child is repeatedly told that he or she must not feel this, must not feel that, the child is encouraged to.deny and disown feelings or emotions in order to please or placate parents. If normal expressions of excitement, anger, happiness, sexuality, longing, and fear are treated as unacceptable or wrong or sinful or otherwise distasteful to parents, the child may disown and reject more and more of the self to belong, to be loved, to avoid the terror of abandonment. We do not serve a child's development by making self-repudiation the price of our love.

Few attitudes of parents can be so helpful for the child's healthy development as the child's experience that his or her nature, temperament, interests, and aspirations are accepted -- whether or not parents share them. It is unrealistic in the extreme to imagine that parents will enjoy or be comfortable with a child's every act of self-expression. But acceptance in the sense described in this book does not require enjoyment or comfort -- or agreement.

A parent may be athletic, a child may not be -- or the reverse. A parent may be artistic, a child may not be -- or the reverse. A parent's natural rhythms may be fast, a child's may be slow -- or the reverse. A parent may be orderly, a child may be chaotic -- or the reverse. A parent may be extroverted, a child may be introverted -- or the reverse. A parent may be very "social," a child may be less so-or the reverse. A parent may be competitive, a child may not be -- or the reverse. If differences are accepted. self-esteem can grow.


A child who receives respect from adults tends to learn self-respect. Respect is conveyed by addressing a child with the courtesy one normally extends to adults. (As child psychologist Haim Ginott used to observe, if a visiting guest accidentally spills a drink, we do not say, "Oh, you're so sloppy! What's the matter with you?" But then why do we think such statements are appropriate for our children, who are much more important to us than the visitor? Surely it would be more appropriate to say to the child something like, "You've spilled your drink. Will you get some paper towels from the kitchen?")

I recall a client once saying to me, "My father talks to any busboy with more courtesy than he's ever extended to me." "Please" and "thank you" are words that acknowledge dignity-that of the speaker as well as the listener.

Parents need to be informed: "Be careful what you say to your children. They may agree with you." Before calling a child "stupid" or "clumsy" or "bad" or "a disappointment," consider the question, "Is this how I want my child to experience him or herself?"

If a child grows up in a home where everyone deals with everyone else with natural, good-natured courtesy; he or she learns principles that apply both to self and to others. Respect of self and others feels like the normal order of things -- which, properly, it is.


Especially important for the nurturing of a child's self-esteem is the experience of what I have called psychological visibility.

If I say or do something and you respond in a way that I perceive as congruent in terms of my own behavior -- I feel seen and understood by you. For example, if I become playful and you become playful in turn, or if I express joy and you show understanding of my state, or if I express sadness and you convey empathy, or if I do something I am proud of and you smile in admiration -- I feel seen and understood by you. I feel visible. In contrast, if I say or do something and you respond in a way that makes no sense to me in terms of my own behavior -- I do not feel understood. If become playful and you react as if I were being hostile, or if I express joy and you display impatience and tell me not to be silly, or if I express sadness and you accuse me of pretending, or if I do something I am proud of and you react with condemnation -- I feel invisible.

To feel visible to you I do not require your agreement with what I am doing or feeling or saying. We might hold different viewpoints, but if we show understanding of what the other is saying, and if our responses are congruent in terms of that, we can continue to feel visible to each other.

A child has a natural desire to be seen, heard, understood, and responded to appropriately. To a self that is still forming, this need is particularly urgent. This is one of the reasons a child will look to a parent for a response after having taken some action.

Visibility (Contd.)

If a child says, unhappily, "I didn't get the part in my school play," and Mother answers, empathetically, "That must hurt," the child feels visible. What does a child feel if Mother answers sharply, "Do you think you'll always get what you want in life?"

If a child bursts into the house, full of joy and excitement, and Mother says, smiling, "You're happy today," the child feels visible. What does a child feel if Mother screams, "Do you have to make so much noise? What is the matter with you?"

When we convey love, appreciation, empathy, acceptance and respect, we make a child visible. When we convey indifference, scorn, condemnation, ridicule, we drive the child's self into the lonely underground of invisibility.

If we are to love effectively -- whether the object is our child, our mate, or a friend -- the ability to provide the experience of visibility is essential.

And in giving this to our child-visibility, consciousness -- we model a practice that he or she may learn to emulate

Praise and Criticism

Loving parents, concerned to support the self-esteem of their children, may believe that the way to do it is with praise. But inappropriate praise can be as harmful to self-esteem as inappropriate criticism. Many years ago I learned from Haim Ginott an important distinction: that between evaluative praise and appreciative praise. It is evaluative praise that does not serve a child's interests. Appreciative praise, can be productive both in supporting self-esteem and in reinforcing desired behavior.

To quote from Ginott's Teacher and Child:

In psychotherapy a child is never told, "You are a good little boy." "You are doing great." "Carry on your good work." Judgmental praise is avoided. Why? Because it is not helpful. It creates anxiety, invites dependency, and evokes defensiveness. It is not conducive to self-reliance, self-direction, and self-control. These qualities demand freedom from outside judgment. They require reliance on inner motivation and evaluation. To be himself, one needs to be free from the pressure of evaluative praise.

If we state what we like and appreciate about the child's actions and accomplishments, we remain factual and descriptive; we leave it to the child to do the evaluating. Ginott offers these examples of the process: ·

Marcia, age twelve, helped the teacher rearrange the books in the class library. The teacher avoided personal praise. ("You did a good job. You are a hard worker. You are a good librarian.") Instead she described what Marcia accomplished: "The books are all in order now. It'll be easy for the children to find any book they want. It was a difficult job. But you did it. Thank you." The teacher's words of recognition allowed Marcia to make her own inference. "My teacher likes the job I did. I am a good worker."

The more specifically targeted our praise, the more meaningful it is to the child. Praise that is generalized and abstract leaves the child wondering what exactly is being praised. It is not helpful. Not only does praise need to be specific, it needs to be commensurate with its object. Overblown or grandiose praise tends to be overwhelming and anxiety provoking-because the child knows it does not match his or her self-perceptions (a problem that is avoided by descriptions of behavior, plus expressions of appreciation, that omit these unrealistic evaluations).

Some parents are intent on helping their children's self-esteem, but they praise globally, indiscriminately, and extravagantly. At best, this does not work. At worst, it backfires: the child feels invisible and anxious. In addition, this policy tends to produce "approval addicts" -- children who cannot take a step without looking for praise and who feel disvalued if it is not forthcoming. Many devoted parents, with the best intentions in the world but without the appropriate skills, have turned their children into such approval addicts by saturating the home environment with their "loving" evaluations.

If we wish to nurture autonomy, always leave space for the child to make his or her own evaluations, after we have described behavior. Leave the child free of the pressure of our judgments. Help create a context in which independent thinking can occur.

As to criticism, it needs to be directed only at the child's behavior, never at the child. The principle is: Describe the behavior, describe your feelings about it, describe what you want done (if anything) -- and omit character assassination.

No good purpose is ever served by assaulting a child's self-esteem. This is the first rule of effective criticism. We do not inspire better behavior by impugning a child's worth, intelligence, morality, character, intentions, or psychology. No one was ever made "good" by being informed he or she was "bad.". Attacks on self-esteem tend to increase the likelihood that the unwanted behavior will happen again -- "Since I am bad, I will behave badly."

The Need for Sanity

There is perhaps nothing more important to know about children than that they need to make sense out of their experience. In effect, they need to know that the universe is rational -- they need to know that human existence is knowable, predictable, and stable. On that foundation, they can build a sense of efficacy; without it, the task is worse than difficult.

"Sanity" in family life is one of a child's most urgent needs if healthy development is to be possible.

What does sanity mean in this context? It means adults who, for the most part, say what they mean and mean what they say. It means rules that are understandable, consistent, and fair. It means not being punished today for behavior that was ignored or even rewarded yesterday. It means being brought up by parents whose emotional life is more or less graspable and predictable -- in contrast to an emotional life punctuated by bouts of anxiety or rage or euphoria unrelated to any discernible cause or pattern. It means a home in which reality is appropriately acknowledged -- in contrast to a home in which, for instance, a drunken father misses the chair he meant to sit on and crashes to the floor while Mother goes on eating and talking as though nothing had happened. It means parents who practice what they preach. Who are willing to admit when they make mistakes and apologize when they know they have been unfair or unreasonable. Who appeal to a child's wish to understand rather than the wish to avoid pain. Who reward and reinforce consciousness in a child rather than discourage and penalise it.

If, instead of obedience, we want cooperation from our children; if, instead of conformity, we want self-responsibility-we can achieve it in a home environment that supports the child's mind. We cannot achieve it in an environment intrinsically hostile to the exercise of mind.

Parenting as a Vehicle of Personal Evolution

We want to teach our children healthy ideas and values. Ideas and values are most powerfully communicated when they are embedded into family life, rooted in the being of the parents. Regardless of what we think we're teaching, we teach what we are.

We need not pretend to our children that we are "perfect." We can acknowledge our struggles and admit our mistakes. The likelihood is that the self-esteem of everyone in the family will benefit.

In supporting and nurturing the self-esteem of our children, we support and nurture our own.

Self-Esteem in Schools

To many children, school represents a "second chance" -- an opportunity to acquire a better sense of self and a better vision of life than was offered in their home. A teacher who projects confidence in a child's competence and goodness can be a powerful antidote to a family in which such confidence is lacking and in which perhaps the opposite perspective is conveyed. A teacher who refuses to accept a child's negative self-concept and relentlessly holds to a better view of the child's potential has the power -- sometimes -- to save a life.

But for some children, school is a legally enforced incarceration at the hands of teachers who lack either the self-esteem or the training or both to do their jobs properly. These are teachers who do not inspire but humiliate. They do not speak the language of courtesy and respect but of ridicule and sarcasm. They do not motivate by offering values but by evoking fear. They do not believe in a child's possibilities; they believe only in limitations. They do not light fires in minds, they extinguish them.

Who cannot recall encountering at least one such teacher during one's school years?

Most teachers want to make a positive contribution to the minds entrusted to their care. If they sometimes do harm, it is not by intention.

And today most are aware that one of the ways they can contribute is by nurturing the child's self-esteem. They know that children who believe in themselves, and whose teachers project a positive view of their potential, do better in school than children without these advantages. Indeed, of any professional group it is teachers who have shown the greatest receptivity to the importance of self-esteem. But what nurtures self-esteem in the classroom is not self-evident.

I have stressed that "feel good" notions are harmful rather than helpful. Yet if one examines the proposals offered to teachers on how to raise students self-esteem, many are the kind of trivial nonsense that gives self-esteem a bad name, such as praising and applauding a child for virtually everything he or she does, dismissing the importance of objective accomplishments, handing out gold stars on every possible occasion, and propounding an "entitlement" idea of self-esteem that leaves it divorced from both behavior and character.

One of the characteristics of persons with healthy self-esteem is that they tend to assess their abilities and accomplishments realistically, neither denying nor exaggerating them.

Might a student do poorly in school and yet have good self-esteem? Of course. There are any number of reasons why a particular boy or girl might not do well scholastically, from a dyslexic condition to lack of adequate challenge and stimulation. Grades are hardly a reliable indicator of a given individual's self-efficacy and self-respect. But rationally self-esteeming students do not delude themselves that they are doing well when they are doing poorly.

What makes the challenge of fostering children's self-esteem particularly urgent today is that many young people arrive in school in such a condition of emotional distress that concentrating on learning can be extraordinarily difficult.

Schools cannot be expected to provide solutions for all the problems, in students' lives. But good schools-which means good teachers-can make an enormous difference.

The Teacher's Self-Esteem

As with parents, it is easier for a teacher to inspire self-esteem in students if the teacher exemplifies and models a healthy, affirmative sense of self. Indeed, some research suggests that this is the primary factor in the teacher's ability to contribute to a student's self-esteem. Teachers with low self-esteem tend to be more punitive, impatient, and authoritarian. They tend to focus on the child's weaknesses rather than strengths. They inspire fearfulness and defensiveness. They encourage dependency.

Teachers with low self-esteem tend to be overdependent on the approval of others. They tend to feel that others are the source of their "self-esteem." Therefore, they are hardly in a position to teach that self-esteem must be generated primarily from within. They tend to use their own approval and disapproval to manipulate students into obedience and conformity, since that is the approach that works when others apply it to them. They teach that self-esteem comes from "adult and peer approval." They convey an external approach to self-esteem rather than an internal one, thereby deepening whatever self-esteem problems students already have. Further, low-self-esteem teachers are typically unhappy teachers, and

Children watch teachers in part to learn appropriate adult behavior. If they see ridicule and sarcasm, often they learn to use it themselves. If they hear the language of disrespect, and even cruelty, it tends to show up in their own verbal responses. If, in contrast, they see benevolence and an emphasis on the positive, they may learn to integrate that into their own responses. If they witness fairness, they may absorb the attitude of fairness. If they receive compassion and see it offered to others, they may learn to internalise compassion. If they see self-esteem, they may decide it is a value worth acquiring.

What a great teacher, a great parent, a great psychotherapist, and a great coach have in common is a deep belief in the potential of the person with whom they are concerned-a conviction about what that person is capable of being and doing -- plus the ability to transmit the conviction during their interactions.

Teachers with good self-esteem are likely to understand that if they wish to nurture the self-esteem of another, they need to relate to that person from their vision of his or her worth and value, providing an experience of acceptance and respect. They know that most of us tend to underestimate our inner resources, and they keep that knowledge central in their awareness. Most of us are capable of more than we believe. When teachers remain clear about this,others can acquire this understanding from them almost by contagion.

The Class Environment

One of the painful things about being a child is that one tends not to be taken seriously by adults. Whether one is dismissed discourteously or praised for being "cute," most children are not used to having their dignity as human beings respected. So a teacher who treats all students with courtesy and respect sends a signal to the class: You are now in an environment where different rules apply than those you may be used to. In this world, your dignity and feelings matter. In this simple way a teacher can begin to create an environment that supports self-esteem.

Sometimes a child is not fully aware of his or her assets. It is the teacher's job to facilitate that awareness. This has nothing to do with phony compliments. Every child does some things right. Every child has some assets. They must be found, identified, and nurtured. A teacher should be a prospector, looking for gold. Try to think back to what it would have been like to be in a class where the teacher felt there was no more urgent task than to discover the good in you-your strengths and virtues -- and to help you become more aware of them. Would that have inspired the best in you? Would that be an environment in which you were motivated to grow and learn?

In every classroom there are rules that must be respected if learning is to progress and tasks are to be accomplished. Rules can be imposed, by dint of the teacher's power, or they can be explained in such a way as to engage the mind and understanding of the student.

A teacher can think about rules in one of two ways. She or he can wonder: How can I make students do what needs to be done? Or: How can I inspire students to want to do what needs to be done? The first orientation is necessarily adversarial and at best achieves obedience while encouraging dependency. The second orientation is benevolent and achieves cooperation, while encouraging self-responsibility.

Which approach a teachers feels more comfortable with has a good deal to do with his or her sense of efficacy as a person.

If low self-esteem can impel some teachers to rigid, punitive, even sadistic behavior, it can impel others to the kind of mushy "permissiveness" that signals a complete absence of authority-with classroom anarchy as the result. Compassion and respect do not imply lack of firmness. A capitulation to disruptive elements in the class means abdication of the teacher's responsibilities. Competent teachers understand the need for standards of acceptable behavior. But they also understand that toughness need not and should not entail insults or responses aimed at demeaning anyone's sense of personal value. One of the characteristics of a superior teacher is mastery of this challenge.

To achieve the results they want, teachers sometimes have to exercise imagination. Problems cannot be reduced to a list of formula strategies that will fit every occasion. One teacher I know solved a classroom problem by gravely asking the biggest, noisiest boy in the class, when they were alone, if he could help her by exercising his natural leadership abilities to persuade some of the others to be more orderly. The boy looked a bit disoriented, evidently not knowing how to answer; but peacefulness quickly prevailed, and the boy responsible felt proud of himself.

The frustrations, pressures, and challenges teachers face test their self- esteem, energy, and dedication every day. To preserve throughout their careers the vision with which the best of them started -- to hold fast to the idea that the business they are in is that of setting minds on fire -- is a heroic project.

The work they are doing could not be more important. Yet to do it well, they need to embody that which they wish to communicate.

A teacher who does not operate at an appropriate level of consciousness cannot model living consciously for his or her students.

A teacher who is not self-accepting will be unable successfully to communicate self-acceptance.

A teacher who is not self-responsible will have a difficult time persuad- ing others of the value of self-responsibility.

A teacher who is afraid of self-assertiveness will not inspire its practice in others.

A teacher who is not purposeful is not a good spokesperson for the practice of living purposefully.

A teacher who lacks integrity will be severely limited in the ability to inspire it in others.

If their goal is to nurture self-esteem in those entrusted to their care, teachers -- like parents, like psychotherapists, like all of us -- need to begin by working on their own. One arena in which this can be done is the classroom itself. Just as parenting can be a spiritual discipline, a path for personal development, so can teaching. The challenges each present can be turned into vehicles for personal growth.

Self-Esteem and Work

Now I want to focus on the world of work -- on the challenges to economic adaptiveness both for individuals and organisations.


In an economy in which knowledge, information, creativity -- and their translation into innovation -- are the source of wealth and of competetive advantage, there are distinct challanges both to individuals and to organisations.

To individuals, whether as employees or as self-employed professionals, the challenges include:

  • To acquire appropriate knowledge and skills, and to commit oneself to a lifetime of continuous learning, which the rapid growth of knowledge makes mandatory.

  • To work effectively with other human beings, which includes skill in written and oral communication, the ability to participate in nonadversarial relationships, understanding of how to build consensus through give and take, and willingness to assume leadership and motivate coworkers when necessary.

  • To manage and respond appropriately to change.

To organisations, the challenges include:

  • To respond to the need for a constant stream of innovation by cultivating a discipline of innovation and entrepreneurship into the mission, strategies, policies, practices, and reward system of the organisation.

  • To go beyond paying lip service to "the importance of the individual" by designing a culture in which initiative, creativity, self- responsibility, and contribution are fostered and rewarded.

  • To recognize the relationship between self-esteem and performance and to think through and implement pollcies that support self-esteem.

This demands recognising and responding to the individual's need for a sane, intelligible, noncontradictory environment that a mind can make sense of; for learning and growth; for achievement; for being listened to and respected; for being allowed to make (responsible) mistakes.

Bringing Out the Best in People

Leaders do not usually ask themselves, "How can we create a self-esteem-supporting culture in our organisation?" But the best of them do ask, "What can we do to stimulate innovation and creativity? How can we make this the kind of place that will attract the best people? And what can we do to earn their continuing loyalty?" These questions are all different, and yet the answers to them are largely the same or at least Significantly overlap. It would be impossible to have an organisation that nurtured innovation and creativity and yet did not nurture self-esteem in some important ways. It would be impossible to have an organisation that nurtured self-esteem, rationally under- stood, and yet did not stimulate innovation, creativity, excitement, and loyalty.

From the point of view of the individual, it is obvious that work can be a vehicle for raising self-esteem. The six pillars all have clear application here. When we bring a high level of consciousness, responsibility, and so on to our tasks, self-esteem is strengthened -- just as, when we avoid them, self-esteem is weakened.

In this section I want to focus on self-esteem from the perspective of the organisation -- the kind of policies and practices that either undermine or support the self-efficacy and self-respect of people.

An organisation whose people operate at a high level of consciousness, self-acceptance (and acceptance of others), self-responsibility, self-assertiveness, purposefulness, and personal integrity would be an organisation of extraordinarily empowered human beings. These traits are supported in an organisation to the extent that the following conditions are met:

  1. People feel safe: secure that they will not he ridiculed, demeaned, humiliated, or punished for openness and honesty or for admitting "I made a mistake" or for saying "I don't know, hut I'll find out."
  2. People feel accepted: treated with courtesy, listened to, invited to express thoughts and feelings, dealt with as individuals whose dignity is important.
  3. People feel challenged: given assignments that excite, inspire, and test and stretch their abilities.
  4. People feel recognized: acknowledged for individual talents and achievements and rewarded monetarily and nonmonetarily for extraordinary contributions.
  5. People receive constructive feedback: they hear how to improve performance in nondemeaning ways that stress positives rather than negatives and that build on their strengths.
  6. People see that innovation is expected of them: their opinions are solicited, their brainstorming is invited, and they see that the development of new and usable ideas is desired of them and welcomed.
  7. People are given easy access to information: not only are they given the information (and resources) they need to do their job properly, they are given information about the wider context in which they work -- the goals and progress of the company -- so that they can understand how their activities relate to the organisation's overall mission.
  8. People are given authority appropriate to what they are accountable for: they are encouraged to take initiative, make decisions, exercise judgment.
  9. People are given clear-cut and noncontradictory rules and guidelines: they are provided with a structure their intelligence can grasp and count on and they know what is expected of them.
  10. People are encouraged to solve as many of their own problems as possible: they are expected to resolve issues close to the action rather than pass responsibility for solutions to higher-ups, and they are empowered to do so.
  11. People see that their rewards for successes are far greater than any penalties for failures: in too many companies, where the penalties for mistakes are much greater than the rewards for success, people are afraid to take risks or express themselves.
  12. People are encouraged and rewarded for learning: they are encouraged to participate in internal and external courses and programs that will expand their knowledge and skills.
  13. People experience congruence between an organisation's mission statement and professed philosophy, on the one hand, and the behavior of leaders and managers, on the other: they see integrity exemplified and they feel motivated to match what they see.
  14. People experience being treated fairly and justly: they feel the workplace is a rational universe they can trust.
  15. People are able to believe in and take pride in the value of what they produce: they perceive the result of their efforts as genuinely useful, they perceive their work as worth doing.

To the extent that these conditions are operative in an organisation, it will be a place in which high-self-esteem people will want to work. It will also be one in which people of more modest self-esteem will find their self-esteem raised.

What Managers Can Do

Now, I want to say a few words about the leader -- a CEO, or company president. The primary function of a leader in a business enterprise is to develop and persuasively convery a vision of what the organisation is to accomplish. She or he must also inspire and empower all those who work for the organisation to make an optimal contribution to the fulfillment of that vision and to experience that, in doing so, they are acting in alignment with their self-interest. So, the leader must be an inspirer and a persuader.

The higher the self-esteem of the leader, the more likely it is that he or she can perform that function successfully. A mind that distrusts itself cannot inspire the best in the minds of others. Neither can leaders inspire the best in others if their primary need, arising from their insecurities, is to prove themselves right and others wrong.

It is a fallacy to say that a great leader should be egoless. A leader needs an ego sufficiently healthy that it does not experience itself as on the line in every encounter. This, so that the leader is free to be task and results oriented, not self-aggrandisement or self-protection oriented.

If degrees of self-esteem are thought of on a scale from 1 to 10, with 10 representing optimal self-esteem and 1 almost the lowest imaginable, then is a leader who is a 5 more likely to hire a 7 or a 3? Very likely he or she will feel more comfortable with the 3, since people often feel intimated by others more confident than themselves. Multiply this example hundreds or thousands of times and project the consequences for a business. Warren Bennis, our preeminent scholar of leadership, tells us that the basic passion in the best leaders he has studied is for self-expression. 5 Their work is clearly a vehicle for self-actualization. Their desire is to bring "who they are" into the world, into reality, which I speak of as the practice of self-assertiveness.

If degrees of self-esteem are thought of on a scale from 1 to 10, with 10 representing optimal self-esteem and 1 almost the lowest imaginable, then is a leader who is a 5 more likely to hire a 7 or a 3? Very likely he or she will feel more comfortable with the 3, since people often feel intimated by others more confident than themselves. Multiply this example hundreds or thousands of times and project the consequences for a business.

Leaders often do not fully recognize the extent to which "who they are" affects virtually every aspect of their organisation. They do not appreciate the extent to which they are role models. Their smallest bits of behavior are noted and absorbed by those around them, not necessarily consciously, and reflected via those they influence throughout the entire organisation. If a leader has unimpeachable integrity, a standard is set that others feel drawn to follow. If a leader treats people with respect -- associates, subordinates, customers, suppliers, shareholders -- that tends to translate into company culture.

For these reasons, a person who wants to work on his or her "leader- ship ability" should work on self-esteem. Continual dedication to the six pillars and their daily practice is the very best training for leadership -- as it is for life.

The Power to Do Good

The policies that support self-esteem are also the policies that make money.

The policies that demean self-esteem are the policies that sooner or later cause a company to lose money. Why? Simply because, when you treat people badly and disrespectfully, you cannot possibly hope to get their best. And in today's fiercely competitive, rapidly changing global economy, nothing less than their best is good enough.

Self-Esteem and Culture

One way to deepen our understanding of the themes with which this book has been concerned is to look at self-esteem as it relates to and is affected by culture.

Let us begin by considering the idea of self-esteem itself. It is not an idea one finds in all cultures. It emerged in the West only recently and is still far from well understood.

Self-esteem existed in human consciousness thousands of years before it emerged as an explicit idea. Now that it has emerged, the challenge is to understand it.

The need for self-esteem is not "cultural".

What is the effect of different cultures, and different cultural values, on self-esteem?

The Influence of Culture

Every society contains a network of values, beliefs, and assumptions, not all of which are named explicitly but which nonetheless are part of the human environment. Indeed, ideas that are not identified overtly but are held and conveyed tacitly can be harder to call into question. This is precisely because they are absorbed by a process that largely bypasses the conscious mind. Everyone possesses what might be called a "cultural unconscious" -- a set of implicit beliefs -- that reflect the knowledge, understanding, and values of a historical time and place. I do not mean that there are no differences among people within a given culture in their beliefs at this level. Nor do I mean that no-one holds any of these beliefs consciously or that no-one challenges any of them. I mean only that at least some of these beliefs tend to reside in every psyche in a given society, and without ever being the subject of explicit awareness.

The Tribal Mentality

Throughout human history, most societies and cultures have been dominated by the tribal mentality. This was true in primitive times, in the Middle Ages, and in socialist (and some nonsocialist) countries in the twentieth century. Japan is a contemporary example of a nonsocialist nation still heavily tribal in its cultural orientation, although it may now be in the process of becoming less so.

The essence of the tribal mentality is that it makes the tribe as such the supreme good and denigrates the importance of the individual. It tends to view individuals as interchangeable units and to ignore or minimise the significance of differences between one human being and another. At its extreme, it sees the individual as hardly existing except in the network of tribal relationships; the individual by him or herself is nothing.

The tribal premise is intrisically anti-self-esteem. It is a premise and orientation that empowers the individual as individual. It's implicit message is: You don't count. By yourself you are nothing. Only as part of us, can you be something. Thus, any society to the extent that it is dominated by the tribal premise is inherently unsupportive of self-esteem. In such a society, the individual is socialised to hold him or her self in low-esteem relative to the group. Self-assertiveness is oppressed; pride tends to be labelled a vice.

What was so historically extraordinary about the creation of the United States of America was its conscious rejection of the tribal premise. The Declaration of Independence proclaimed the revolutionary doctrine of individual, inalienable rights and asserted that the government exists for the individual, not the individual for the government. Although our political leaders have betrayed this vision many ways and many times, it still contains the essence of what the abstraction -- America -- stands for. Freedom. Individualism. The right to the pursuit of happiness. Self-ownership. The individual as an end in him- or herself, not a means to the ends of others; not the property of family or church or state or society.

At the core of the American tradition was the fact that this country was born as a frontier nation where nothing was given and everything had to be created. Self-discipline and hard work were highly esteemed cultural values. There was a strong theme of community and mutual aid, to be sure, but not as substitutes for self-reliance and self-responsibility. Independent people helped one another when they could, but ultimately everyone was expected to carry his or her own weight.

This generalised account of traditional American culture leaves out a good deal. It does not, for instance, address the institution of slavery, the treatment of black Americans as second-class citizens, or legal discrimination against women, who only acquired the right to vote in this cen- tury. Just the same, we can say that to the extent the American vision was actualized, it did a good deal to encourage healthy self-esteem. It encouraged human beings to believe in themselves and in their possibilities.

At the same time, a culture is made of people-and people inevitably carry the past with them. Americans may have repudiated the tribal premise politically, but they or their ancestors came from countries dominated by the tribal mentality. Their history often continued to influence them culturally and psychologically. They may in some instances have come to these shores to escape religious prejudice and persecution, but many of them carried the mind-set of religious authoritarianism with them. They brought old ways of thinking about race, religion, and gender into the New World. Conflicting cultural values, present from the beginning, continue to this day. In our present culture, pro-self-esteem forces and anti-self-esteem forces collide constantly.

The twentieth century witnessed a shift in cultural values in the United States, and predominately the shift has not supported higher self-esteem but has encouraged the opposite.

Today, the American culture is a battleground between the values of self-responsibility and the values of entitlement. This is not the only cultural conflict we can see around us, but it is the one most relevant to self-esteem. It is also at the root of many of the others.

We are social beings who realise our humanity fully only in the context of community. The values of our community can inspire the best in us or the worst. A culture that values mind, intellect, knowledge, and understanding promotes self-esteem; a culture that denigrates mind undermines self-esteem. A culture in which human beings are held accountable for their actions supports self-esteem; a culture in which no one is held accountable for anything breeds demoralization and self-contempt. A culture that prizes self-responsibility fosters self-esteem; a culture in which people are encouraged to see themselves as victims fosters dependency, passivity, and the mentality of entitlement. The evidence for these observations is all around us.

The Individual and Society

Cultures do not encourage the questioning of their own premises. One of the meanings of living consciously has to do with one's awareness that other people's beliefs are just that, their beliefs, and not necessarily ultimate truth. This does not mean that living consciously expresses itself in skepticism. It expresses itself in critical thinking.

The average person tends to judge him or herself by the values prevalent in his social environment, as transmitted by family members, political and religious leaders, teachers, newspaper and television editorials, and popular art such as movies. These values mayor may not be rational and may or may not answer to the needs of the individual.

I am sometimes asked if a person cannot achieve genuine self-esteem by conforming and living up to cultural norms that he or she may never have thought about, let alone questioned, and that do not necessarily make a good deal of sense. Is not the safety and security of belonging with and to the group a form of self-esteem? Does not group validation and support lead to an experience of true self-worth? The error here is in equating any feeling of safety or comfort with self-esteem. Conformity is not self-efficacy; popularity is not self-respect. Whatever its gratifications, a sense of belonging is not equal to trust in my mind or confidence in my ability to master the challenges of life. The fact that others esteem me is no guarantee I will esteem myself.

If I live a life of unthinking routine, with no challenges or crises, I may be able to evade for a while the fact that what I possess is not self-esteem but pseudo self-esteem. When everything is all right, everything is all right, but that is not how we determine the presence of self-esteem. Genuine self-esteem is what we feel about ourselves when everything is not alright. When we are challenged by the unexpected, when others disagree with us, when we are flung back on our own resources, when the cocoon of the group can no longer insulate us from the tasks and risks of life, when we must think, choose, decide, and act and no one is guiding us or applauding us. At such moments our deepest premises reveal themselves.

One of the biggest lies we were ever told is that it is supposedly "easy" to be selfish and that self-sacrifice takes spiritual strength. People sacrifice themselves in a thousand ways every day. This is their tragedy. To honor the self -- to honor mind, judgment, values, and convictions -- is the ultimate act of courage. Observe how rare it is. But it is what self-esteem asks of us.

Conclusion: The Seventh Pillar of Self-Esteem

The need for self-esteem is a summon to the hero within us. This means a willingness -- and a will -- to live the six practices when to do so may not be easy. We may need to overcome inertia, face down fears, confront pain, or stand alone in loyalty to our own judgment, even against those we love.

No matter how nurturing our environment, rationality, self-responsibility, and integrity are never automatic; they always represent an achievement. We are free to think or to avoid thinking, free to expand consciousness or to contract it, free to move toward reality or to withdraw from it. The six pillars all entail choice.

Living consciously requires an effort. Generating and sustaining awareness is work. Every time we choose to raise the level of our consciousness, we act against inertia. We pit ourselves against entropy, the tendency of everything in the universe to run down toward chaos. In electing to think, we strive to create an island of order and clarity within ourselves. The first enemy of self-esteem we may need to overcome is laziness.

"Laziness" is not a term we ordinarily encounter in books on psychology. And yet, is anyone unaware that sometimes we fail ourselves for no reason other than the disinclination to generate the effort of an appropriate response? Sometimes, of course, laziness is abetted by fatigue; but not necessarily. Sometimes we are just lazy, which means we do not challenge inertia, we do not choose to awaken.

The other dragon we may need to slay is the impulse to avoid discomfort. Living consciously may obligate us to confront our fears; it may bring us into contact with unresolved pain. Self-acceptance may require that we make real to ourselves thoughts, feelings, or actions that disturb our equilibrium; it may shake up our "official" self-concept. Self-responsibility obliges us to face our ultimate aloneness; it demands that we relinquish fantasies of a rescuer. Self-assertiveness entails the courage to be authentic, with no guarantee of how others will respond; it means that we risk being ourselves. Living purposefully pulls us out of passivity into the demanding life of high focus; it requires that we be self-generators. Living with integrity demands that we choose our values and stand by them, whether or not this is pleasant and whether or not others share our convictions; there are times when it demands hard choices.

If one of our top priorities is to avoid discomfort, if we make this a higher value than our self-regard, then under pressure we will abandon the six practices precisely when we need them most.

The desire to avoid discomfort is not, per se, a vice. But when surrendering to it blinds us to important realities and leads us away from necessary actions, it results in tragedy.

Here is the basic pattern: First, we avoid what we need to look at because we do not want to feel pain. Then our avoidance produces further problems for us, which we also do not want to look at because they evoke pain. Then the new avoidance produces additional problems we do not care to examine -- and so on. Layer of avoidance is piled on layer of avoidance, disowned pain on disowned pain. This is the condition of most adults.

Here is the reversal of the basic pattern: First, we decide that our self-esteem and our happiness matter more than short-term discomfort or pain. We take baby steps at being more conscious, self-accepting, responsible, and so on. We notice that when we do this we like ourselves more. This inspires us to push on and attempt to go farther. We become more truthful with ourselves and others. Self-esteem rises. We take on harder assignments. We feel a little tougher, a little more resourceful. It becomes easier to confront discomfiting emotions and threatening situations; we feel we have more assets with which to cope. We become more self-assertive. We feel stronger. We are building the spiritual equivalent of a muscle. Experiencing ourselves as more powerful, we see difficulties in more realistic perspective. We may never be entirely free of fear or pain, but they have lessened immeasurably, and we are not intimidated by them. Integrity feels less threatening and more natural.

If the process were entirely easy, if there was nothing hard about it at any point, if perseverance and courage were never needed -- why then everyone would have good self-esteem. But a life without effort, struggle, or suffering is an infant's dream.

We do not have to catastrophize fear or discomfort. We can accept them as part of life, face them and deal with them as best we can, and keep moving in the direction of our best possibilities.

But always, will is needed. Perseverance is needed. Courage is needed.

The energy for this commitment can only come from the love we have for our own life.

This love is the beginning of virtue. It is the launching pad for our highest and noblest aspirations. It is the motive power that drives the six pillars. It is the seventh pillar of self-esteem.


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RobinHoodCoder commented Jul 11, 2015

Very nice! I've put this in my pocket and it reads perfectly. The PDF version is not readable. Thanks!


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anthedung commented Jul 21, 2016

Brilliant. Thank you!

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