Self esteem and Health

November 26th, 2012

“I knew that if I looked into my parent’s eyes they would know that I knew they couldn’t handle the situation, let alone look after me. I was 7 years old and I was on my own.”


These were the thoughts of a woman, now in her 40’s, at the time of her grandmother’s death. She observed the paralyzing effects of grief on her mother and the helplessness of her father and, through the filter of her 7 year old mind, concluded that it was up to her to be the ‘adult’ of the family and take upon herself the responsibilities involved.


The Green Banana 



Responsibility is a burden without the power and skill sets required to manage it. A child does not have these. If this ‘green banana’ of childhood life is peeled too early and exposed to mature responsibilities it can neither understand nor effect it can only damage our self-esteem.


Self-esteem is built up through a growing and secure sense of self, freed from the expectations and responsibilities of a world we cannot yet comprehend. Ideally, childhood is a time to experience fully that:


  • We are loved
  • We are worthy beyond what we do

– and here is the perhaps the strangest one

  • We exist


Doing versus Being


If we do not feel the love of being we may compensate by doing.


Many capable people have developed self-confidence by becoming very good at a given set of skills. Paradoxically perhaps the drive to achieve has often come from low self-esteem. The root fear that they are not really worthy – or worse, that their very sense of existence is based upon what they do.


Filling the leaking bucket of self-esteem (“I am”) with the self-confidence (“I am what I do”) of performance only ‘works’ as long as we are performing impressively. What happens if what we do is suddenly not appreciated? What happens if we doubt we can live up to our previous performance levels? What happens if we are rejected? Our whole sense of self (based upon doing) risks collapsing.


Existential crisis, overwork and burnout, anxiety and depression are the usual outcomes; as are the physical symptoms of stomach and eating disorders, drug and alcohol addiction, panic attacks, insomnia and many other symptoms attributed to ‘stress’. And no wonder. Our ego’s identification linking ‘who I am’ with ‘what I do’ is telling us that we might ‘die’!


Here are a few popular examples from the entertainment industry where the value of a performer’s ‘brand’ is easily mistaken for who they are:


  • Barry Manilow, once a pop heart throb, suddenly stopped selling records and spiraled into depression. Fortunately, he found his humor again and was later seen wearing a T-shirt that read: “Recovering Celebrity”


  • Singer Robbie Williams revealed that he needs an entourage of people to convince him that he is good enough to go on stage and perform despite having done it successfully many times before.


  • Actress Sally Field’s “You like me!” Oscar acceptance speech where she proclaims how important it was to her that people she does not know and will never meet, like her.


The shaky ground of self-confidence through external results we cannot control is no substitute for the true self-esteem of being. The woman in our original example found that she had developed a pattern of restlessness, anxiety and self-sabotage in her adult life. She would end relationships or jobs before “…they found out what I was really like”  – or make connections with people who were never fully available to her, making her only doubt her worth further.


This is why some people are so surprised when their reaction to a setback seems out of proportion. The real cause of their anxiety or panic lies in their separation from Self.


So how do we reconnect to Self?


  • By realizing that who we are is not based upon identification with what we do or what we possess. Identification is the food of the ego, not the authentic Self.
  • Through the self-reflection of meditation. (For a useful practice on this I refer to the ‘I am’ meditation outlined in a previous blog here)
  • Through the realization of what a Zen koan* called: “The face we had before our mother and father were born”. We are not victims of our parents or anyone else. We have internal resources that transcend this.


We feel love because we are love. Love recognizes its-Self. It is only the separation of forgetting this that causes our grief and longing for something we cannot define or grasp.


We can never feel abandoned unless we first abandon ourselves. We cannot know and really receive love until we first love ourselves.


Why should we love ourselves?


Because we are love (hey, it’s worth repeating). Because we are worth it.  Because love is always worth it.


Love in all things until another Monday returns to itself.


* A koan is a Buddhist ‘enlightenment riddle’ used to confound our intellectual logic and bring about a spiritual insight.



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