“The greatest evil that can befall a man is that he should come to think ill of himself.” (Johann Wolfgang von Goethe)
If this statement by Goethe even approaches the truth, what is tragic is the fact that so many people “think ill of themselves”, or in other words, struggle with low self-esteem.
The psychologist and prolific writer Nathaniel Branden simultaneously recognized the prevalence of low self-esteem and the vital need for it, claiming that a lack of self-esteem was the primary reason why so many individuals fail to achieve success and fulfillment in life.
“Of all the judgments that we pass in life, none is as important as the one we pass on ourselves, for that judgment touches the very center of our existence.” (Nathaniel Branden, Honoring the Self: Self-Esteem and Personal Transformation)
Branden conceived self-esteem as the disposition to feel that we are capable of successfully functioning in life. This involves the conviction that we are able to withstand the punches and blows of fate, and sculpt a meaningful and fulfilling existence.
To lack self-esteem is to experience our self as “inappropriate to life”; to fear that we are somehow “wrong as a person” and incapable of achieving a meaningful and fulfilling life. In Branden’s view low self-esteem can be at the root of common issues such as depression, anxiety, and a general sense of apathy and lack of motivation in life.
The fear that we may be “wrong as a person” is an intense fear, and one we tend to repress and ignore; as without the right inner resources Branden thought we’d be incapable of confronting and overcoming it. Yet as is the case with all fears, anxieties, and insecurities which we attempt to ignore, when situated outside the spotlight of our awareness this fear only grows stronger and infiltrates more areas of our life and personality. In the extreme case it can take us over entirely – we can become fearful of existence itself:
“To the extent that a person suffers from poor self-esteem, his or her consciousness is ruled by fear: fear of other people, fear of the real or imagined facts about the self that have been evaded or repressed. There is fear of the external world and fear of the internal world…Fear thus becomes the central motivating force within the personality.”(Nathaniel Branden, Honoring the Self: Self-Esteem and Personal Transformation)
In order to overcome low self-esteem we must confront and overcome this fear, hence why Branden thought developing self-esteem can often be a “struggle of heroic proportions”. We must learn to replace our fear of self and existence with “amor fati”, a love of fate:
“The principle that distinguishes the basic motivations of high self-esteem from that of low self-esteem is the principle of motivation by love versus motivation by fear: the love of self and of existence versus the fear that one is unfit for existence. Motivation by confidence, which places its primary emphasis on the possibility of enjoyment, versus motivation by terror, which places its primary emphasis on the avoidance of pain.”(Nathaniel Branden, Honoring the Self: Self-Esteem and Personal Transformation)
The process of replacing fear with love of self and existence, or positive self-esteem, is aided through the cultivation of internal pillars. These pillars are the bedrock or foundation upon which genuine self-esteem is built. By cultivating these pillars and infusing them into our way of life we’ll start to develop positive self-esteem, and according to Branden, begin to move towards the ultimate goal of human existence, that of “honoring the self”.
The Will to Understand
Branden called the will to understand the “central pillar of positive self-esteem”. This involves the commitment to always seek knowledge over ignorance, truth over fiction. Remaining faithful to this pillar can be extremely difficult, for truths, especially unflattering truths about our self, others, or existence, can cause discomfort, anxiety, and even intense fear.
Truths can lead us to realizations which shatter our worldview. This is why many choose, consciously or subconsciously, to remain comfortably ignorant about aspects of their self and the world. If we are committed to developing positive self-esteem this unfaithfulness to truth in the service of comfort is unacceptable. We must follow truth no matter where she leads us, for although truths can temporarily stimulate fear and anxiety, in the end greater awareness always leads to personal growth.
“Any time we admit a difficult truth, any time we face that which we have been afraid to face, any time we acknowledge, to ourselves or to others, facts the existence of which we have been evading, any time we are willing to tolerate temporary fear or anxiety on the path to better contact with reality, our self-esteem increases.”(Nathaniel Branden, Honoring the Self: Self-Esteem and Personal Transformation)
The Will to Think Independently
As there exists an inherent tendency in human beings to remain comfortably ignorant, to be committed to the truth requires that we develop another pillar of self-esteem: the will to think independently. In seeking truth we will inevitably be forced to extricate our self from the group-think mentality which rules the minds of others. We will be forced to critically analyze commonly held beliefs and practices, and ultimately develop a worldview based on our own conclusions.
Being social animals who innately strive for acceptance and belonging, this can elicit anxiety and ultimately make us aware of our “inescapable aloneness” – of the fact that we are a separate and unique individual who is solely responsible for our own life.
A Commitment to Self-Responsibility
This realization requires the development of another pillar: a commitment to self-responsibility. There are two sides to this pillar. Firstly, we must understand and accept that nobody is here to save us or solve our problems, and secondly, that “we are not here on earth to live up to someone else’s expectations” (Nathaniel Branden, Honoring the Self: Self-Esteem and Personal Transformation). Both of these can be difficult yet liberating realizations, resulting in a transformation of our way of life more in tune with our individuality and uniqueness.
The Will to be Efficacious
The final pillar we’ll discuss here is the “will to be efficacious”, which is “the refusal of human consciousness to accept helplessness as its permanent and unalterable condition”(Nathaniel Branden, Honoring the Self: Self-Esteem and Personal Transformation). It is inevitable and unavoidable that we will face periods of failure and struggle in our life. With low self-esteem we will respond to these times by lying down, accepting defeat, and concluding that we’ll never succeed or be fulfilled. With high self-esteem we won’t feel defeated by these moments, but strengthened, even rejuvenated. We’ll use times of struggle as fuel to kindle our burning desire for success, and strengthen our resolve to ensure we don’t fall down quite so hard the next time we’re dealt a blow.
“The will to be efficacious—here was a concept that helped me explain something I had observed in my clients and students, the principle to help me understand the difference between those who felt fundamentally defeated by life and those who did not.”(Nathaniel Branden, Honoring the Self: Self-Esteem and Personal Transformation)
The Vital Importance of Self-Esteem
The development of self-esteem is a difficult process, requiring both time and effort, and profound self-examination. Yet it is a struggle well worth the effort. In the modern day too many people judge themselves based on the opinions of others, and determine their worth based on what others think of them. This leads to a dependent personality, whereby one’s main goal in life becomes pleasing and impressing others. A successful life requires that we live and make choices based on our own internal values and individuality, and this requires we cultivate self-esteem to have confidence in who we are, even amidst disapproval from others. We must learn to see ourselves in a more realistic, empowering light: as the ultimate judge of our own life, and therefore the sole person we must strive to impress unconditionally.
“We stand in the midst of an almost infinite network of relationships: to other people, to things, to the universe. And yet, at three o’clock in the morning, when we are alone with ourselves, we are aware that the most intimate and powerful of all relationships and the one we can never escape is the relationship to ourselves. No significant aspect of our thinking, motivation, feelings, or behavior is unaffected by our self-evaluation. We are organisms who are not only conscious but self-conscious. That is our glory and, at times, our burden.” (Nathaniel Branden, Honoring the Self: Self-Esteem and Personal Transformation)