The Fall of Self-Esteem

The Fall of Self-Esteem

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Photo by Alexander Grey

During the 1980s, popular psychology promoted the importance of self-esteem. This was both widely promoted and widely mocked as self-absorption.

The issue with self-esteem is when it’s measured by our achievements, expectations, and social norms. As I recently wrote, we don’t have control over results, so it’s hardly the thing to ride our esteem on. That just cultures self-doubt. Further, such ideas have led to a lot of entitlement, like people feeling they deserve what they haven’t earned. How can we all be above average?

Comparing the shape of our body, our abilities, and so forth to fashionable norms is similar folly.

More recent findings have discovered that the real value is in self-compassion. This means letting go of perfectionism, unsuitable expectations, and forgiving ourselves. We allow ourselves to be as we are, including our limitations and our messiness. This softens our judgment of others, too.

Genuine acceptance and a recognition of our inherent value leads to a more grounded esteem. Our value isn’t something we earn and we cannot actually lose it. It comes from our true nature, so originates beyond our beliefs and feelings, or anything we can know or gain. Our value is in our very being.

Our simple awareness knows reality as it is. And from that place, we can support our strengths, adjust for our weaknesses, and release our burdens.

However, in the light of self-judgment, real compassion is scarce. It might feel weak or vulnerable rather than strong and independent. We might fear opening the Pandora’s box of our trauma.

Ironically, one of the first steps in healing is becoming conscious of our lack of self-acceptance. It’s very helpful to just be curious about our own experience. To recognize how our response patterns have developed to help us feel safe or in control. We’re just trying to avoid pain. And so often, we learned from others who didn’t know either.

We can feel we need our inner critic to protect us, like a grandparent or something. But that’s giving our power away to a control freak. Once we really see these narratives for what they are, they’re seen through and wind down.

We may see our thoughts as facts that can tell us who we are. But this is false. We’re much more than our thoughts or even ideas about ourselves.

We will notice how we resist or reject things happening around us and within us. We discover that this actually sustains what we don’t want. When we stop resisting and learn to face life, we can resolve all those repeaters that babble away in our mind and emotions. Life calms.

The key then is not struggling with your struggles, resisting your resistances, rejecting your rejecting, and so forth. It’s just noticing, being curious, and allowing.

Gradually, we become more present in our experience. An attitude of open allowing develops. As we calm, we shift from our reptilian survival responses to our caring mammalian brain. And then self-compassion can dawn.

Thanks to Noel Haarburger

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  1. ‘We can feel we need our inner critic to protect us, like a grandparent or something.’ Last year I forced myself to get really clear and asked what my fear was saying and when I wrote ‘Doubt keeps me safe. Fear keeps me safe.’ I realized that was the voice of my father who was ruled by fear.
    Noticing those thought patterns really helped me stop internalizing, and let them go. Funny you chose a grandparent for the example, I would imagine most grandparents are loving! Though not in all cases I suppose. 🙂

    1. Hi Jenifer
      Great insight. And shades of Inside Out.
      My mothers father lived with us for the last part of his life. He wasn’t a fan of kids. Guess thats one of my voices. 🙂

      My other living grandparent was my fathers mother. She was tall and her line brought height to the family. She was very supportive. And my mothers mother too, from the other side…

  2. Harrison

    The last few lines about shifting to nonjudgmental noticing and allowing and letting go of resistance to “what is” are all great advice. Just about every healing/spiritual tradition old and new has some form of this wisdom. The big question is why something that’s so well understood is so seldom practiced? Our reptile brain-stem mind is darn good at resisting non-resistance. The need to be in control, to know what is going on, figure things out, be right by making others wrong, have things go according to our plan and expectations, and deride go-with-the-flow demonstrate the grip of this mode of thinking. Trusting the universe runs up against old traumas and conditioning and the pain, fear and anger that’s been embodied. The shift from survival mode to something less reactive and controlling (waking up mode?) is certainly desirable. Could the difficulty be that what is offered as a means (letting go) is actually an outcome or product of that waking up mode? Perhaps we are trying to overcome the conceptual mind with more thinking? One gift of Darshan, Bakti or Seva is that they allow us to by-pass the conceptual mind and resonate in the space of simple awareness while in activity. What other means (besides effortless meditation) are available to the aspirants who know more conceptually than they are able to embody spiritually?

    1. (laughs) Well put, Harrison.
      Many of us are full of brilliant ideas, but putting them into practice is a whole other thing. Running into that myself as I shift from the theory to the applied parts of my practitioner trainings. 🙂

      But yes, I agree. We’re so used to being in the mind, we seek mind ideas so solve something that can’t be solved with the mind. Most people sitting with the awake at first come in with the mind, ready for new concepts. But then it doesn’t make sense when it’s not part of the experience.

      Even if presence is well established due to spiritual practice, the mental habit can still be there. We have to consciously shift to just being.

      This shift doesn’t require awakening, but it is on the path to it. And it becomes easier after. And yes, certain activities encourage it, but if were aware enough, we can favour it in any kind of activity. People sometimes joke that intense things, like running for a plane, can increase the contrast and make it more obvious. It just becomes about culturing a habit, while also being careful not to try to control or manipulate the experience. Allow it to come and go.

      But perhaps I’m not the best to advise on this point. I started witnessing early, so never had to practice culturing presence. It was just there all the time. Not quite awake, but present, even when I wasn’t. (laughs)

  3. Harrison

    Thanks David – good point about “presence” and culturing that as a habit – I do feel presence at times especially with a supportive environment/people. There is a conscious shift fueled by intention and “remembering” It gets overshadowed by duality but perhaps that duality is just a test or release so the next wave of non duality is deeper. Like any wave we can only ride it as it comes and goes. Surf’s up – Smiles H

    1. Yeah, Harrison, it’s a dying the cloth thing. We can dip in during meditation, then bleach in activity. But we can also dip in during the day, if there is a moment when we notice. Even just for a moment.

      As long as we’re alert to the ego getting involved (and reptilian brain) and trying to control the experience, we’re fine. It may babble away about getting it right or doing it wrong or whatever. But a little presence means we can ignore that and it will settle down. 🙂

      Just Be. Everything is OK.

  4. Harrison

    Thanks for your encouragement David – going back to the surfer analogy there’s riding the wave of non-duality which is great fun until a wave of duality comes along I am back in the surf – off balance from over reacting or grasping and bit upset with myself as a result- but the next wave of non-duality will come by noticing “presence” and favoring it slightly with a light touch. This noticing throughout the day seems to be key. Presence is like the mantra for activity and we innocently return to it when we find ourself wandering in thoughts.

    1. Hi Harrison
      At some point, the presence gets loud enough (deep enough/ grounded enough) that nothing throws it off. There can be surface waves that may even dominate occasionally. But what’s here is always here, be it foreground or background. The reacting and the reacting to the reacting ease or feel more superficial.

      The light touch – perfect. It all becomes a light touch – even the biggest waves. When you’re infinity, what’s a wave? 🙂

  5. Hi David
    Wonderful exchange and a blessing to have this guidance. There is the growing sense that this is “the pearl of great price” and the most meaningful place for attention that is somehow effortless.. Reverence comes to awareness too; honoring the space between being and Being without the mind jumping in. Feeling a call and inspiration to keep facing in this direction like a sunflower towards the sun. Smiles.

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