Thursday, 17 January 2013

What exactly IS self-esteem?

So I come from the generation that grew up knowing they were supposed to have self-esteem. Work on it, build it, have it respected by others, etc etc.

The term is such an embedded cliche it seems to hold little power any more. When Gok Wan does his thing, he is wholly focused on enabling women to reevaluate their self-esteem, and encouraging them to believe that they are 'worth it'. It seems so cheesy, so easy to laugh at.

So I looked up 'self-esteem' on Wikipedia.

Self-esteem, apparently, is an evaluation of one's own worth. Only under conditions of capitalism could psychology be commodified in this way, it seems to me. That it took Carl Rogers to invent the notion of 'unconditional regard', that we needed to be told or sold the idea that we ought really to be nice to each other, speaks volumes about the appropriation of essential humanity by its own false representations of itself.

Self-esteem is a mixture of a JUDGEMENT we perform upon our own competence, our ability to cope with Life, and our ATTITUDE towards that judgement. This can be benign and forgiving, or punitive and critical. You might judge yourself to be rubbish in general, or rubbish at one specific thing, while at the same time forgiving yourself for it, and telling yourself you'll just have to try harder. Or you might judge yourself negatively, specifically or globally, and then castigate yourself endlessly.

As we develop from childhood into adolescence and then adulthood, our capacity for self-evaluation increases. We become aware of differences between ourselves and others, and we start to measure these, and assess ourselves against a scale of values, which are internalized from our parents, our education, and whatever it is that is character in us.

The greater the cognitive development, the higher the risk to healthy self-esteem. Positive self-regard can be threatened by an increased understanding that our most dreaded self might plausibly be our real self. A spiral develops, plotted on the coordinates of our need for respect from others, against our need for inner self-respect. If we start to believe, perhaps through a lack of respect shown to us, or through magnifying our own fears that we are not worthy of regard, this spiral will become tighter.

Many people have either outright low self-esteem -- effectively they actually despise themselves. Low self-esteem can lead to full-blown depression. Many others have defensive high self-esteem. They measure their worth highly, yet feel under constant threat from potential criticism. They rely on constant positive feedback. Their high self-regard is permanently in question and under assault.

It seems to me that defensive high self-esteem is an ego position in which judgement of one's self does not match attitude towards one's self. Self-judgement, based on importing external measurements of competence, is called into question by emotions like shame, guilt, doubt, anger, directed against the self. If a person has that kind of war going on internally, it doesn't take much for slings and arrows from beyond the castle to get in.

People with defensive high self-esteem ultimately believe they ought to have low self-esteem, and cannot protect themselves from this belief. The basement of the castle is flooded.

Proust demonstrates a strong example of defensive high self-esteem. So do some people who appear on self-help shows and become aggressive when challenged.

I wonder whether the reason so many people are so moved by the spectacle of Anne Hathaway playing Fantine is that the pity and awe we are supposed to feel when watching tragedy is based on our identification with the movement of degradation when positive self-regard is corrupted into low self-regard.

What now?

Perhaps we identify with Fantine, not because our lives are like hers, but because we recognise that it's possible for anyone to slip into despair.

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