Existential Psychology

Increasing Self-Esteem

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Before thinking about increasing your self-esteem you have to figure out if it is currently low, a task that is more difficult than you might think because appearances can be deceptive and we get just as good at lying to ourselves as we do to everyone else, especially when the subject we are trying to avoid seeing clearly is emotionally threatening to us.

A sign that points to your self-esteem being low is if you gain a sense of pride from identifying with people, structures, or ideas that you have very little to do with. For example, you might name drop, where you try to look good in the eyes of others by associating yourself with the accomplishments and prestige of this other person. Or you might fanatically root for a sports team, using the adjective ‘we’ when talking about their achievements, living and dying with the results of games you do not take any part in.

Examples of this sort of self-esteem by association are endless, but what they all have in common is that you hitch your wagon to a star that you in reality do not influence at all. You are in no way responsible for successes or failures, yet live vicariously through them. The obvious draw to this strategy for increasing self-esteem is that you don’t have to do any of your own work hard work of self-actualization. Even if you have no real talents or skills of your own you can just align yourself with people or structures who do and at least at a superficial level you feel you do too.

Obviously this is a really bad strategy for long term self-esteem though, which should be pretty obvious from the fact that there is no ‘self’ in any entity external to you. The only way to authentically increase self-esteem is by developing your abilities from within, increasing your own sense of power and efficacy. When you try to take them from without you are always in a precarious position because you have no ability to influence events. All you can do is stand by and hope for the best. If external variables change your flimsy self-esteem changes right along with them.

A predictable response to the philosophical attitude that self-esteem needs to be generated individually from within is that we all need to identify with and believe in something bigger than ourselves, like God or a country. From a humanistic standpoint this is not true and the way for every person to find meaning is to develop his or her own powers as fully as possible over the lifespan, but even if we agree that identifying with something bigger than ourselves is healthy, the point of this article is that the identification is fraudulent when you aren’t taking an active role in the process. You are just a spectator, an observer, a ghost, and your presence or absence would have little or no effect on the situation.

The only lasting way to increase and maintain self-esteem is to start from within rather than from without, having the courage to unfold your own gifts, risking personal failure and disappointment along the way. Self-esteem derived from your individual human powers can’t be taken from you because it is uniquely yours.