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The term Self-Esteem has been thrown around quite a bit in our society. It has been lauded as a kind of cure from everything to doing well at school, to doing well at your job, to making friends, to finding a good mate, and to even making better food choices. The funny thing is that while our culture has been on this two-decades-long, furious effort to fill everyone’s self-esteem tank up, masses of our society are afflicted with depression, anxiety, suicide, addiction, and amongst our young Y and Z generations, a nearly epidemic feeling of being not good enough. Kids no longer want to have a stable job to have their basic material needs met. They now want to have an impact. They now want to be significant in the world—never seeing that perhaps this ambition might be a sign of fear of being not famous (or insignificant) rather than a genuine calling to serve. But before we look down on the fear of being not famous— it's important to note that we have absolutely driven ourselves to this point because of the kind of self-esteem we have been serving up is 100% grounded in the material world. So, we say that if you feel good about yourself, then you will be loved by many (because you love yourself), you will be wealthy and will make the world a better place in a significant way (because you love yourself), and you will be lovely and fit and admired (because you love yourself). However, it completely also says the way to be successful in the world is to love yourself. Love yourself, or you will not be a good, beloved, or successful person. Love yourself, or the world will not love you. The more one walks out our cultural logic, the more one can see how cruel and materialistic our nagging, beating, and perpetual call for everyone to have a good self-esteem…or else.
There is, however, another, more profound kind of self-esteem. It does not come with a promise of material success. It does not come with any kind of promise that you will be super loved by your peers. In fact, the kind of self-esteem I speak of might put you in the hot seat amongst not only your peers but quite possibly a larger body of people. “It’s a different kind of self-esteem than the kind that says, ‘I think I can wear that bathing suit.’ I’m not talking about that kind of self-esteem. […] It’s the kind of self-esteem [that says] I have what it takes to perceive differently than other people. I have what it takes to be able to see something more accurately than other people.” (transcript from Caroline Myss talk, Self-Esteem and the Power of Your Choices, YouTube) The kind of self-esteem Caroline Myss talks about is the trusting of your inner voice—your inner knowing. Often, we are confronted with choices, and our inner voice might conflict with those around us—true self-esteem is listening and then obeying our inner voice. When I was 19, I woke up blind in one eye. While they still did not have a diagnosis, their idea was to megadose me with steroids to see if my brain and optic nerve’s swelling would go down. I refused. My gut or inner voice said to say no—so I did. Everyone from the doctors to my parents yelled at me. Gradually my eyesight returned. Around that time, a doctor at Stanford University wanted to see me as I was part of a group of young people around the world that had been afflicted by the same mysterious blindness, and he wanted to examine me. After telling him my story and examining me, he told me that of the young people with the same condition the ones who were given steroids never got their eyesight back and had permanent damage to their optic nerve, and the ones who just waited it out had their eyesight returned without damage to their optic nerve. It is not my point to say, ‘Don’t listen to your doctor or don’t listen to peoples’ advice,’ but sometimes we just know better than others, and it's important to ultimately follow our inner knowing or inner voice. It is the truest form of self-esteem.
It may be a little lonely or even frightening to follow what we know to be right; however, in the end, it delivers us to a better shore for us. One never regrets doing the right thing—even if the ‘right thing’ is different from what others think you should do, or (and this is most often the case) what others want you to do so they can feel validated by their immoral actions. True integrity, true self-esteem has absolutely nothing to do with success in the material world. It has nothing to do with getting good grades; it has nothing to do with having a job that will save the world; it has nothing to do with having a good spouse, kids, or family. Life is a series of decisions and true self-esteem is about making the decision based on your inner voice, your inner knowing, and not based on exterior validation, or what the outside world judges as good and bad or right and wrong. Sometimes your inner voice will create enemies or hostility as you exercise the practice of honoring your knowing. Over time, you will see through other peoples’ projected fears and desires and learn to never be a traitor unto yourself. That is true self-esteem.
Everyone has that place within themselves that is sacred—that always knows right from wrong. We know when we have betrayed ourselves whether it was because we did something hurtful to someone else or harmful to ourselves. We always know deep down when we step away from our inner truth. Additionally, we know when we are being treated badly. We may try even to please people in our lives who treat us badly, and yet, our inner self is never fooled—the little voice always knows that you are being treated poorly and need to leave the situation. The more and more you learn to listen, believe, and then make your decisions based on your inner knowing the more and more you will develop true, rich, profound, self-esteem. It may mean leaving a toxic friend group, spouse, or job. However, over time you will see that holding on to toxic people or circumstances is far more destructive than walking away. You will find people who do not do violence to your inner self. Good people will avoid you while you are running around with toxic people. Good jobs will elude you while you stay in bad jobs.
Below is a short, wonderful video of Maya Angelou (4:02) from Oprah’s OWN Network. It perfectly encapsulates the rich, life-altering self-esteem that honors your inner self. The problem with material-based self-esteem is that it is always based on achievements outside of yourself—even achievements that seem super saintly like trying to save the world—are still things outside of yourself. Loads of super saintly successful people with amazing families feel depressed, anxious, and are plagued with a perpetual feeling of not being good enough. The problem with material-based self-esteem is that everything can be taken away from you—think of Job or Victor Frankl. Victor Frankl realized while living in a Nazi concentration camp that true happiness and the ability to survive unbelievable deprivation and suffering rests in the inner self and not accrued material successes. Real self-esteem can only be found in the humble practice of honoring your inner voice.