You think, therefore I am
Today, in our country, probably one of the biggest buzzwords is “self-esteem”. In every place I visit, whether a metropolis or a small town, I see innumerable advertisements and hoardings exhorting people to undertake “personality d evelopment courses” guaranteed to boost self-belief and enhance productivity. Some HR professionals in the corporate world seem to have re-invented themselves on the self-esteem bandwagon. Consultants design courses and programmes tailored to helping people enhance their self-esteem. People visit psychotherapists in the hope of feeling better about themselves. And all this over the last decade or so. The self-esteem industry has arrived in our country. But, what is this fuss all about? And why only now? What is this whole self-esteem thing?
In its simplest form, self esteem reflects two independent but related phenomena — the accuracy of our perception about our self as well as the way we value our self. However, we need to realise that the concept of self-esteem relates to the “core self”, not the “surface self”. In other words, merely because you have some extraordinary skills does not necessarily mean you possess good self-esteem, for skills are situation-specific. In this situation you may be “self-confident” i.e. you may believe in the skills you possess, but may not necessarily have high self-esteem. A good cricketer for instance, may or may not have good self esteem in situations outside the cricket field. A captain of industry might not know how to function outside the office. So, anybody who attempts to enhance self-esteem by acquiring more skills in whatever form, is really barking up the wrong tree. But the concept of the core self is a fairly abstract one. Erudite tomes have been written about it, philosophers have dissected it with gusto and psychotherapists make their living from it. What we need is a more practical construct with practicable processes we can engage with. The concept of the “social self” is one such.
It is important to understand that as highly socialised beings, we live in a social context, as a result of which we experience our sense of self from equations within this context: from relationships. The best chance we have of enhancing our self-esteem comes from the quality of relationships we get into. And not just any relationship, but the more intense ones where the deeper layers of the self relates to the deeper layers of the other person’s self. Put differently, the harmony between the way we perceive and value our own self and the way people in our close emotional environment perceive and value our sense of self is what makes for self esteem. If you are a wonderful musician with a large fan following but your spouse and children think of you as egoistic and self-centred, then you still have some work to do on your self-esteem.
However, experiencing our self-esteem in the context of our relationships does make us vulnerable. For, the equation then becomes, “You think, therefore I am”. To a certain extent this is true and in the early stages of our growth and development, all of us tend to see ourselves as reflected in the eyes of people we love and respect. As children, the way our parents see us defines the way we see our “self”. Slowly our teachers’ perceptions as well as those of our peers adds to the definition. But if we constantly define ourselves only through other peoples’ eyes, then we will stay vulnerable through our lives and end up being a “people pleaser”, for, we try to get people in our emotional environment to value us by pandering to their every need even if this is at a cost to our own growth as a person.
We do need to remember that as we grow, we become more conscious of what we think of and how we value our own “self” as well. And when this clashes with the way our environment perceives and values us, we become unhappy, restless, agitated and low in self-belief. In such a situation, the first instinct is to blame the environment and try to change it. This can be a dangerous trap to fall into, for we end up falling into the “victim mode”. We must, if we are to enhance our self esteem, move to the “survivor mode” and regain a modicum of control over the situation. For this to happen, we need to inculcate in ourselves a pattern of introspection, for, it is this process that will truly help build our self-esteem.
The way out
Every time we experience a disturbance or temporary dissonance in any of our close relationships, it may be useful to engage in a process of introspection. This way we can try to understand why a gap exists between our own self-perceptions and those of others in our environment. When we do this, we put ourselves in a position to truly be in touch with our core self and add value to it. And along the way, we obtain insights into the self of the other person in the relationship too, thereby enabling us to contribute to her/his growth as well. “You think, therefore I am”, now becomes “We think, therefore we are”. And as we stay in touch with our true self and keep refining it as we go along, the equation finally changes to “I think, therefore I am; you think, therefore you are”, at which point vulnerability is no longer an issue and self-esteem can be said to have been truly enhanced.
As a caveat, let me emphasise that a person who has an elevated opinion of himself does not experience high self-esteem. It is only when this opinion has been arrived at through a process of honest introspection and is shared unequivocally by others in the person’s emotional environment can self-esteem be truly enhanced. From this definition, you would surely have realised that the more conscious we are about pursuing our self-esteem, the more likely we are to enhance it. By the same token, the fact that we are talking about it, reading about it and actively pursuing it, means we are pretty much on the right track.