The infinite well of Self-Esteem

Me and my therapist spoke in no small terms about ‘innate value’ and ‘inner dignity’. We talked about the value of self-love, how to cultivate it, how it was prerequisite for the love of another. We assumed that it was something already there, an axiom of the soul.

But I was never fully convinced that there was a source of worth inherently in us. If there was, how could my adult life be plagued with collapses of self-value? I do not believe that with enough ‘practice’ we could ‘self-love’ ourselves back into a place of worth. Nor do I believe it to be true that we need to love ourselves before we can be loved by another.

What others might call ‘inherent value’ I see in a much more nihilistic light, namely normative (or society-given) value. Nature has no inherent value but for the survival of species; cooperating or competing for life. We are no different to any other species, we are the children of nature.

If I had a font of hidden energy and self-value, why is it absent after a lifetime of searching? Perhaps my therapist was just trying to be nice!

A cursory observation of society will demonstrate that people seek to be valued by others. This may be through their position in society – how many people do you see taking pride in their work or striving to get ‘to the top’?

It may be through belonging to a community or ritual place of worship – how many towns do you know of without a church?

It may be in the form of finding a loving partner – how many people do you know who take pride in their relationships? I saw at least five couples publicly demonstrate their affections for each other on my walk through town yesterday.

It shows that we are indeed empty on the inside and in constant need of others; that it is not enough to be with ourselves. Indeed, it is precisely this need for others that drives us forward and allows society to happen. Our emptiness is our driving force and a vital part of who we are.

Despite this gaping void of emptiness and valuelessness within, there is a silver lining.

Every cloud… –

I believe it to be true that low self-esteem can create a downward spiral. The less you value yourself, the less others will value you. This prevents you from turning the tide and rising into a better place. Charity and pity does not feed esteem, nor will people lying to make you feel better. As we are dependent on those around us for esteem, we always have to factor others into our ‘equation of esteem’. This means there can be obstacles to gaining esteem –  coercive group-think and conformity, the presence of ‘alpha males’ who feed off others, prejudice against race / class / gender / and so on, the fear of crowds and groups, to name but a few. When you are low on esteem, these challenges feel insurmountable.

Yet there is nothing that can stop you developing a creative talent. On the way to work, during a lunch break, when you wake up in the middle of  the night – there is always time to develop a skill. No one can give you this talent and no one can anyone take it away. Some people might be privileged by having an earlier start but nothing can stop you from beginning your journey whenever you want.

For myself this saving grace was performance. I don’t need people to believe in me anymore to be a good performer. I don’t need people to tell me I am a skilled musician or actor. It does help to be supported, but I can get by in the hardest environment and know that I can stick it out. The development of performing talents has reached critical mass – there is no turning it back now.

This is what the article title means by an infinite well of self-esteem. It might not always feel right to perform, but when the opportunity and the will align, it is up to one person and one person alone to succeed. Myself.

This does not mean that becoming a craft should be idealized. I do believe that we need to be loved, cared for, checked-in with others, to belong, in order to be fully healthy. A course of CBT or psychotherapy solely working on self-esteem will probably be necessary to make any major gains.

However the infinite well is a factor that can always get you out of the downward spiral.

I have low self-esteem. I do not want to be around other people, so my self-esteem gets even lower. The lower it gets, the less chance anyone is going to want to be around me, so I become more isolated. The more isolated I become, the more I am depressed and therefore anxious. The anxiety prevents me from trying out new situations or talking to new people. It prevents me from taking even the smallest step forward. The lack of inner-value means that no one wants take me on, women are repulsed by the sight of weakness and neediness. Relationships are destroyed by my imbalance and vulnerability. Therefore there is never anyone there to offer a hand up and help me onto my feet.

The key to turning things around is precisely the isolation. Whilst it is not a good thing, it does allow space to develop oneself. It might be boring, emotionally harmful in the long run, repetitive, tedious – but it won’t be forever. If you can train yourself whilst in that place, even just a little bit every day, you can reach a stage where you have a powerful foundation of self-confidence and self-belief. And whats more it will be grounded in empiricism, not the platitudes of a therapist!

There is so much that can be done alone. Playing and composing music, learning how to code websites, creative writing, gardening, growing, cooking, video-blogging.

Skills that can be brought into a social context, such as playing an instrument or community cooking, are especially of value here. They enable someone with low self-esteem to have an ace up their sleeve in competitive social situations or in the predatory capitalist workplace.

Final Mentorly Wisdom –

No one can take away your creative talent, but then no one can give it to you. It is something that must be earned. It requires immense focus and patience. This is precisely what makes it worthwhile, it is truly yours. In the absence of a saviour-figure who will likely never come to rescue you, in the absence of the one-true-love who only exists in faerie tales, creative mastery is the most guaranteed way to turn the tables on low self-worth.

It is not the whole picture, because a person needs to be loved and to belong. But it is a start.

What I am (to you)

An old vinyl full of sublime sound, never put on

An oil painting from the renaissance, gathering dust in the cellar

A cerulean, sun-soaked sky behind heavy, drawn curtains

A beautiful wandering cat, seeking love from strangers

The words of power that unmake spells of hate, never uttered

A drawer full of field beans, never planted in the garden

A book of depth and colour, you refuse to read

 

You do not need to say the sun is gold and resplendent

For the sun to be gold and resplendent

And if you say the sun is bleak, squat, grey and ugly

That does not make the sun bleak, squat, grey and ugly

 

This is why your words have no power; they speak untruth.

The magick of words is their ability to say what is

For magick is power, and magick is just truth, thus truth is power

 

A proud otter swimming through a running river, whose strength you cannot comprehend

Self Worth

It always surprises me how capable I am.

It really should be obvious by now, because I work so well in community-minded teams. Time and time again, I have thrived and inspired others. Effortlessly I can fit in to new groups and gain as much respect as I show. But I still have these barriers of worthlessness to deal with most days.

A lifetime of abuse, neglect and alienation can do that to you. When you have to constantly hear other people’s problems (in the constant whining tone of a frustrated idiot), your self-identity is worn down. You have no space to become your own person. It is hard to shape yourself when it is besieged by other people’s emotions, other people’s expectations, or literally disrupted by unwanted sounds. For vulnerable children, these intrusive elements are especially damaging.

Eventually, your self-esteem hits a nadir, and it is in these moments you become most vulnerable. Wounds that are struck in this time, with no psychic defences, leave the deepest mark. Feeling powerless is the way to depression, feeling weak to anxiety. Over the years it grinds into you, becoming a kind of ‘default setting’.

I have these feelings deep inside. Childhood abuse and humiliation, unacknowledged or underplayed, has left its scars on my self-esteem. The lack of a single proper relationship has meant I had to cope as a lone wolf for so many years. The brutality of school, caught between savagely stupid bullies and horrible teachers has made it hard for me to trust the world. The grinding alienation of the capitalist world, with its ghettos and shopping malls, inspired inaction and depression. It is a lot to bear.

And sometimes the load gets too much. It is not as if the abuse is stuck in the past. Those who commit abuse and do not make real steps to change are prone to repeat their actions. Sometimes the sight of them alone triggers discomfort and anxiety, disgust and anger.

Lack of self-worth is thus passed down like a family legacy. It always made me wonder how a family could destroy its own chances, undermining its own and leaving itself in a worse position. Why would an abuser create mentally crippled children and risk destitution? Why would people who always compete with the Joneses damage their own chances of being more successful? Perhaps it is a form of self-hatred. Perhaps it is overwhelming ignorance.

My wings have certainly been clipped. This article is not an exercise in ‘woe-is-me’. It is an exercise in what I have to push through to be what I truly want to be.

Fortunately, it doesn’t take much to remind myself: I am worth something! Having a web of friends who always show love and appreciation help me feel special. Self-worth comes from my creations, which were generated precisely because of my lack of any good emotions. And with self-reflection comes self-worth, for if I truly know myself, I can but love what is there. That very act of trying to know myself is to show that I am something separate from what others try to shape me into; an attempt at dignity.

Self-worth is hard. My lack of esteem is the cause of always seeing this year’s dream woman as being my emotional saviour, or the other town as a utopia, or a small job opening as the path to fame and wealth. These flights of fancy are not a healthy way to live, and further entrench lack of self-worth. What I need is acceptance of the past without a feeling of rage, but paradoxically, ambition enough to transcend the present condition and its myriad risks.

Do I have self-worth? Yes, I must do. If I didn’t I would not be angry at having been underestimated and ground down; I wouldn’t have an image of what I could be; I wouldn’t be crawling painfully toward something better; I wouldn’t be seeing a psychotherapist and treating my body well. Yes, I have self-worth.

But next door ugly voices are grating, chattering endlessly, intruding on my psychic space, and it is a challenge to stay afloat.