The definition of self-esteem is one’s evaluation of their own self-worth. The ultimate question being, “Am I worthy?” Our culture has hijacked worthiness into being something that society decides upon. It is no longer, “I am worthy just because”, but it is “I am worthy because I earn money, I am a mother, I have a career, I own a car… “ Hence, if worthiness has been hijacked, so has self-esteem. Self-esteem has become the pursuit of all the things society decided are worthy actions, behaviors, milestones, and items. Pursuing self-worth became an outcomes based task, if you can prove it, if you succeeded at it, then you are worthy, otherwise, you are not worthy and your self-esteem plummets. Society defines worthiness and we have all bought into it. Your measuring stick of self-esteem is yours and societies idea and definition of who is worthy, what makes one worthy, and what we should consider valuable. With this understanding of self-esteem, we become hyper focused with only one area of improvement. We invest all our self-worth in specific domains such as being a good mother, being financially stable, or having the job of our dreams.
Proving that we are worthy comes with a high price. Since worthiness is prescribed by the culture you live in, you are always dependent on others to notice and validate that you are doing well. Relying on others for validation and recognition creates a cycle of fear and anxiety. You become anxious about the other person’s opinion and you become fearful that they will reject you. Rejection means, you are not worthy! And your self-esteem is crushed.
There are three things in life that satisfy us; competency, relatedness, and autonomy or what Freud said the ability to work, love, and play. Competency is our ability to work toward and master a task; relatedness is our ability to love and maintain relationships; autonomy is our ability to play and take risks. The pursuit of self-esteem interferes with these three life satisfying goals.
Competency is our ability not only to learn a new task, but to learn from our past experiences. Self-esteem steals this opportunity from you because you are focused on the end goal and not on the process. Learning from your process allows you to recognize specific failures so that you can recreate your journey by implementing changes to improve the process. Competency is not only about completing the task, it is about mastering the task in the most efficient, productive, and satisfying way.
Self-esteem interferes with our autonomy. Since self-esteem is contingent on societies rules and what society says is acceptable, you are stuck between embracing what you desire or satisfying others so that you can say you are worthy, by their standards (do you get this nonsense?). Essentially, self-esteem is confining and rigid, stifling your ability to play and take risks. For example, failure by society standards is terrible, only unworthy people fail. Therefore, you never try something new because you are afraid you will fail, if you fail then you are unworthy, and once again your self-esteem is hit. The cycle continues, you avoid risks because you do not want to ruffle the feathers of your delicate self-esteem.
Finally, self-esteem hinders our capacity to love and experience relationships. We get lost in the goal of being in a committed relationship (society says: “you should have a boyfriend, you should have tons of friends.”) that we lose sight of living in the moment, allowing the ups-and-downs of relationships impact us. We become so preoccupied with our self that we completely overlook the experiences of other people in our life. When people challenge us in relationships we fail to appraise ourselves accurately because we are too busy protecting our self-esteem. We jump for a quick fix instead of introspecting and reflecting.
Self-esteem cannot be the ultimate goal. Self-esteem will happen as a result of pursuing competency, relatedness, and autonomy. Use your internal voice to validate and motivate yourself. Let’s do away with self-esteem and focus on life-satisfaction, because you do not need to prove to yourself that you are worthy, “you are worthy just because.”
Sara Schapiro-Halberstam, LMHC, CASAC is a licensed mental health counselor in NYC, where she provides individual counseling and intimacy counseling. You can contact Sara at firstname.lastname@example.org and read more blog posts at www.mwr.nyc