A famous author named Ayn Rand wrote that “The man who does not value himself, cannot value anything or anyone.” She encouraged “selfishness” as a pathway to happiness by pursuing the highest belief about yourself. Her theory implies that you have direct control over this process. However, how do you decide what is the “best” and what beliefs/standards you should hold?
Today, we have unlimited access to information thanks to the internet and other technology advances. We are often bombarded with ideas of what we should want, and powerfully persuaded by the media to seek a certain belief about ourselves. This is especially apparent when millions of dollars are spent on advertising to convince us how we can achieve the highest level of self-esteem and consequently achieve “happiness” by being beautiful or handsome, having the best of everything and being able to do anything you want anytime, anywhere. These messages leave most of us feeling frustrated or angry, or even worse, not liking ourselves. The focus is very consumer-oriented, with “me” being the most important. Thus, self-esteem is correlated with ability to attain everything that the media tells us we need.
Because of this, in therapy, my clients frequently ask if they can achieve positive self-esteem when they are “too fat, poor, unattractive, slow, etc.” This is an important question to address, since they have struggled with it for most of their lives and feel they are stuck feeling negatively about themselves. My frequent response is to ask what their values are and what gauge they use to measure their worth. It is important to understand the conflicting ideas that are the source of their emotional distress.
The most common academic definition of self-esteem is an abstract pair of words reflecting how we perceive ourselves. It indicates a belief that we have “pride, confidence, self-love, self-respect and dignity.” So how do you gain this? It depends on your values. For example, you can gain pride by having the fastest car on the block or being the best father you can be. The difference is that one is external and materialistic (fastest car) and the latter is internal and intrinsic (best father). Which is more important to you? In addition, do you value yourself over others or vice versa? In certain cultures, one’s self-esteem is derived from others, so without being associated with others, you would be considered worthless. But again, it is you who values the opinion of others or may choose not to. Given this, it is possible to have a high sense of self-esteem even if you are fat, poor, slow, etc. As long as you value other intrinsic qualities, such as integrity, caring nature, loyalty, etc., your physical limitations or the lack of dollars in your pocketbook become an insignificant part of who you are. In addition, the concepts of self-control, self-denial, self-criticism and self-sacrifice are no longer fashionable, and worse yet, they are considered to be obstacles to achieving happiness. The media confirms this, since they want you to consume what they are selling. But don’t believe it! It is possible to feel good about yourself and gain happiness by putting others’ needs before your own. Just think of all the greatest roles we are faced with, such as being a parent, teacher, mentor, etc.
But is positive self-esteem a naturally given human right or it is earned? I do not agree with the idea that everyone should “love ourselves” unconditionally and that we all deserve a positive belief about ourselves. Of course, we should attempt to get an accurate measure of who we are and then become more aware of our strengths and weaknesses, and even accept certain aspects of ourselves that we cannot change. But it is clear that positive self-esteem is not given to you at birth, but earned. How could you value yourself and feel worthy of your current job, money and love if you never worked at it? It is less likely that you will gain a solid sense of yourself if you have never struggled with challenges or suffered through self-doubt. So the question is not a matter of having it or not, but if you feel that you deserve it!