People talk about self-esteem as though it is something monolithic. One is said to have high or low self-esteem in some vague, generalized sense. But this does not really resonate with my experience. Just as I think one does not have a simple “self”, but rather a multiplicity of selves that emerge through interaction with a multiplicity of contexts, relationships, attitudes, dispositions, thoughts, and activities, I find it hard to think of my self-estimation as something capable of simplification into terms of “high” or “low” self esteem.
How I feel about myself varies with my mood, my circumstances, and my rational judgments. Self-estimation is a very emotionally high stakes activity and it is hard to do rationally. But I think it is very important that we assess ourselves as rationally as possible. The biggest challenge that I have in doing so is that I find that my mood and/or recent important events in my life have a tendency to drastically determine my perceptions. There are all sorts of facts about my life that I am fairly clear on. But in a negative mood I start dredging up and centralizing all the worst facts, while ignoring or minimizing the relevance of the more important ones. If I feel bad about myself, I find bad things about myself and I interpret myself uncharitably as having these bad things at my core. And on the flip side when I am in an upbeat mood (or sometimes reversing myself after I have done just too good a job convincing someone else I’m pathetic with a moping sob story), suddenly all the best facts about my life are front and center and the key thread of my story becomes that I or my life or some aspect of my life is just wonderful.
This fits with one of the biggest general challenges I see numerous others and myself facing when it comes to valuing. Our brains can be ridiculously dualistic such that when we feel positive about something it quite often becomes (at least temporarily) all good in our minds and then when we feel negative about something else (or even that same thing) it suddenly becomes all bad. This is one of the many reasons that emotions can only be a limited guide to our value judgments. It is also why we should really stop and take deep breaths when people irritate us. While our general emotional responses can be perceptive first reactions about general goodness and general badness, they can be extremely unnuanced and prone to exaggeration. Emotions can overwhelm our whole perspective and distort it in questionable ways.
We cannot think unemotionally. That’s simply not an option given how our brains work and we would lose access to some important information and valuable access to genuine values if we didn’t have the emotions participating in our perceptions. (I talk about these in posts like I Am Not Against Emotions, I Am Against Insulting Epithets and On Zealously, Tentatively, and Perspectivally Holding Viewpoints.) But we must always be critically scrutinizing just how well fit our emotions are to the world. Are they really taking all the relevant information as seriously as they should or has one aspect of a situation or a person struck a nerve and become the whole world to our feelings?
So when something goes genuinely bad, my negative feelings rightly emerge. But then instead of just stopping there, my brain starts looking for more and more explanations and justifications for why I feel bad and starts looking for all sorts of ways to synthesize the information available to me into narratives that fit my negative feeling. And quite often this involves putting myself down and interpreting my life in relentlessly negative terms. And all of this happens the other way with positive feelings and judgments of goodness.
So, I really have a hard time saying I have high or low self esteem in any general sense. I have positive moods and negative moods. And I am probably to some extent just fairly lucky and naturally buoyant and optimistic and prone to more regular positive moods than negative ones. But I do have my depressive moods and they can be temporarily overwhelming.
But more than just temperamental luck, I have to some extent trained myself fairly deliberately over the years to conscientiously get control of my perceptions during my mood swings. It’s very hard to do and may be even harder for people who don’t have the head start of a relatively high baseline positivity of the kind I think I have.
There are two key things I try to focus on so that I can feel things properly and see myself rationally, rather than merely moodily.
For one thing, philosophically, I explicitly and conscientiously reject various common false ethical judgments that misperceiving oneself is actually good. Implicitly it seems that many think that thinking either worse or better of yourself is a good thing. For example, many have problematic ideals of humility or honesty whereby they are convinced it would be unseemly to think oneself especially good at things and so they feel better about themselves morally when they falsely downplay themselves—not only to others, for the sake of politeness, but even to themselves. There is an interesting moral psychological reward in thinking and feeling that “I’m no one special”—even (or especially!) when in some respect you actually are (at least statistically) special indeed. (I talked about just one of the reasons this false modesty is a bad thing in my post On Unintentionally Intimidating People.) On the flip side others try to salvage their own or others’ devastated senses of self worth by both trumpeting and exaggerating the positives, and treating negative judgments of certain kinds as psychologically (and sometimes even morally) unacceptable.
But I take the view (modified from something C.S. Lewis argued in The Screwtape Letters) that one should look at the quality of oneself and one’s work with as detached honesty as one would the work of another. Lewis goes further, in a way I don’t agree with, and argues one shouldn’t feel any more satisfaction in one’s own excellent work than one would in observing another’s. I think that it’s perfectly appropriate to take special delight in one’s own excellent accomplishments and special disappointment in one’s failures. But the point is that our appraisals should be just as they would for anyone else’s work. This leads me occasionally to say things that make people think I am arrogant when I am just being honest about something I did that I thought was really great, rather than showing false modesty about my strengths. And on the flip side I am admonished for supposedly low self-esteem in cases where I am just trying to be perfectly frank about a weakness I have or a particular poor performance. Oftentimes, I don’t feel any excessive sadness or self-loathing at all when being so frank. In those cases I’m not moping, I’m just reporting. (Here are my meditations on how to get pride right and how to get humility right, respectively.)
But sometimes I do mope and sometimes I do overestimate myself. And those are usually times when a powerful mood is clouding my mind and overwhelming my philosophical commitment and abilities to just judge myself with dispassionate detachment. So I am figuring out what irrational forms of thinking aid these moods. The other day, I posted about the irrational trap of having expectations that excessively attach us to things we cannot have when we should feel free to pursue innumerable good things we can have.
Another major problem I am becoming increasingly aware of in myself and others is our self-sabotaging tendency to objectify ourselves. While I think it is quite unlikely that we are as metaphysically free as he implies, Jean-Paul Sartre is powerfully insightful about numerous ways that, as a practical matter, we have far more choices available to us than we regularly are willing to admit to ourselves. The problem is that we tend to objectify people, including ourselves. What I mean by “objectifying” is that we think of a person as though they were some object which had some relatively narrow, fixed, and regular function which exhausted its nature.
When in this kind of a mode we think of the baker as though all he did was bake, like he was only another of the instruments in the kitchen along with the oven and the pans and utensils. Almost as though they were custom fit robots, in our minds we slip into reducing people to the function they serve for us (or which we wish they’d serve for us) and lose sight emotionally (if not as some matter of explicit, dark ideology) of the fullness of their subjective, internal lives and their possibilities for choices and roles different than what we expect of them.
A great deal of racism, sexism, xenophobia, homophobia, transphobia, etc. can be accounted for by this objectifying mindset. In “slut-shaming”, for example, promiscuous women are implicitly treated like robots who, because they would have sex with multiple men, presumably must desire any men whatsoever, and who because they have a demonstrable liking for sex can be assumed to be hospitably receptive to virtually any sexual offer. And hence, all sorts of ugly, erroneous, and dangerous attitudes emerge such that they deserve what they get when they get raped or that they cannot even be raped, etc.
When it comes to gays, frequently their entire complex and multifarious psychosexual and romantic experiences and longings are reduced by many heterosexuals who think all there is to gay sexuality is an indiscriminate and inordinate craving and receptivity for gay sex. Some people have actually argued that we cannot acknowledge the existence of homosexuals to children without therein discussing sex with them. Because, qua homosexuals, all homosexuals are are “gay-sex-havers”. So mentioning them is mentioning gay sex, according to such an objectifying mindset.
And not only do we objectify other people, we all have tendencies to objectify ourselves. Not only might I implicitly fall into the habit of thinking of the baker as some sort of baking robot, I might see myself as a blogger robot constrained by the programming for blogging robots in what I may or may not do or think. I might see myself in terms of some falsely belittling and limiting reduction with respect to any aspects of my life. I may see myself as a certain kind of son incapable of being another kind, a certain kind of professor incapable of being another kind, a certain kind of lover incapable of being another kind, a certain kind of person with respect to my body, to art, to food, to strangers, to myself, etc.
Now it’s a necessary and positive thing that we develop identities and narratives about ourselves. They help us situate ourselves with respect to other people and to ourselves (past and present and future). They help to give structure to our psyches and to our social arrangements with others. They help to integrate our values and our life stories and our beliefs. Insofar as our identities are to a large extent shared with others with whom we have commonality, they provide us cultural or sub-cultural guidance in helping us put our lives, values, and beliefs together in a coherent way. We could not ever hope to do all the sifting of priorities and all the development of practices that are required to run our lives successfully if we were left to our own solitary devices to figure it all out for ourselves from scratch. We get invaluable and indispensible orientation for life through numerous cultural forms, including forms of identity.
But we should not look at our identities as inescapable programming, which limits what we can do. We have to custom fit our identities to our individuality for our own unique greatest flourishing. We need to experiment with our identities to improve upon them. We need to rationally reevaluate them and improve upon them both for our own sake and for those who share our identities or are affected by the roles they give us.
The Sartrean insight that most impresses me is that we each ourselves recreate every human role and identity with how we individually choose to embody it. There is no such thing as The Teacher. When I teach a class, I decide what the teacher will be. That does not mean, as I would see it, that just anything will make for an ideal teacher. Not every choice I could make is a good one. But the onus is on me to make the choices. To my students, I will be what a teacher is. When I parent, I decide what a parent will be. In this case, even more drastically than in the case of the student, my child’s whole conception of what a father or a mother is will be profoundly shaped by the father or mother that I am to him or her.
Every parent, every teacher, every student, every lawmaker, every lawyer, every doctor, every nurse, every police officer, every mechanic, every scientist, every philosopher, every friend, every brother, every sister, every Christian, every Muslim, every Jew, every atheist, every gay person, every transgendered person, every every human being endorses or modifies various aspects of the role she has received just by embodying it herself. And the most consistent modifications that a whole generation of any type of person makes to their received role starts becoming part of the initial template that the next generation in that role starts out with and takes as “normal”. And through such a process whole cultures evolve. And all this also goes for “humanity” itself. As greater majorities of humans start being human in one way rather than another, i.e. start adopting certain values, practices, obligations, roles, beliefs, institutions, and identities, rather than others, the broad templates for “ethical human being” and “range of normal human beings” evolve too.
So, even as I may have templates and models that give me an orientation to a human role, I am always responsible for the choices I make. I cannot just implicitly or explicitly say, “well, I’m just this kind of robot designed to fulfill just this function in just this way.” My roles might have ideal functional goals—e.g., teaching has a specific functional end that doesn’t change insofar as it is teaching: it aims to create learning in students. But the means are always my responsibility and some of the proximate ends can vary (e.g., exactly what kinds of learning should I try to create?). I cannot evade my responsibility by just averring to received traditions and role models as justifications in themselves. If there is a better way to do it, either in general or just for me, then the onus is on me to figure it out and reinvent the teacher for my students and for my fellow teachers even.
And, ethically and psychologically, if my received understandings of what it is to be me are flawed or stuck in self-limiting ruts, then the onus is on me to recognize the ways I already have, and already use, the power to create my own psychology through my practices of self-conditioning. Whether deliberately and conscientiously or negligently and haphazardly, I already control the formation of my beliefs, values, attitudes, and habits that will shape my psychology and my life in the future. I do this through thousands of choices all the time about what I will or not expose myself to and what I will or will not do every day. It is up to me to reinvestigate my ethical assumptions, inferences, and conclusions to make sure they are as rational and conducive to my flourishing as possible. It is up to me to introspect and get the opinions of others that I may adequately assess who and what I really am–and what I really could be–psychologically and socially, and start responsibly and proactively building the habits that will improve myself.
And here comes the challenge. There is a cognitive bias that prevents us from doing this introspection and self-transformation adequately. It turns out that psychologists find that when people’s self-narratives, even their negative ones, are undermined with counter-evidence people are prone to respond by affirming the countered narratives even more strongly. So, if you have developed a self-defeating narrative that you’re just the person who has no math skills, no self-esteem, no fashion sense, no social skills, no dating skills, no philosophical talent, no scientific aptitude, no writing ability, no dancing ability, no physical strength or endurance, no self-discipline, etc., then you will likely reject the evidence that counters this narrative and walk away telling yourself all the more fervently about how limited you are. I am assuming that not only will you reject counter-evidence that shows you underestimate what you already are, but that you will even more likely shove away the evidence that with conscientious habituation and practice most people actually can readapt their brains to learn most things. It just takes patience, work, and enough self-confidence to endure failure and slow progress during early stages of developing new habits and abilities.
So, here’s my advice I have been giving myself constantly the last month that I’ve been really thinking about this. Right now, think about the narrative you have about yourself that is most self-sabotaging or self-pitying. What do you feel most frustratingly inadequate with respect to? What do you think of as the limitation that you should most overcome if you are to go to the next stage of your happiness? Figure out exactly what that is. Then think about exactly the constructive steps that it would take to get from where you are now to actually, at least in theory, to grow in the area in which you most know you need to grow. Research the steps. If need be go to a therapist and find out what steps they know work best for people.
And then tell yourself you can take those steps. You are a human being–a far more adaptable kind of being that most of us ever dare to admit to ourselves or challenge ourselves to fully realize through our actions. And when your predictably faulty, standard issue, human cognitive equipment starts revving up and starting to sabotage you by insisting that there is no point in even taking them because, supposedly, “you cannot change”, recognize what is happening. Recognize that your brain is broken. Recognize how what is weak within you is insisting that it will always dominate who you are. And go tell it to fuck itself. It is not telling you the truth. Every time it insists you should stop trying, just tell it to fuck itself. Redirect your focus instead on every practical step to instantiate your very best possible self.
More on How To Live Happily: Have No Expectations