We all know that positive self-esteem is necessary for success in life. Without it, we lack the can-do spirit needed to achieve our goals, and we crumble when faced with the difficulties of life. On the other hand, some people are beginning to question our focus on self-esteem, claiming that it encourages narcissism and feeds an exaggerated sense of entitlement in individuals.
The Golden Rule
So, from a spiritual perspective, what should we do? What can the Tao teach us about self-esteem?
First of all, we must realize that self-love is indeed important. It forms the foundation of the golden rule: treat others as you would want to be treated. This basic moral concept is so ubiquitous in human cultures, you could say that it is the one universal, natural moral law.
It stands to reason, however, that you cannot love others, and thus cannot follow the golden rule, if you do not first love yourself. This concept is widely accepted, yet few have actually achieved true self-love. It is commonplace even for spiritual practitioners to hold some level of contempt for themselves. Many spiritual people even criticize themselves using the principles they have learned! “I am not worthy because I can’t meditate well.” “I am bad because I have this bad habit I cannot break.” Ironically, there is no way to improve if we drag ourselves down this way. Learning to accept and love ourselves is the only way to grow ourselves, and ultimately it is the only way we can make a better world.
Psychology defines self-esteem as “a person’s overall subjective emotional evaluation of his or her worth.” The question then becomes, “What should be my standard of worth?” Should it be my monetary worth? By that standard, only a few will attain a high level of worth. Should my worth be determined by my accomplishments? If so, should I hate myself if I fail? Is my social status the same as my worth?
Using these worldly standards to find self-love clearly does not work. History is full of people whose worth was not recognized during their lifetimes. Vincent Van Gogh only managed to sell one painting during his life, and he died believing he was a failure. Yet, today his paintings sell for millions of dollars and people line up to see exhibitions of his work at museums around the world. And even among those who have found astounding worldly success, there are many who still struggle with depression, drug addiction, and poor self-image.
Beyond a Winner or a Loser
So how do we measure our own worth? The choice comes down to the standard of the ego and the standard of the true self. By the standard of the ego, which is the standard of worldly success, you only have value according to how you compare to others in the physical world. By this standard, everyone is a winner or a loser, and no one is immune from being deemed a loser, if seen through a belief system that makes his or her so.Ultimately, no one under the ego’s standard escapes being labeled a “loser” in some way in a world of comparisons. There is no way to be rich enough, beautiful enough, athletic enough, famous enough, and smart enough to always be better than everyone else. Thus, even though ego is all about protecting and building up the “I,” it is ultimately a self-defeating path that prevents true acceptance of self.
The value of the True Self, or the soul, is the only value that cannot change through time. The soul is the ultimate standard of equality among all human beings. Human beings have the instinctive understanding that all human life is precious and that all people are deserving of fair and humane treatment. This is because we know that everyone contains this basic, indestructible essence that is more valuable than and transcendent of anything in this world.
While the ego is self-protecting and divisive, the true self understands the higher, ultimate truth of reality. The world of the ego teaches us division – I am me, not you; she is better, he is worse; that is good, that is bad. The true self teaches the opposite – we are one; I am worthy; all deserve love.
Shifting your view of the self from the ego’s perspective to the true self’s perspective is the only way to achieve lasting self-esteem. From this perspective, your value is unquestionable and everlasting. You cannot feel unworthy because the value of your soul is not dependent on other’s assessments. You can fail at everything, lose everything, and live as a beggar on the streets; or you can win an Olympic gold medal, become a billionaire, and discover the cure for cancer. Either way, your soul’s worth remains the same.
By the same token, you will never become arrogant or narcissistic if you base your self-esteem on the True Self. Just as your soul is valuable beyond measure, so is everyone else’s. Realizing this truly is the only way to move beyond the prejudices and preconceptions that keep us from loving fully and from transforming the world into the wonderful place it could be.
You are extremely valuable, and you deserve to feel this way about yourself. Don’t believe anyone who tells you that you are not good enough or do not deserve the life you want. I encourage you to experience profound respect for yourself, starting today. When you do, you’ll be able to face the endless difficulties of life and to make positive choices – for health, happiness, and peace for yourself and for this world.