Self-Esteem Gradations

I consider low self-esteem to be the most wide-spread and insidious psychological problem. Alcoholism, drug addiction, anorexia, miserable personal lives, failed careers are among the consequences of this issue. Here is the classification of different forms of self-esteem that I have come up with:

I. The people who have been fortunate enough to emerge from their childhood and adolescence with a good and healthy self-esteem, a.k.a lucky bastards whom I’d gladly admire if I didn’t envy them so badly.

II. People with low self-esteem are less monolithic as a group than the folks with high self-esteem. They can be broken down into the following categories, based on how they handle their problem:

1. Those who realize early on that they have this issue and start working consciously and patiently on improving their self-esteem. These are people who are self-aware enough to acknowledge that this is a problem that has hurt them badly and who refuse to inflict the same suffering on others.

2. Those who lack self-awareness and spend their entire life consuming other human beings in a way that allows them to pretend that they don’t have low self-esteem. They do this in a variety of ways:

a) Whining. There are those who milk others for self-affirmation, compliments and reassurance all day and every day. “I know I look fat in this,” they say in a tragic voice. You try to reassure them but they resist. “No, don’t try to make me feel better,” they wail. “I know I’m grossly fat.” When you get tired of reassuring them, they broke down in tears, “You see, I knew you thought I was fat!” These people pose as victims when, in reality, they are the ones who victimize others by dumping their issues on them.

b) Denigration. These are people who make themselves feel better by making others feel worse. They keep making comments that make others feel bad about themselves. This is a form of bullying that is aimed at providing them with a very temporary relief from the constantly nagging pain of low self-esteem. The relief is always very fleeting which makes such people seek fresh victims on a regular basis.

The problem is that those of us who have low self-esteem are especially likely to fall into the clutches of people who address their own self-esteem issues in these unhealthy ways. This is why it’s so crucial for us to avoid them and remove them from our lives as soon as we catch on to their game.

3. Those who are too good and kind to feed other people to the perennially famished beast of their low self-esteem, so they engage in slow self-destruction in order to feed it. They self-sabotage their careers, personal lives, friendships, health. This is a life-long project of self-immolation. Such people never cause any harm to others but, boy, do they do a number on themselves! Since they are honestly persuaded that they don’t deserve anything good anyways, they end up with partners who abuse or undermine them, in lousy, unfulfilling jobs, and with friends who don’t appreciate them.

The saddest thing is that these perfectly good people believe with all their hearts that they actually deserve all that unhappiness and mistreatment.

“How did you react when your girlfriend told you all these things about how you did not deserve her because you were a piece of garbage?” I asked one such an acquaintance.

“I felt very grateful that she agreed not to dump me,” he said earnestly.

30 thoughts on “Self-Esteem Gradations

  1. The self esteem discourse has no meaning to me. Certainly, had I not passed my PhD, it would have an overwhelming meaning, but because of the way things turned out, it doesn’t. It’s like I’m safely on the other side of any nagging self-doubt, nowadays. Above and beyond this, my training is such that I don’t believe in a self that can lose or gain value on the basis of external changes. At least, that’s the way I feel. Someone can approve or disapprove of what I do, and everything will remain the same. I may experience clouds of unhappiness, or even abject misery, but fundamentally, I will not change.

    I’m not sure I ever felt that I had anything to prove to anyone other than myself. I’ve never personalized my experiences to the point that I felt they constituted my essence. I’ve experienced too much change in life to engage in that sort of naivety.

    I don’t think I’ve ever “worked on” myself so much as tried to find ways to indulge myself and reawaken myself. I’m looking for a project right now that will do it, but all I can come up with is sleeping in the new swag overnight, whilst it is raining.

    I’ve found that I function at my best when I don’t have to think about issues that perplex me, like self esteem or identity, or other phantoms. On some fundamental level, I really don’t know what these mean, so I don’t respond effectively to others who have these concerns. If I start to question myself as to why I can’t understand these issues, I become disturbed. It seems that generally a certain amount of stoicism is a solution to these problems, at least that is what I would prescribe, but I dare not intervene in situations that I cannot grasp.

    I live pretty well these days.

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  2. I have to say I’m not sure what you’re talking about either. Your discussion of self-esteem makes it sound analogous to health insurance, or drinkable water–something that everyone should have in order to live decent lives without having to devote all their time to worrying about basic survival. But self-esteem is something that should come from one’s accomplishments, no? And for that matter you give the impression, in your blogposts, of having quite a healthy dose of that. I don’t follow.

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    1. Self-esteem that comes from accomplishments is no self-esteem at all. This is the kind that people have whose parents say, ‘I’ll buy you the bicycle if you get a good grade in math.’ Such people go through life trying to “deserve” love, trying to purchase affection by being “good” and pleasing everybody. That’s a tragedy, not self-esteem.

      Since I am the only thing I have in this life, it stands to reason that I should love myself irrespective of my accomplishments, right? Its sounds kind of weird to try to deserve my own regard for myself by accomplishments.

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      1. I don’t know; to me this line of reasoning is like students who grew up being told that everything they did was great and therefore don’t understand that it takes real work to do well.

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        1. “I don’t know; to me this line of reasoning is like students who grew up being told that everything they did was great and therefore don’t understand that it takes real work to do well.”

          – Let’s not confuse people with high self-esteem with people whose parents had no time or interest in them and who dismissed them with, “Yes, honey, this is brilliant, now go away already.” What they have is stunted development, not great self-esteem. I meet a lot of such kids as I’m sure you do, too. It ain’t a pretty sight!

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      2. I think the whole “the self-esteem movement made kids grow up thinking they didn’t have to work hard” line of thinking is a bit overstated. People gave me a lot of false affirmations as a kid, but that doesn’t mean I believed them. I think a lot of people who analyze the effects of the self-esteem movement ignore the influence that one’s peers have on one’s self-image, and most of my peers would just laugh at these kinds of things behind the adults’ backs.
        I have also been a perfectionist since as long as I can remember, and I would actually get pretty annoyed at well-intentiond grown-ups who would start heaping excessive praise on some project I had started when it was only half-finished.

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        1. I don;t know anything about any “self-esteem movement.” As we all know, I’m from a different culture and the strange fads of American parenting are alien to me. I;m talking about the way human psyche works here. It would be great if we could forget about the weird slogans of the idiotic American media and talk about the actual issue here.

          ” I think a lot of people who analyze the effects of the self-esteem movement ignore the influence that one’s peers have on one’s self-image”

          – I don’t analyze the effects of any movement but I know for an absolute fact that the peers only channel back at you the perception of yourself you have been given at home. This perception is not in any way linked to the verbiage one is fed by one’s parents. It’s about the actual attitude. One can be treated like a piece of rubbish at home but the entire process can be verbalized as “you are amazing, we adore you.” This creates cognitive dissonance but it doesn’t create good self-esteem.

          People who have a healthy self-esteem are people who were loved by their parents. Mind you, I said loved, not told they were loved. The difference is huge. Peers, media, Tv shows, computer games, etc. have absolutely no influence on self-esteem whatsoever.

          “I have also been a perfectionist since as long as I can remember, and I would actually get pretty annoyed at well-intentiond grown-ups who would start heaping excessive praise on some project I had started when it was only half-finished.”

          – Do you realize that you are describing adults who don’t love a child and care nothing about him or her? Of course, such a child will have a low self-esteem. Because s/he is not loved.

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  3. “I don;t know anything about any “self-esteem movement.” As we all know, I’m from a different culture and the strange fads of American parenting are alien to me. I;m talking about the way human psyche works here. It would be great if we could forget about the weird slogans of the idiotic American media and talk about the actual issue here.”

    Alright. I was mostly responding to tired old hag, whose posts looked very similar to other criticisms I’ve seen of the American self-esteem movement. It has been a long time since I have seen the words “self-esteem” used as anything but a slur against people whom the speaker/writer thinks were praised too much as kids.

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    1. ” It has been a long time since I have seen the words “self-esteem” used as anything but a slur against people whom the speaker/writer thinks were praised too much as kids.”

      – I know! I get this whenever I start discussing the issue. Like the world begins and ends with weird American fads.

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      1. Well, I don’t really know much about the concept outside American fads. I try not to be too insulated, but it’s just never come up for me in any other context.

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  4. I must say that, not discounting that there is a psychological dimension to self esteem, I see it primarily as a cultural issue. I’ve had too many strange encounters with the Western ideology of self esteem to be able to feel confident with it.

    For instance, issues which are not related to self-esteem, but are practical issues, are often deemed to be self esteem issues. Self-esteem becomes a magic formula, whereby the more you increase it, the better you are supposed to do.

    I’ve found this ideology to be totally counter to my actual needs. For a very long time, I tried to cater to the idea that I had to be very careful about how I spoke to people, as I might damage their fragile self esteem. This made me tongue-tied, emotionally numb and resentful. I had no idea how to speak to those sorts of people whom I thought might be susceptible to complaining about my too-direct ways. (My original culture is extremely stoical and inclined to black humour.)

    Then I got the job I now have. I expected to be walking on egg shells, but nobody had the self-esteem ideology, and everything progressed okay. After several years, I eventually learned that the people I was talking to had not only a similar sort of stoicism to me, but a dry sense of humour. This makes me very comfortable indeed.

    I think my stoicism and black humour often appears incomprehensible to people, and before I realised there were cultural differences, I didn’t exercise enough caution with it. Those aspects are absolutely fundamental to my personality, so I can’t really deny them without really having a personality to offer. Interestingly enough, when I spent a very short stint in the military, I encountered exactly the same stoicism and black humour together in one place, and this made me ecstatically happy.

    My current job has also reassured me that I’m absolutely normal — that so long as a weird ideology does not intervene, all people really require is to be treated in a sincere way. It’s when self-esteem becomes emphasized as an issue that everything goes to pieces, as the underlying characters of those involved become difficult to discern.

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    1. “. For a very long time, I tried to cater to the idea that I had to be very careful about how I spoke to people, as I might damage their fragile self esteem.”

      – It isn’t in your power. Unless you gave birth to all of them, that is. 🙂 🙂

      “This made me tongue-tied, emotionally numb and resentful. I had no idea how to speak to those sorts of people whom I thought might be susceptible to complaining about my too-direct ways.”

      – I know what you mean! But this is not your responsibility or your fault.

      ” It’s when self-esteem becomes emphasized as an issue that everything goes to pieces, as the underlying characters of those involved become difficult to discern.”

      – Believe me, their self-esteem got damaged decades before they even got to know you.

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      1. Thank you. Like I said, I don’t encounter any of these traits of blaming in my current job, which is with a different cultural group. It’s like I always seem to encounter it with people here, though, unless they know me pretty well.

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  5. For what it’s worth: you may not keep track of crazy American parenting trends, but in using “self-esteem” you’re (unwittingly, I guess) using a term that’s been tainted by them, a term that became trendy in the 80s (? I dimly recall) to describe what all children needed to have and under the aegis of “self-esteem” an entire generation, it seems, was brought up with the idea that there was no such thing as a losing team etc; this was parodied in the Garrison Keillor line about all children being above average. This notion seems to have had a long shelf-life, which is why the term self-esteem makes people talk about a “movement” and conjures up (for me at least) images of students who may or may not have been raised in loving homes but in any case seem unable to imagine that anything they do could possibly be met with anything other than praise and congratulation. That’s why I responded as I did; clearly we’re not talking about the same thing but I thought maybe you should know why the term elicits reactions that may seem peculiar.

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    1. Thank you for telling me! The parenting strategy you describe sounds very scary.

      Maybe I should use another term then if this one has been so tainted. Confidence? Self-regard?

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  6. Clarissa’s post resonates with me, particularly number 3. I see women with low self-esteem (men too? I don’t know) – who partner with high-esteem endowed partners, which puts them in a loop of “I’m less than.” I see this in myself as well as my daughter, while acknowledging that our partners are loving, good men. Where I disagree is that this is necessarily the result of not being loved while growing up. Both my daughter and I felt love and loved growing up. I think the low self-esteem is more organically caused in many instances, much as depression. I do think partnering with someone with abundant self-esteem makes it more difficult to conquer unless the partner ‘gets it.’ Our spouse’s ‘getting it’ would help the most. But here’s the vicious circle: high self-esteem people don’t understand what could be the problem.

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  7. Yes–if you replace “self esteem” with “self-confidence,” for instance, everything you say makes a great deal of sense to me. And often this is a gendered phenomenon: in general, in my experience boys seem to be much less self-conscious, for instance, using foreign language skills that may not be perfect, or just talking in class, whereas girls tend to be more reluctant to put themselves on the line in public. It starts early. There are of course lots of exceptions, but it seems to me this is a pretty standard gender divide in school and in general.

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    1. “And often this is a gendered phenomenon: in general, in my experience boys seem to be much less self-conscious, for instance, using foreign language skills that may not be perfect, or just talking in class, whereas girls tend to be more reluctant to put themselves on the line in public. It starts early.”

      – In North America, yes. In my country, it is the exact opposite. After finishing high school and 4 years of university back in Ukraine, the first time I heard a guy speak in class was in Canada. It was quite a shock. 🙂 A little like hearing a chair or a book speak. 🙂 This just goes to show that such things are not inherent but culturally conditioned. And everybody who tries to suggest (obviously, I don’t mean you!) that girls don’t speak in class because they are simply not that interested in learning is an idiot.

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      1. How interesting! Yes, of course all this is entirely cultural. It’s also true (in my experience) that sometimes boys seem to think it’s uncool to talk in class, and there are also girls who like to blather on (sometimes they even have interesting things to say). What does the gendered behavior you describe in school in Ukraine translate to later in life–are the men more reticent in public?

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        1. Yes, men are less visible in public spaces. At a gallery, a concert, a performance of any kind, most of the spectators are women. If there are men, they have in all probability been dragged there by their wives.

          We’ve had a long history of repressions and wars in the XXth century that have resulted in this phenomenon. Several generations were raised pretty much exclusively by women because men were physically not around, As a result, a woman became the figure of authority, somebody one has to obey. There was no place to see a man as a figure of authority. The result was the creation of this system of mostly passive men.

          This is also how we were raised: a good boy is quiet and polite while a good girl is active, loud and domineering.

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      2. Clarissa said: “Several generations were raised pretty much exclusively by women because men were physically not around, As a result, a woman became the figure of authority, somebody one has to obey. ”

        This was very similar to my experience growing up. All the men were on six monthly military call-ups — 6 months in, 6 months out — so women became very authoritative. That’s why I was so flabbergasted to see that my female school teachers in Australia had so little authority of any sort.

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        1. Yes, I was shocked to see how my fellow female students fade out completely when male students interrupt them or speak over them. It is a physiological impossibility for me to be interrupted by somebody and not let them feel like a total idiot in return! I have to say that the general subservience of North American women to men is shocking to me. The poor men don’t even ask them for any sacrifices, yet there they are, sacrificing as much as possible as fast as possible because they think it’s their role in life or something.

          The generation of professional women in their 50s and 60s is A LOT better in this sense than 20 and 30 year old women.

          Some of my female students actually confessed to me that they find it hard to participate in class discussions when there are male students in the room. This is the US!!! Can you believe that??

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          1. I didn’t see that so much in Australian girls. They just seemed to be very damp in spirit, but not unlike the boys. What I saw was that Australian men had authority in the classroom, but Australian teachers pretty much had to beg their students to do as they were asked. They just seemed very resigned to not having any status.

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          2. I meant Australian FEMALE teachers pretty much had to beg their students to do anything.

            So weird.

            We had some real firebrands in our colonial school. One was a French teacher who exuded sex appeal, with very fashionable clothing, high heels, and a scary, breezy manner. Another was a maths teacher who was also a nun. The Irish geography teacher was the worst, though, for sarcasm.

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            1. That’s exactly what the status of MALE teachers is in my country! My sister’s only male teacher had a single weapon at his disposal to make students notice him: he’d cry.

              In the meantime, our female teachers are scary they are so powerful. I should know, every woman in my family has been a teacher.

              In schools, where male teachers were very scarce, they had to learn to deal with real sexual harassment on the part of female teachers. Poor guys!

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