By Aparna Sharma
It is by celebrating our identities as the sons and daughters of god that we rise beyond the destructive pull of low self-esteem.
“How do you want me to treat you?” thundered Alexander to the defeated King Porus. As Porus stood there after the battle of Jhelum, severely wounded, having lost all his sons, he is reported to have answered: “The way one king treats another.”
This oft-heard story still makes one stop and ponder. What is it in Porus’s answer that has kept the line alive in human memory for centuries? What is that which marks Porus as a king even in defeat? It is the one quality or attitude that can tide us over all challenges when all supports – of blood relations, tradition, marriage or professional standing – have collapsed. It is called self-respect.
It comes from recognising the import of what American writer and cartoonist Dr Seuss said rather whimsically. “Today you are you, that is truer than true. There is no one alive who is youer than you.”
Isn’t that true? Could anyone be youer than you?
What is self-esteem?
Self-esteem is a term used in psychology to reflect a person’s overall evaluation or appraisal of his or her own worth. Synonyms of the word include self-worth, self-regard, self-respect, self-love and self-integrity.
American psychologist Abraham Maslow described two forms of esteem: the need for respect from others (including recognition, acceptance, status, and appreciation) and inner esteem.
Respect expected from others is usually more fragile and easily lost than the latter.
For instance, a confident and successful sales girl may lose her ballast when sales dwindle month after month. Her self-opinion, clearly, is dependent on her performance and the approval of her superiors.
Why low self-esteem?
External causes include one’s physical appearance, mistakes, failures and criticism. Sometimes, the damage begins during childhood and it is done by those closest to us – our idols, well-wishers and guides.
Kiki Bakshi, a psychosynthesist and natural health practitioner, based in California, explains, “Lack of self-respect comes from a lack of self-esteem; and self-esteem gets eroded by a sense of shame. This, unfortunately, is often caused by the conduct of adults towards us in childhood. We’re teased, laughed at, and shamed in many subtle and obvious ways. Eventually, we become one of those timid people who don’t/can’t speak up for ourselves. The journey to self-respect starts from recognising and dealing with this issue of shame.”
Internal causes for lack of self-esteem include self-criticism, and a constant attempt to be perfect.
Maxwell Maltz compares low self-esteem to driving through life with the hand-break on. Here is how one can regain control. The first step is to express from the depths of one’s self, “I accept myself as I am.” This involves loving and accepting oneself completely without leaving anything out. Self-esteem means loving the complete package without touching up the picture to make it look pretty. All the good, bad and ugly parts. The past that I prefer to forget, the hurts, the regrets, the wishes for the future – everything.
Removing external causes
Take steps to change/improve where you can and build the courage to accept what you can’t. This may include working on our limitations or weaknesses. For example, Theodore Roosevelt built up his small physique, conquered his early childhood frailty and went on to become a daredevil rough rider and rugged outdoorsman. Helen Keller compensated for lack of sight and hearing through extraordinary development of her tactile and intellectual ability.
Discard negative beliefs
Steps towards abandoning the past may include consciously working towards ridding ourselves of the past conditioning. Throw it all out – a parent who said, “You will never amount to anything”; or a teacher who shouted, “You are no good”; or a close friend who declared, “You are too broad /short/fat”.
Stop trying to please
Elizabeth Gilbert describes herself in her bestseller, Eat, Pray, Love, thus.
“I disappear into the person I love. I am the permeable membrane. If I love you, you can have everything. You can have my time, my devotion, my money, my family, my dog, my dog’s money, my dog’s time – everything. If I love you, I will carry for you all your pain, I will assume for you all your debts, I will protect you from your own insecurity, I will buy Christmas presents for your entire family. I will give you the sun and the rain, and if they are not available, I will give you a sun check and a rain check.”
Who among us has not experienced that form of self-effacing love? We forget our own boundaries and give and give till we become completely exhausted and depleted.
Whether it is the housewife who seeks to please her in-laws, husband and children, or the workaholic trying to impress his boss, the source for their need for approval stems from low self-worth. And low self-worth, in turn, is nothing but a fear of not measuring up.
Gary Zukav, author of The Dancing Wu Li Masters, relates a poignant episode from his life which best illustrates this relation.
“After I separated from my fiancée, I missed her terribly. As weeks and months passed, each day was worse. Every time I thought about us, I asked myself, ‘How did I create this?’ That became my prayer. I wanted to know that more than anything.”
The answers came to him gradually. After several weeks, the thought of competition came up. And then memories began to come, first a trickle, and then a flood.
“I was jolted. I realised that I had been jealous of her friends. I had been jealous of her business. I had been jealous of her charisma, successes and popularity. I had been jealous of almost everything.”
And he discovered another layer below his competitiveness. That was control.
“I began to remember one time after another when I had tried to control what my fiancée was doing, or feeling, or saying. I criticised the newspaper she read. I tried to dissuade her from watching television. I tried to influence her taste in cars and clothes…”
Below the control, he saw fear.
“By now it was winter. I lay in bed, terrified. I never imagined that I could feel so frightened. I was afraid of the winter, of the cold. I was afraid of being alone. I was afraid of everything. I never knew that I had fear like that in me. When it came, it came like an ocean. I was afraid to be alive.”
The root of everything, he discovered, was lack of self-worth. The discovery was surprising because he was already a celebrated author. People wanted to hear what he had to say.
“But,” he says, “I didn’t think I had anything to say worth listening to. I couldn’t imagine people liking me for what I was. I felt there must be something wrong with anyone who was attracted to me. I couldn’t find anything about me that I appreciated.”
Suddenly, everything came together. Because he didn’t appreciate himself, he felt he didn’t have the right to be alive. Because he didn’t believe that he had a right to be alive (low self-esteem), he was terrified of everything. Because he was terrified of everything, he needed to control everything. Because his fiancée was a strong person, his attempts to control her had turned into competition.
Once the root was discovered, all the pieces of the puzzle came together.
Forgiving yourself and others is stopping the blame game. Louise L Hay, the celebrated author of You Can Heal Your Life, says that forgiveness releases us from the past. “When we don’t flow freely with life in the present moment, it usually means we are holding on to a past moment. It may be regret, sadness, hurt, fear, guilt, blame, anger, resentment and sometimes even the desire for revenge. Each one of these states comes from a space of unforgiveness, a refusal to let go of the past. Love is always the answer to healing of any sort. And the pathway to love is forgiveness.”
Says Shivi Dua, a healer and author of the book, Let the power be with you, “Most of us aspire to be perfect in whatever we do. This is a good attitude, but notif we cannot accept ourselves unless we are perfect.”
We are perfect as we are. Our different experiences, actions, mistakes and victories are steps to our evolution. Every step we take towards growth is not a journey from bad to good but from perfection to perfection. A rose is beautiful in every stage whether it is a bud or in full bloom.
Finally, self-respect is regarding ourselves with the eyes of love.
“We have the negative part of us, and the positive part of us,” explains Buddhist practitioner Danny Nagashima. “There’s a part of us that believes we can do it, and then the negative part says, “Who are you kidding?”
He adds, “You can analyse your situation all you want. Eventually you have to get to the root of why you don’t believe in the greatness of your own life. You have to grab the ‘doubt of your greatness’ by the root, and yank it out of your life. You must strive to awaken to your greatness.”
Self-esteem means believing in the eternal truth that the ancient mysteries have taught us. The great utterances Thou art He, Tat tvam asi and Thou art That in the Indian tradition. ‘I and my Father are one,’ said Christ (John 10.30). Our divine nature beckons us. It is up to us to rise and shine.
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