The concept of self-worth remains tragically misunderstood in our culture. In this encore episode of The Possibility Podcast with Mel Schwartz originally presented in 2019, I explain the true and powerful nature of authentic self-esteem.
I’m joined by a therapy client who shares his challenges with measuring himself and how he has broken free of this burden.
Low self-esteem is at the source of most of our emotional and psychological challenges. Developing genuine self-worth is the foundation for well-being and thriving in your life and your relationships so you can stop moving the goal posts on your happiness.
Most people seek to bolster their sense of self by being well thought of, or admired by others, or by avoiding disapproval. As well, most individuals think that achievement and success in and of itself will create genuine self-esteem.
Have you reclaimed your unlimited, innate sense of self, and so stopped deferring your happiness? Tell me about it… in the comments!
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Transcript of The Possibility Podcast with Mel Schwartz #084
Welcome to The Possibility Podcast. I’m Mel Schwartz, your host and thought provocateur. I’ve been practicing psychotherapy for well over 20 years. During that time, I’ve been so fortunate to witness countless breakthroughs while working with people whether one on one as a speaker in professional trainings or in workshops. The insights that I’ve garnered have inspired me to write over a hundred articles and several books including the companion title to this podcast The Possibility Principle which you can find wherever books are sold. On this and every episode, I’ll be introducing new ways of thinking, relating, and communicating to help you truly thrive in your life to reach the possibilities that you may long for. Think of this as a new game plan for living. Thanks for enjoying my emerging community of possibility seekers and I hope you enjoy the show.
The term self-esteem is terribly misunderstood and misapplied in our culture and in professional fields including psychology. I have found that authentic self-esteem which is the exception for people lies at the core of a life full of vitality and resilience and the ability to enjoy thriving relationships with other people.
But I believe that as a culture we don’t understand the concept of self-esteem.
Let’s look at the term. Self-esteem suggests that the worth we’re trying to evaluate is how we feel about ourselves. Reference being on the word self. Yet I find professionally and personally that most people try to protect their sense of self or drive a good sense of self paradoxically from outside of themselves. They try to make sure other people don’t think poorly of them or don’t disapprove of them. Some people perhaps we might call them people pleasers look to have other people approve of them or like them. This drive to manipulate other people to get us to think a certain way of us has nothing to do with self.
So, I’ve come to call that term other esteem. In other words, when we betray ourselves or manipulate ourselves to get others to think of us in a certain way, that is the opposite of authentic self-worth. It is other esteem. I believe that low self-esteem, low or marginal self-worth is actually at the core of most of our struggles in relationships and in life.
The DSM, the diagnostic and statistical manual which presents all of the psychological and psychiatric diagnosis has no diagnosis for low self-esteem. That is just mind boggling. I believe that low self-esteem is at the source, the foundation of anxiety, depression, ADHD, and a whole other host of problems that we have that get diagnoses which are actually secondary. The core problem is how we value ourselves. Perhaps there is no diagnosis for this because the pharmaceutical industry has not patented a drug yet that can treat it. In fact, I don’t believe they ever will but unless we look at the core of what creates and underscores authentic self-worth, we struggle through life.
Let’s look at some of the beliefs common in western society or particularly American culture. Don’t act weak. Don’t show your weakness. It’s a common meme. Perhaps more so for men than women but for women as well. I find is at the source of our travails and struggles wherever I look.
Acting strong is acting. And acting is weak. It means we will act a certain way to get others to think of us in a certain way. That’s not strong. Authentic self-worth requires embracing your vulnerability.
Now, what do I mean by vulnerability? By vulnerability, I’m suggesting anything that we think or feel that we are sensitive as to what others may think of us or how others may judge us. That’s our vulnerable side which we protect. So when we are protecting what we’re sensitive about or vulnerable, we are betraying ourselves and investing ourselves in putting on a camouflage, a mask, a false persona so we appear certain way for other people. Now here’s the kicker folks. Virtually everyone does this. So, we’re all doing it to and with one another.
Whenever I have an opportunity to work with a group of people in a workshop setting and they all reveal their vulnerable self, there’s a sense of relief as they see everyone else in the room doing the same thing. In other words, we’re hiding from each other.
Now, when I ask people why they do that, they may say they don’t want to be judged by other people. Let’s take a look a concept of judgement. Everyone has an opinion. That’s natural. But when we take someone’s opinion and elevate it and call it a judgement, we have done that. We have elevated their opinion to the status of judge. And they don’t even know it. At other times we may say we don’t want people to reject us. We’re afraid of their rejection. But you see other people can’t reject you unless you’re rejecting yourself. If you’ve developed an authentic sense of self-worth and self-esteem, you may be saddened or disappointed, even upset by someone else’s opinion of you but to say that they rejected you means you have placed them above you as though you’re sitting on a seesaw with them and you’re in the down position, you have placed them in the up position and you’ve concluded they rejected you but it’s really a rejection of your own self. And going further we call it a judgement.
Now I’m fond of saying that there’s only one person that can judge me. If I have to appear in court and the man or the woman in long black robes is hearing my case they get to be my judge. Everyone else is just a person with an opinion.
Now that doesn’t mean that we should be insensitive to what other people think or feel of us. That would be mean. It wouldn’t be compassionate. We should be sensitive. So, the position, the balance that we want to hold is that I’m a good with me. I’m not going to hide or disguise myself from you or from what I’m concerned that you may think of me. The core sense is I’m good with me.
Now, if I’m good with me, you don’t have an opportunity to be my judge. I may care what you think about me but I won’t care to the extent of pretending or marginalizing or hiding or cloaking or disguising myself. Why would I want to subordinate myself to everyone else?
So people who struggle with low self-esteem and by the way I would suggest it’s probably the majority of our population. People who struggle with low self-esteem have a sense that they are the center of attention like everyone’s looking at them. I recall years ago working with a young man whose self-worth was low and it occurred to me that he was going through life as though he were on stage and everyone was looking at him and I remember saying to Mark, “You’re not on stage. Pretty much that no one’s looking. They all have their own life issues to deal with. They’re not focused on you but as a culture, we are indoctrinated towards seeking other esteem.”
So, if you children, if they get great or exemplary grades, that creates other esteem. If they’re a star on a athletic field that creates other esteem. Why is it other? Because if your sense of self is dependent or contingent upon a grade or an athletic performance or what others think of you, you’re not safe. You’re at risk because you can’t assure what your grade will be or your athletic performance or your popularity or your success in business. We focus so much on achievement, but low self-worth just decimates our ability to live happily and joyfully and when we look at the majority of problems in relationships or if I look at it through my experience, I find that self-worth issues are the cracks in the foundation that may turn into conflict or unhappiness or betrayal in a relationship.
So, low self-esteem leaks out everywhere. In previous show we’ve looked at the nature of our thoughts and beliefs about ourself. I didn’t use the label at that point, self-esteem or other esteem, but they are at the core of these issues around how we see ourselves and the pathway through this is twofold is to rethink how we’re going after this game of life to stop hiding and concerning ourselves with what others think of me causing me to throw myself under the bus and then on a more micro level is to look at my thoughts and beliefs that betray me.
Thoughts that analyze and measure and compare yourself with other people are number one, contrived false thinking, and two, they divert you from being at peace in harmony with yourself. When your thought makes a measurement and contrast and compares you with someone else, it’s constructing false realities, setting up judgement and you come out no doubt at the bottom of that score and that measurement. So, the irony here is that hiding yourself from someone else and worrying and fretting about what they’re thinking actually makes you weak and insecure and dependent upon what you think they think of you. Developing authentic self-esteem and in the future show, we’re going to discuss reaching authenticity and what that looks like, to reach the authentic self, we have to stop judging and worrying about what others think of us.
I’m really delighted and excited to have a special guest on today. A young man with whom I’ve had the pleasure of working on and off for a while. His name is Gray. Gray has been an avid learner as he has been determined to develop authentic self-esteem and overcome the issues and challenges of what I’ve referred to as other esteem. Gray and I have been working on ways in which his thought betrays him as it’s comparing and measuring him against where he thinks other people are.
Um so Gray welcome to the show.
GRAY: Thanks so much for having me today, Mel. I’m really excited to be here.
So, Gray, why don’t we jump in anywhere that you like. We can reconsider old conversations. You can present some new challenges wherever you’d like to go.
GRAY: Well, I think a good place to start might be to just reflect on some of the conversations we’ve had in the past and some of the strategies and tactics you’ve you’ve really helped me establish. You know, coming out of what I like to think of is a pretty high-pressure environment both at home and then in college, I had this great sort of tendency built into me to look out into the rest of the world and say, you know, sort of where do I sit in in relation to somebody else. As a result, I think it, I developed this really unhealthy habit of just measuring myself constantly.
GRAY: You know, whether be in the context of myself versus my future self, myself versus my past self, myself versus a peer versus a colleague, or somebody that I don’t even know, I got into this place where my mind would, before anything else, sit back and say well what is the rest of the world or what is the rest of insert some group here gotta think about the decision that I made and what I found to be one of the more problematic symptoms of that kind of mindset has been a lot of stalled action and a lot of sort of frozen in fear approach to to life where I decide to go the safest route which is to not do anything at all. And I think one of the things that we’ve really done a great job working through is is conceptualizing my self esteem as being driven by and and guided by my own approval of myself first and foremost and I think one of the great tactics that we’ve really worked through and worked on has been around sort of addressing the thought at the creation at the starting point so when I when I do find myself feeling concerned about the feelings of others drawing just an awareness a general drawing up an awareness to that thought and making a second you know sort of forcing a second questioning of what it is that that I’m really afraid of.
GRAY: I think in a world where social media is so prevalent and everything is so publicized, there’s this sort of incessant need to feel like your life is being measured by everybody else and there’s so much concern is being placed on your status as reflected by how many followers you might have or how many friends you might have or how big your network is and I think I felt victim to to a lot of that sort of thinking you know I I I sat back and I would say X Y or Z thing is is happening in somebody else’s life and it hasn’t isn’t happening in mine and because of that I am I am less than they are. And I think one of the other great things that we’ve really established is that everybody is their own individual person. Everybody has their own individual character and their own self worth and their own personality. Uh and you should sort of covet nobody else’s other than your own.
So let’s imagine this. Let’s imagine there are thought bubbles over all of our heads. And we can see one another’s thought bubbles. And the thought bubble has thoughts like hm they have more followers than I do. What’s wrong with me? Or someone else’s thought bubble of you is wow he’s dating a beautiful young woman and I’m not seeing anyone. What’s wrong with me? What would he think of me? And all of these thought bubbles are comparing ourselves to others based upon our measurement of what I think they think of me but everyone’s doing it. But now and then we come across somebody who doesn’t have that kind of thought bubble. Now and then we come across somebody who’s actually at peace with themselves. And not measuring themself compared to everyone else. Only this person stands out. In their uniqueness. And in their confidence and their self worth. Because they are truly okay with themselves. Now that doesn’t mean that person is insensitive or callous about what other people think. It’s just that they’re cool with themselves.
And they’re not worried about what other people think or how other people are measuring. See the whole concept there Gray is that the perpetual measuring of self is the problem. Now I’m not suggesting that we should be laisse faire or indifferent. We want to check in with ourselves but to do it in a gentle and kind way like how am I doing? How am I feeling? What do I need to work on? But the moment we introduce this universal competition as though we’re in a race with the rest of humankind or in your case in a race with your peer group. What’s the race? Where are we racing toward?
You know recently you shared with me some concerns and aspirations about your career and you shared with me that there’s a place where you think you should be at your age in terms of experience in resume, right?
And my response to you as well, if that’s the measure we’re taking, that would make me a complete failure.
Because I didn’t start graduate school to become a psychotherapist until I was 40 years old. So, by the by the means of measuring myself, I failed. I failed terribly. I wasn’t on the path soon enough. Yet the reality is if I had gone to grad school as a young man right out of college it might have been a wrong time for me. Maybe I needed to gain certain life experiences and insights and evolve in a certain way. So the key is to be able to navigate your life. To feel in the flow where you’re not hapless and a victim of circumstances. But you’re tuned in. The only way we can tune in and acquire wisdom and deeper knowledge of ourself is to stop measuring. You can’t measure yourself and be present at the same time. And you can’t measure yourself and be at peace at the same time. So if the goal is to attain authentic self esteem, that looks like I’m okay with me. I’m good with me. I have some things to work on. I have more growing to do. But I’m tuning into myself as opposed to being in a race with everybody else.
So you’ve made progress in that way. Can you speak to what some of your gains look like?
GRAY: So I think one of the best methods that I’ve really come across is understanding to the best of my ability where my values are and what I feel is most important to myself at this point in time. I think for a long while what I wanted everything all at once. And through a lot of the discussions we’ve had it started to be made clear to me that not only were those interest sort of based in again what I believe to be what I needed in order to gain approval or gain you know noteriety or gain status in certain subgroup a lot a lot of times the you know the the nature of that group was something that I wasn’t even interested really in when when you and I kind of look deep into it but I think one of the biggest things has been just really getting to listening to myself and what it is I want to progress in and structuring it so that I’m the only voice of of you know the only input in the whole entire equation and so a great example could be something like my interest in developing wisdom a lot of thing that we kind of come to talk about often for the longest time I considered it to be just something that was based in that wisdom was something that was based just solely in knowledge that you just needed to to know more and I constantly felt like I’m just not smart enough yet to be wise I’m not smart enough yet to to really to have anything of value to add and I think one of the things that we’ve really done a great job with is is pulling back some of the layers of self doubt pulling back some of the layers of of self criticism and self sabotaging and making a point to to listen to and emphasize the voice inside of me that’s saying hey man move in this direction.
So you you may recall that what gets in the way of wisdom is the space between our thoughts. We are at the mercy of our thoughts. We are imprisoned by thought. So wisdom comes when I become the thinker. When I can step back and see what my thought is telling me. In the nanosecond between your thoughts, you’re in a state of pure potential. We’ve talked about that. Now in that Space of pure potential is where wisdom can arise. Intuitive wisdom even brilliance. Genuine authentic self esteem means that I’ve developed the ability to supersede my analyzing critical thought. I’ve gone shush to those thoughts. And I’ve allowed my thinking to invite in wisdom. That only happens when we quiet just quiet the nature of our critical thought.
GRAY: Yeah. I think that I mean I think that speaks to a really powerful tactic that you’ve you’ve sort of taught me and and I think one part is to to quiet it. And another part is to potentially take take a closer look at what it is that thought’s really saying. And I think for a long time I never really even questioned that the nature of my you know the nature of my thought. I I took it at face value. I never even really considered that my thought was what was causing my emotions to come up you know was causing my my mind to move in a certain direction. I I I wasn’t conscious of the fact that a thought was something that was not necessarily tied to a truth. And doesn’t necessarily need to be anything other than just a thought. And in that way it provides it creates a lot of freedom to to sort of explore what it is your brain is thinking. Break down what might be behind that and then get to either a root problem or a root positive in that your mind might be saying hey all in one moment it might be saying hey you’re not good enough and at the same time it’s saying you are good enough. And you may have without acknowledging the fact that thoughts are are you know can coexist and be mutually exclusive and and be you know sort of run counter to each other without acknowledging the fact that thoughts are just thoughts it’s really easy to sort of get derailed and I found myself and and a lot of times falling down a really deep dark rabbit hole and with the tactics that you’ve taught me I’ve now been able to kind of crawl back out of that or stop stop the slipping when it starts to happen.
So let’s let’s reiterate some of those tactics that help. Freedom from thought. The ability to see the thought. Gray when you’re talking about sliding down the rabbit hole, you are experiencing relentless thought that was telling you you’re failing. You’re not succeeding. You’re not measuring up. Where are other people in their progress? Where are you? Those are all the thoughts that were destructive to you. New thinking would be who says I’m supposed to measure myself and how would I even know my measurements are accurate or valid new thinking is I don’t want to be imprisoned by those thoughts.
Now if the goal is developing authentic self esteem authentic self esteem requires embracing vulnerability not acting strong because acting strong is acting and acting is weak. Embracing vulnerability means I have nothing to hide. This is who I am. These are my strengths, my weaknesses, my hopes, my disappointments, I have nothing to hide from anyone. When you can act like that, you have developed genuine, authentic self esteem, your sense of self is no longer dependent upon what you think someone else thinks of you. You’re no longer setting other people up as your judge. And you’re no longer judging yourself. You’re embracing yourself. You’re nurturing yourself. You’re cultivating yourself. That’s the goal to develop authentic self worth is the cultivation of ourself not the measuring of ourself.
GRAY: Yeah I think that’s a I think that’s a brilliantly put point and something that I’ve thought a ton about in so much the as key to really developing self-esteem for me so far has been learning to love myself or learning the essential need to love myself and all of its flaws and all of its great strengths and all of its positives and negatives and everything that comes with it but really getting to a place where I’m concerned with my own well being and I am invested in ensuring that well being continues to grow and I think something that’s been really useful for me has been our conversations that really focus on why somebody else’s approval and validation and why somebody else’s affirmation of who you are isn’t what most important if you can’t go to sleep at the end of the night and be happy and be content with what and who you are in that moment and you’re constantly seeking and needing the approval of others just to feel fine you’re setting yourself up for a ton a ton of problems.
GRAY: and I think one of the one of my most poignant experiences with that has been as a young romantic when relationships have sort of come to an end and in an unhealthier less confident way I kind of allowed myself to be built up by the my partner in the relationship or by a girlfriend at the time and when that source of validation was pulled up from under me I was left feeling hopeless and feeling like I was all of these things all everything that would make me inadequate and I think when you and I started and when you and I often had engaged in these conversations when I was going through problems or when I was dealing with a breakup you made it really really clear to me that it was in these moments that I needed to love myself the most and it was in those moments that I needed to think most intensely about who it is I’m allowing to dictate my self worth who it is that I’m allowing to make me feel and shifting that focus and that that owner of of my own peace and my own love and my own self worth moving that owner from some external source and back into my own hands and something that I found to be the most enlightening and the most encouraging of all this is that in the context of a romantic relationship the real value is added when both people are entirely themselves with no compromise and I maybe compromise maybe the wrong term here but compromising compromise to me in this context means you are who you are and you bring yourself to that table every single time you engage with them you are giving them your unadultered self and for the longest time a lot of what I did was sort of play into what I felt I needed to be to make the other person happy.
GRAY: So whether that was faking some interest in a topic that I didn’t really care about whether it was providing a compliment that was at at its core empty or simply pulling back and withholding my own comments or my own or my own perspective from a situation where I felt it wouldn’t be well received. And so uh I think I think what we’ve done a really great job of is is sort of emphasizing that when when you’re you somebody may reject you but that might only be an indication that that person isn’t ready or isn’t interest you know that that person isn’t compatible with with who you might really be.
These are excellent points Gray and and they make me think that this would make a great show to do in the future unto itself which is what get in the way of successful relationship and relating and it requires two people who are at least devoted to working on their own authenticity.
And their own authentic self worth to thrive in a relationship. Otherwise, we set up this codependence which is rooted in fear and insecurity and that’s why relationships are hard along with the fact that we haven’t learned the communication techniques but develop your own authenticity, your own genuine self worth and then a relationship is about how it can enhance you but it’s not based upon need with the capital and so you know what Gray, if you’d like to come back and join me and the future show on authenticity and relationships, I’d love to have you join and thanks so much for joining us today.
GRAY: I would absolutely love to and thank you so much for having me, Mel. This was a pleasure.
We’ve just started to touch upon this fundamental, existential, considerable, monumental, lot lot of expletives there. Issue of self worth. Today, we primarily look at our problem with self worth. Our cultural indoctrination toward acting strong. You know, acting strong ultimately means we’re walking around with a suit of armor clanking around in fear as though we’re doing battle all the time.
That is not authentic self esteem folks. We need to start to pan penetrate this concept of judgement again unless you’re in a courtroom. There is no judge. You’re judging yourself and projecting that power onto someone else. And remember you’re not on stage. People aren’t analyzing you and looking at you. You’re doing that to yourself.
So we will have any number of shows on this topic and we will continue to revisit. And coming up shortly we will have an episode on how we can work toward attaining our authentic self. Our authentic self lives without fear or apprehension or hesitation about what others think of us. It invests your thoughts and your beliefs into being your genuine self all the while hoping that those you care about like you think well of you but if they don’t, we allow that because we’re still secure and intact with our own self.
I hope you enjoyed this episode of The Possibility Podcast with me, Mel Schwartz. To learn more about this topic and related subjects, please be sure to check out The Possibility Principle, my book at The Possibility Principle dot com. I always welcome and look forward to your feedback, please leave a comment at the show notes for this episode at Mel Schwartz dot com slash podcast or simply send me an email at Mel at Mel Schwartz dot com. You can also use that email if you’d like to be a caller on the future show and have a topic you’d like me to discuss. If you never want to miss an episode, find The Possibility Principle at Apple Podcast or wherever you listen and be sure to hit that subscribe button. You’ll get new episodes as soon as they are released and if you know anyone who might benefit from The Possibility Podcast, please tell them about the show. Thank you for listening and until next time, have a great day and keep summoning up those new possibilities.