Six pillars of self esteem
Welcome to the six pillars of self esteem, arguably the best book about raising one’s self-esteem. It’s written by Nathaniel Branden and the author’s purpose in this book is to identify, in greater depth and comprehensiveness than in my previous writings, the most important factors on which self-esteem depends.
PART I: Self-esteem: basic principles
Six pillars of self esteem Chapter 1: Self-esteem:: the immune system of consciousness
Self-esteem is a fundamental human need. Its impact requires neither our understanding nor our consent. It works its way within us with or without our knowledge.
Self-esteem, fully realized, is the experience that we are appropriate to life and to the requirements of life. More specifically, self-esteem is:
1- Confidence in our ability to think, confidence in our ability to cope with the basic challenges of life; and
2- Confidence in our right to be successful and happy, the feeling of being worthy, deserving, entitled to assert our needs and wants, achieve our values, and enjoy the fruits of our efforts.
The basic pattern
With high self-esteem, I am more likely to persist in the face of difficulties. With low self-esteem, I am more likely to give up or go through the motions of trying without really giving my best. Research shows that high-self-esteem subjects will persist at a task significantly longer than low self-esteem subjects.1 If I persevere, the likelihood is that I will succeed more often than I fail. If I don’t, the likelihood is that I will fail more often than I succeed. Either way, my view of myself will be reinforced.
The impact of self-esteem: general observations
The level of our self-esteem has profound consequences for every aspect of our existence: how we operate in the workplace, how we deal with people, how high we are likely to rise, how much we are likely to achieve—and, in the personal realm, with whom we are likely to fall in love, how we interact with our spouse, children, and friends, what level of personal happiness we attain.
The higher our self-esteem, the more ambitious we tend to be, not necessarily in a career or financial sense, but in terms of what we hope to experience in life—emotionally, intellectually, creatively, spiritually. The lower our self-esteem, the less we aspire to and the less we are likely to achieve. Either path tends to be self-reinforcing and self-perpetuating.
Self-esteem creates a set of implicit expectations about what is possible and appropriate to us. These expectations tend to generate the actions that turn them into realities. And the realities confirm and strengthen the original beliefs. Self-esteem—high or low—tends to be a generator of self-fulfilling prophecies.
Self-esteem as a basic need
A need is that which is required for our effective functioning. We do not merely want food and water, we need them; without them, we die. Calcium is also a need but not as much as food and water. We are impaired in our ability to function if we ever lack calcium.
Self-esteem is a need analogous to calcium, rather than to food or water. Lacking it to a serious degree, we do not necessarily die, but we are impaired in our ability to function. To say that self-esteem is a need is to say:
That it makes an essential contribution to the life process.
And that it is indispensable to normal and healthy development.
That it has survival value.
Six pillars of self esteem Chapter 2: The meaning of self-esteem
Self-esteem has two interrelated components. One is a sense of basic confidence in the face of life’s challenges: self-efficacy. The other is a sense of being worthy of happiness: self-respect.
Self-efficacy means confidence in the functioning of my mind, in my ability to think, understand, learn, choose, and make decisions; confidence in my ability to understand the facts of reality that fall within the sphere of my interests and needs; self-trust; self-reliance.
Self-respect means assurance of my value; an affirmative attitude toward my right to live and to be happy; comfort in appropriately asserting my thoughts, wants, and needs; the feeling that joy and fulfillment are my natural birthright.
When self-esteem is impaired
If an individual felt inadequate to face the challenges of life, if an individual lacked fundamental self-trust, confidence in his or her mind, we would recognize a self-esteem deficiency, no matter what other assets he or she possessed.
Or, if an individual lacked a basic sense of self-respect, felt unworthy or undeserving of the love or respect of others, unentitled to happiness, fearful of asserting thoughts, wants, or needs —again we would recognize a self-esteem deficiency, no matter what other positive attributes he or she exhibited.
Self-efficacy and self-respect are the dual pillars of healthy self-esteem; absent either one, self-esteem is impaired.
By definition then, self-esteem is the disposition to experience oneself as competent to cope with the basic challenges of life and as worthy of happiness.
To have high self-esteem, then, is to feel confidently appropriate to life, that is, competent and worthy in the sense I have indicated. To have low self-esteem is to feel inappropriate to life; wrong, not about this issue or that, but wrong as a person.
Our self-esteem can grow or deteriorate
The level of our self-esteem is not set once and for all in childhood. It can grow as we mature, or it can deteriorate. There are people whose self-esteem was higher at the age of ten than at the age of sixty, and the reverse is also true. Self-esteem can rise and fall and rise again over the course of a lifetime.
Our need for self-esteem is the need to know we are functioning as our life and well-being require.
Self-efficacy is that experience of basic power or competence that we associate with healthy self-esteem, and self-respect to the experience of dignity and personal worth.
To be efficacious (in the basic, dictionary sense) is to be capable of producing a desired result. Confidence in our basic efficacy is confidence in our ability to learn what we need to learn and do what we need to do in order to achieve our goals, insofar as success depends on our own efforts.
Self-efficacy is not the conviction that we can never make an error. It is the conviction that we are able to think, to judge, to know—and to correct our errors. It is trust in our mental processes and abilities.
The second component of self-esteem is self-respect.
Just as self-efficacy entails the expectation of success as natural, so self-respect entails the expectation of friendship, love, and happiness as natural, as a result of who we are and what we do.
Self-respect is the conviction of our own value. It is not the delusion that we are “perfect” or superior to everyone else. It is not comparative or competitive at all. It is the conviction that our life and well-being are worth acting to support, protect, and nurture; that we are good and worthwhile and deserving of the respect of others; and that our happiness and personal fulfillment are important enough to work for.
Three basic observations
(1) If we respect ourselves, we tend to act in ways that confirm and reinforce this respect, such as requiring others to deal with us appropriately.
(2) If we do not respect ourselves, we tend to act in ways that lower our sense of our own value even further, such as accepting or sanctioning inappropriate behavior toward us by others, thereby confirming and reinforcing our negativity.
(3) If we wish to raise the level of our self-respect, we need to act in ways that will cause it to rise—and this begins with a commitment to the value of our own person, which is then expressed through congruent behavior.
Six pillars of self esteem Chapter 3: The illusion of self-esteem
When self-esteem is low, we are often manipulated by fear. Fear of reality, to which we feel inadequate. Fear of facts about ourselves—or others—that we have denied, disowned, or repressed. Fear of the collapse of our pretenses. Fear of exposure. Fear of the humiliation of failure and, sometimes, the responsibilities of success. We live more to avoid pain than to experience joy.
If low self-esteem dreads the unknown and unfamiliar, high self-esteem seeks new frontiers. If low self-esteem avoids challenges, high self-esteem desires and needs them. If low self-esteem looks for a chance to be absolved, high self-esteem looks for an opportunity to admire.
Sometimes we see people who enjoy worldly success, are widely esteemed, or who have a public veneer of assurance and yet are deeply dissatisfied, anxious, or depressed. They may project the appearance of self-efficacy and self-respect—they may have the persona of self-esteem—but do not possess the reality.
Pseudo self-esteem is the illusion of self-efficacy and self-respect without the reality.
Nothing is more common than to pursue self-esteem by means that will not and cannot work. Instead of seeking self-esteem through consciousness, responsibility, and integrity, we may seek it through popularity, material acquisitions, or sexual exploits. Instead of valuing personal authenticity, we may value belonging to the right clubs, or the right church, or the right political party.
And instead of practicing appropriate self-assertion, we may practice uncritical compliance to our particular group. Instead of seeking self-respect through honesty, we may seek it through philanthropy—I must be a good person, I do “good works.”
Finally, instead of striving for the power of competence (the ability to achieve genuine values), we may pursue the “power” of manipulating or controlling other people. The possibilities for self-deception are almost endless—all the blind alleys down which we can lose ourselves, not realizing that what we desire cannot be purchased with counterfeit currency.
Self-esteem is an intimate experience; it resides in the core of one’s being. It is what I think and feel about myself, not what someone else thinks or feels about me.
The acclaim of others does not create our self-esteem. Neither does erudition, material possessions, marriage, parenthood, philanthropic endeavors, sexual conquests, or face-lifts. These things can sometimes make us feel better about ourselves temporarily or more comfortable in particular situations. But comfort is not self-esteem.
The tragedy of many people’s lives is that they look for self-esteem in every direction except within, and so they fail in their search.
The ultimate source of self-esteem is and can only be internal—in what we do, not what others do. When we seek it in externals, in the actions and responses of others, we invite tragedy.
PART II: Internal sources of self-esteem
Six pillars of self esteem Chapter 5: The focus on action
We begin not with the environment but with the individual. We begin not with what others choose to do but with what the individual chooses to do.
We begin by asking, what must an individual do to generate and sustain self-esteem? What pattern of actions must be adopted? What is the responsibility of you and me as adults?
Until we know what practices an individual must master to sustain self-esteem, until we identify what psychologically healthy adulthood consists of, we lack criteria by which to assess what constitutes a favorable or unfavorable childhood influence or experience.
What determines the level of self-esteem is what the individual does, within the context of his or her knowledge and values. And since action in the world is a reflection of action within the mind of the individual, it is the internal processes that are crucial.
We shall see that “the six pillars of self-esteem”—the practices indispensable to the health of the mind and the effective functioning of the person—are all operations of consciousness. All involve choices. They are choices that confront us every hour of our existence.
The six practices
Since self-esteem is a consequence, a product of internally generated practices, we cannot work on self-esteem directly, neither our own nor anyone else’s. We must address ourselves to the source. If we understand what these practices are, we can commit to initiating them within ourselves and to dealing with others in such a way as to facilitate or encourage them to do likewise.
Here are the six pillars of self-esteem: The practice of living consciously; the practice of self-acceptance; the practice of self-responsibility; the practice of self-assertiveness; the practice of living purposefully and the practice of personal integrity.
Six pillars of self esteem Chapter 6: The practice of living consciously
In virtually all of the great spiritual and philosophical traditions of the world there appears some form of the idea that most human beings are sleepwalking through their own existence. Enlightenment is identified with waking up. Evolution and progress are identified with an expansion of consciousness.
We perceive consciousness as the highest manifestation of life. The higher the form of consciousness, the more advanced the form of life.
Among our own species, we carry this same principle further: We identify increasing maturity with wider vision, greater awareness, higher consciousness.
Why is consciousness so important? Because for all species that possess it, consciousness is the basic tool of survival—the ability to be aware of the environment in some form, at some level, and to guide action accordingly.
Life of choices
As we have discussed, we are beings for whom consciousness (at the conceptual level) is volitional. This means that the design of our nature contains an extraordinary option—that of seeking awareness or not bothering (or actively avoiding it), seeking truth or not bothering (or actively avoiding it), focusing our mind or not bothering (or choosing to drop to a lower level of consciousness). In other words, we have the option of exercising our powers or of subverting our means of survival and well-being. This capacity for self-management is our glory and, at times, our burden.
If we do not bring an appropriate level of consciousness to our activities, if we do not live mindfully, the inevitable penalty is a diminished sense of self-efficacy and self-respect. We cannot feel competent and worthy while conducting our lives in a mental fog. Our mind is our basic tool of survival. Betray it and self-esteem suffers.
Choices and self-esteem
Through the thousands of choices we make between thinking and nonthinking, being responsible toward reality or evading it, we establish a sense of the kind of person we are. Consciously, we rarely remember these choices. But deep in our psyche they are added up, and the sum is that experience we call “self-esteem.” Self-esteem is the reputation we acquire with ourselves.
To live consciously means to seek to be aware of everything that bears on our actions, purposes, values, and goals—to the best of our ability, whatever that ability may be—and to behave in accordance with that which we see and know.
The betrayal of consciousness
Consciousness that is not translated into appropriate action is a betrayal of consciousness; it is mind invalidating itself. Living consciously means more than seeing and knowing; it means acting on what one sees and knows. Thus, I can recognize that I have been unfair and hurtful to my child (or my spouse or my friend) and need to make amends. But I don’t want to admit I made a mistake, so I procrastinate, claiming that I am still “thinking” about the situation. This is the opposite of living consciously. At a fundamental level, it is an avoidance of consciousness— avoidance of the meaning of what I am doing; avoidance of my motives; avoidance of my continuing cruelty.
The specifics of living consciously
Living consciously entails:
A mind that is active rather than passive.
An intelligence that takes joy in its own function.
Being “in the moment,” without losing the wider context. Reaching out toward relevant facts rather than withdrawing from them.
Being concerned to distinguish among facts, interpretations, and emotions.
Noticing and confronting my impulses to avoid or deny painful or threatening realities.
Being concerned to know “where I am” relative to my various (personal and professional) goals and projects, and whether I am succeeding or failing.
Being concerned to know if my actions are in alignment with my purposes.
Searching for feedback from the environment so as to adjust or correct my course when necessary.
Persevering in the attempt to understand in spite of difficulties.
Being receptive to new knowledge and willing to reexamine old assumptions.
Being willing to see and correct mistakes.
Seeking always to expand awareness—a commitment to learning— therefore, a commitment to growth as a way of life.
A concern to understand the world around me.
Also, a concern to know not only external reality but also internal reality, the reality of my needs, feelings, aspirations, and motives, so that I am not a stranger or a mystery to myself.
A concern to be aware of the values that move and guide me, as well as their roots, so that I am not ruled by values I have irrationally adopted or uncritically accepted from others.
Six pillars of self esteem Chapter 7: The practice of self-acceptance
Stated in the negative, self-acceptance is my refusal to be in an adversarial relationship to myself. The concept has three levels of meaning, and we will consider each of them in turn.
The first level
To be self-accepting is to be on my own side—to be for myself. Self-acceptance is my refusal to be in an adversarial relationship to myself. Some people are self-rejecting at so deep a level that no growth work can even begin until and unless this problem is addressed. It entails the declaration: “I choose to value myself, to treat myself with respect, to stand up for my right to exist.” This primary act of self-affirmation is the base on which self-esteem develops.
The second level
It is the refusal to regard any part of ourselves—our bodies, our emotions, our thoughts, our actions, our dreams—as alien, as “not me.” Self-acceptance is the willingness to say of any emotion or behavior, “This is an expression of me, not necessarily an expression I like or admire, but an expression of me nonetheless, at least at the time it occurred.” It is the virtue of realism, that is, of respect for reality, applied to the self.
Self-acceptance is the precondition of change and growth. Thus, if I am confronted with a mistake I have made, in accepting that it is mine I am free to learn from it and to do better in the future. I cannot learn from a mistake I cannot accept having made.
If I refuse to accept that often I live unconsciously, how will I learn to live more consciously? If I refuse to accept that often I live irresponsibly, how will I learn to live more responsibly? If I refuse to accept that often I live passively, how will I learn to live more actively?
“Accepting” does not necessarily mean “liking,” “enjoying,” or “condoning.” I can accept what is—and be determined to evolve from there. It is not acceptance but denial that leaves me stuck. I cannot be truly for myself, cannot build self-esteem, if I cannot accept myself.
The third level
Self-acceptance entails the idea of compassion, of being a friend to myself. I can condemn some action I have taken and still have compassionate interest in the motives that prompted it. I can still be a friend to myself.
The power of self-acceptance
If we can accept the fact that right now, at this moment, we refuse to accept that we feel envy, or anger, or pain, or longing, for example—or that we refuse to accept that we once did or believed such and such—if we acknowledge, experience, and accept our resistance—we discover a supremely important paradox: The resistance begins to collapse. When we fight a block it grows stronger. When we acknowledge, experience, and accept it, it begins to melt because its continued existence requires opposition.
Six pillars of self esteem Chapter 8: The practice of self-responsibility
To feel competent to live and worthy of happiness, I need to experience a sense of control over my existence. This requires that I be willing to take responsibility for my actions and the attainment of my goals. This means that I take responsibility for my life and well-being. Self-responsibility is essential to self-esteem, and it is also a reflection or manifestation of self-esteem.
The practice of self-responsibility entails these realizations:
I am responsible for the achievement of my desires.
I am responsible for my choices and actions.
I am responsible for the level of consciousness I bring to my work.
I am responsible for the level of consciousness I bring to my relationships.
I am responsible for my behavior with other people—coworkers, associates, customers, spouse, children, friends.
I am responsible for how I prioritize my time.
I am responsible for the quality of my communications.
I am responsible for my personal happiness.
I am responsible for accepting or choosing the values by which I live.
I am responsible for raising my self-esteem.
The author highlights how he doesn’t support the grandiose notion that “I am responsible for every aspect of my existence and everything that befalls me.” Some things we have control over; others we do not.
In work situations, we can always make the difference between those who practice self-responsibility and those who do not.
If there is a problem, men and women who are self-responsible ask, “What can I do about it? What avenues of action are possible to me?” If something goes wrong, they ask, “What did I overlook? Where did I miscalculate? How can I correct the situation?” They do not protest, “But no one told me what to do!” or “But it’s not my job!” They indulge neither in alibis nor in blaming. They are typically solution oriented.
No one can be said to be living self-responsibly who has no productive purposes. Through work we support our existence. Through the exercise of our intelligence toward some useful ends, we become more fully human. Without productive goals and productive effort, we remain forever children.
Self-responsibility is expressed through an active orientation to life.
Thinking for oneself
Living actively entails independent thinking in contrast to passive conformity to the beliefs of others. Independent thinking is a corollary both of living consciously and of self-responsibility. To live consciously is to live by the exercise of one’s own mind. To practice self-responsibility is to think for oneself.
No one is coming
No one is coming to save me; no one is coming to make life right for me; no one is coming to solve my problems. If I don’t do something, nothing is going to get better.
The dream of a rescuer who will deliver us may offer a kind of comfort, but it leaves us passive and powerless. We may feel If only I suffer long enough, if only I yearn desperately enough, somehow a miracle will happen, but this is the kind of self-deception one pays for with one’s life as it drains away into the abyss of unredeemable possibilities and irretrievable days, months, decades.
Six pillars of self esteem Chapter 9: The practice of self-assertiveness
Some people stand and move as if they have no right to the space they occupy. Some speak as if their intention is that you not be able to hear them, either because they mumble or speak faintly or both. Some signal at the most crudely obvious level that they do not feel they have a right to exist. They embody lack of self-assertiveness in its most extreme form. Their poor self-esteem is obvious.
What is self-assertiveness?
Self-assertiveness means honoring my wants, needs, and values and seeking appropriate forms of their expression in reality.
Its opposite is that surrender to timidity that consists of consigning myself to a perpetual underground where everything that I am lies hidden or stillborn —to avoid confrontation with someone whose values differ from mine, or to please, placate, or manipulate someone, or simply to “belong.”
It simply means the willingness to stand up for myself, to be who I am openly, to treat myself with respect in all human encounters. It means the refusal to fake my person to be liked.
To practice self-assertiveness is to live authentically, to speak and act from my innermost convictions and feelings—as a way of life, as a rule.
What self-assertiveness is and is not
1- The first and basic act of self-assertion is the assertion of consciousness. This entails the choice to see, to think, to be aware, to send the light of consciousness outward toward the world and inward toward our own being. To ask questions is an act of self-assertion. To challenge authority is an act of self-assertion. To think for oneself—and to stand by what one thinks—is the root of self-assertion. To default on this responsibility is to default on the self at the most basic level. Note that self-assertiveness should not be confused with mindless rebelliousness. “Self-assertiveness” without consciousness is not self-assertiveness; it is drunk-driving.
2- To practice self-assertiveness logically and consistently is to be committed to my right to exist, which proceeds from the knowledge that my life does not belong to others and that I am not here on earth to live up to someone else’s expectations.
To practice self-assertiveness consistently I need the conviction that my ideas and wants are important.
We were taught, in effect, “What you want isn’t important; what’s important is what others want.” Perhaps we were intimidated by accusations of “selfishness” when we attempted to stand up for ourselves. It often takes courage to honor what we want and to fight for it. For many people, self-surrender and self-sacrifice are far easier.
3- Within an organization, self-assertiveness is required not merely to have a good idea but to develop it, fight for it, work to win supporters for it, do everything within one’s power to see that it gets translated into reality.
4- Finally, self-assertion entails the willingness to confront rather than evade the challenges of life and to strive for mastery.
Six pillars of self esteem Chapter 10: the practice of living purposefully
To live without purpose is to live at the mercy of chance—the chance event, the chance phone call, the chance encounter—because we have no standard by which to judge what is or is not worth doing. Outside forces bounce us along, like a cork floating on water, with no initiative of our own to set a specific course. Our orientation to life is reactive rather than proactive. We are drifters.
To live purposefully is to use our powers for the attainment of goals we have selected: the goal of studying, of raising a family, of earning a living, of starting a new business, of bringing a new product into the marketplace, of solving a scientific problem, of building a vacation home, of sustaining a happy romantic relationship. It is our goals that lead us forward, that call on the exercise of our faculties, that energize our existence.
Productivity and purpose
To live purposefully is, among other things, to live productively, which is a necessity of making ourselves competent to life. Purposeful men and women set productive goals commensurate with their abilities, or try to.
Efficacy and purpose
The purposes that move us need to be specific if they are to be realized.
To live purposefully is to be concerned with these questions: What am I trying to achieve? How am I trying to achieve it? Why do I think these means are appropriate? Does the feedback from the environment convey that I am succeeding or failing? Is there new information that I need to consider? Do I need to make adjustments in my course, or in my strategy, or in my practices? Do my goals and purposes need to be rethought? Thus, to live purposefully means to live at a high level of consciousness.
Purposes unrelated to a plan of action do not get realized. They exist only as frustrated yearnings. Daydreams do not produce the experience of efficacy.
To live purposefully and productively requires that we cultivate within ourselves a capacity for self-discipline. Self-discipline is the ability to organize our behavior over time in the service of specific tasks. No one can feel competent to cope with the challenges of life who is without the capacity for self-discipline.
What living purposefully entails
As a way of operating in the world, the practice of living purposefully entails the following core issues.
Taking responsibility for formulating one’s goals and purposes consciously.
Being concerned to identify the actions necessary to achieve one’s goals.
Monitoring behavior to check that it is in alignment with one’s goals.
Paying attention to the outcomes of one’s actions, to know whether they are leading where one wants to go.
Six pillars of self esteem Chapter 11: the practice of personal integrity
Integrity is the integration of ideals, convictions, standards, beliefs—and behavior. When our behavior is congruent with our professed values, when ideals and practice match, we have integrity.
Integrity arises as an issue only for those who profess standards and values, which, of course, is the great majority of human beings.
When we behave in ways that conflict with our judgment of what is appropriate, we lose face in our own eyes. We respect ourselves less. If the policy becomes habitual, we trust ourselves less or cease to trust ourselves at all.
When a breach of integrity wounds self-esteem, only the practice of integrity can heal it.
At the simplest level, personal integrity entails such questions as: Am I honest, reliable, and trustworthy? Do I keep my promises? Do I do the things I say I admire and do I avoid the things I say I deplore? Am I fair and just in my dealings with others?
Integrity means congruence. Words and behavior match. There are people we know whom we trust and others we do not. If we ask ourselves the reason, we will see that congruence is basic. We trust congruency and are suspicious of incongruency.
In most organizations, for instance, there are men and woman whom others trust. Why? They keep their word. They honor their commitments. They don’t just promise to stick up for their people, they do it. They just don’t preach fairness, they practice it. They don’t just counsel honesty and integrity, they live it.
When we betray our standards
One of the great self-deceptions is to tell oneself, “Only I will know.” Only I will know I am a liar; only I will know I deal unethically with people who trust me; only I will know I have no intention of honoring my promise. The implication is that my judgment is unimportant and that only the judgment of others counts. But when it comes to matters of self-esteem, I have more to fear from my own judgment than from anyone else’s. In the inner courtroom of my mind, mine is the only judgment that counts. My ego, the “I” at the center of my consciousness, is the judge from whom there is no escape. I can avoid people who have learned the humiliating truth about me. I cannot avoid myself.
Little things matter. Most of the issues of integrity we face are not big issues but small ones, yet the accumulated weight of our choices has an impact on our sense of self.
The principal of reciprocal causation
Behaviors that generate good self-esteem are also expressions of good self-esteem. Living consciously is both a cause and an effect of self-efficacy and self-respect. And so is self-acceptance, self-responsibility, all the other practices I describe. The more I live consciously, the more I trust my mind and respect my worth; and if I trust my mind and respect my worth, it feels natural to live consciously. The more I live with integrity, the more I enjoy good self-esteem; and if I enjoy good self-esteem, it feels natural to live with integrity.
An analogy to physical exercise may be helpful. If we are in poor physical condition, exercise is typically difficult; as our condition improves, exercise becomes easier and more enjoyable. We begin where we are—and build our strength from there. Raising self-esteem follows the same principle.
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