Life’s balancing act: Self-esteem
When you apply for a job, your cover letter usually includes a request for a personal interview. This is because you are aware that your credentials and the facts and figures in your résumé only provide insight into part of who you really are. Business owners and their human resources staff think the same way. When they hire a new employee, they also want an interview to get a personal impression of the applicant.
So how should I present myself? How should I behave in order to demonstrate that I am the right person for the job that has been advertised? These are questions that applicants ask themselves as they prepare for an interview.
Potential employers use formal credentials to shortlist potential new employees based on their professional qualifications, but they also want to find out about the candidates’ characteristics and attitudes. How self-confident is the applicant? Does he or she fit on our team? Is the “chemistry” right?
Both applicants and potential employers know that this chemistry can’t really be verified until they get to know each other better during the probationary period.
Born into the world of our parents
With all due respect to psychology, there is nothing that allows you to look inside a person. You cannot plumb the depths of a person’s inner workings. And no one knows himself or herself down to the last detail. It is only when I have engaged in life that I can know what kind of thinking, speaking and actions I will use on my way and to orient myself when it comes to coping with challenges, dealing with disappointments, resolving conflicts, correcting mistakes and lending meaning to my existence.
In order to achieve stability and continuity in life, to have a foothold on the tightrope of my life’s unfolding path, I need selfesteem. This is what gives me the conviction that I can follow my path in life under my own power. As a child, although I have the will to live, I do not yet have self-esteem. I acquire self-esteem little by little, by engaging with my surroundings, especially through experiences with my mother, my father and the other people into whose habitat I was born.
Determining factors for me as a baby and toddler and as a child in daycare are the affection and affirmation of life, the role model and the guidance I am exposed to. This allows me to achieve selfassuredness, a security that is dependent on my surroundings, rather than security in life based on my own thoughts and decisions. It is a security that is dependent on feelings.
As a child I do not yet have a mature capacity for perception, intellectual abilities or orientation for how to behave. As I learn, I first grow into what the adults model as their world for me: their ideas about how to shape one’s life and the way they behave, their milieu.
We are all children of our time
All mothers, all fathers, all caregivers, all preschool teachers and all teachers live out their individual attitudes towards life based on their individual self-esteem and are all children of their time. They make mistakes in their child-rearing.
One of the worst of these mistakes occurs when, in order to justify a boundary, a mother says to her child, “What will people think of us!” In so doing, she puts her child at the mercy of the zeitgeist and rears her to bow to the rules of others, exposing her own weak self-esteem.
Every era has its own special “balancing act”. Our time imposes work as the “act” of choice. I have to work in order to be recognized in our society. Whether you are male or female, if you have a regular job, pay your taxes and make the social security contributions required to insure you against the risks associated with life, you will be recognized as a fully valid member of society. In line with the income that you earn based on your professional qualifications, you can participate in the general prosperity.
Our jobs have become the be-all and end-all of our existence. In all the previous centuries, our self-esteem was derived from being part of a family, a clan and a people. Today, we get it from our career! The problem children of our society are no longer the black sheep of a family, but rather the people who have failed to learn any skills. You have to have a profession that serves society’s prosperity.
The self-esteem of freedom
Women who care for their families, supporting their husbands in the traditional distribution of gender roles and devoting themselves to rearing their children in their role as mother – and as such not being available to the labor market – have to be very self-assured these days and sense the support of their families. Society itself does not acknowledge them for their work.
Quite the contrary: they are actually objects of scorn. The credential of housewife and mother, which up to a few decades ago was passed down in families from generation to generation, has disappeared. In Germany, politicians talking about the child-rearing allowance refer to it with the derisive term “kitchen bonus”.
But women who have continued to receive their “family” credentials or have acquired them for the first time attest to the fact that a person, whether male or female, is capable of developing his or her very personal self-esteem, as a member of a group and as an individual. No one is condemned to live his or her life with the selfesteem imposed upon him or her by society.
Here is another glance back into history. In earlier centuries, the status of a person was determined by the family into which he or she was born – peasant, serf, nobleman. And it was opportune to be one of the victors in the waves of war. Otherwise, you were a slave.
The revolution of Christianity is that everyone is equal in the eyes of God. This is what granted human beings the self-esteem of freedom. Freedom alone empowers us to live our own self-esteem.
Our actions allow our self-esteem to be seen
What is the basis of our self-esteem? A test we have passed? A contest we have won? Recognition for a special achievement? It is the feeling that I am someone and I can do something. A feeling that can also handle defeat and is in fact reinforced by it. After all, defeats force me to assert myself.
The same is true after we fall down. We have to pull ourselves together, stand up again and start over. We are not perfect. We err and make mistakes. Our knowledge is limited. There is no point in denying it, minimizing it, or putting a different spin on it. We have to accept it, continue to be able to learn and seize the opportunities to improve ourselves.
That’s how you acquire self-esteem.
I have to internalize the fact that despite all my imperfection and even as a loser, I am not nothing. Instead, I have worth as a person. That’s what lets me get back up on my feet. This feeling of worth is something that I acquire as a child from the love of my parents and from the affection of those who care for me. Praise and scolding instill my bearings in me. As a young person, the recognition and affection, contempt and enmity of my peers become increasingly significant for me. I learn to fit into a group.
As young people, we acquire self-esteem from the feeling of belonging. We fall into line, find our roles, assume the behavior that is expected of us. The same idols, the same clothes, the same language. In addition to conflicts with our parents and siblings, in the group of our peers, we learn to assert ourselves and to not shy away from conflicts. Otherwise, we will take on the status of followers. Which is what happens if our parents have failed to instill us with a robust set of values.
Self-esteem based on a set of values: Do we have our own point of view, or do we conform to the status quo? Do we leave the group to remain true to our values, or do we throw our values overboard? Values: Are we honest? Do we respect the property of others? Do we badmouth others? Do we respect our own integrity and that of others? Can we admit to mistakes and apologize? Do we bear grudges? Do we forgive? Are we prepared to make sacrifices to preserve the group? Self-esteem is reflected in the way we behave.
Belonging to a group forces us to develop communication skills, notions of norms for dealing with others and the perception of situations and processes that is close to reality. Young people who withdraw as loners and flee to a virtual world miss out on an important phase of their development.
What meaning do I give my life?
Many members of the up-and-coming generation are in top form as young adults, full of élan. They want to change the entire world, seize control from the old guys in charge and create a future based on their own ideas. But you can also find the other extreme:
Moving back in with their parents instead of daring to do something themselves and developing their independence, demanding a piece of the government safety net at every turn. To keep from losing your balance, you should not overestimate yourself, but at the same time, don’t run for cover either. Be self-critical and remain grounded!
This phase is also accompanied by questions you have to ask yourself: Why do I feel strong and able to cope with life? Which situations do I feel unsure of myself in? What is my optimism based on? How do I see the future I am growing into? Can I and do I want to work on shaping this future with my generation?
Self-esteem requires life to have meaning the way a flame requires oxygen to keep burning. What meaning do I give my life? What do I want to achieve?
Here is a suggestion for how to find clues for answering these questions: Take a closer look at the people living around you to date. Without emotions, and with the intention of being as fair to them as possible, seeing the positive sides you have experienced as well as the negative ones. What am I grateful for? What was wellintended but stupid? What burdens me?
And then a view that is independent of my self: What are my father, my mother, my siblings, my grandparents and my uncles and aunts proud of? How is this reflected in their self-esteem? Then ask, What are my friends, fellow students and my sports buddies proud of? What do they believe they can do? When are they weak and fearful?
And then, What are the motives for their actions? Why do they do certain things? How do they talk? Why do they talk the way they talk? What’s behind it? All talk and no action? Or do they put their money where their mouth is? For example, is there a “shrimp” who perceives his or her height as a handicap and tries to compensate for it by pushing himself or herself to the forefront at all times?
How do the people around me see me?
More questions: Who has what it takes, but doesn’t show it because he or she doesn’t believe they can do it? Who always wants to be in the majority? Work through all of these questions and any other questions that might occur to you, preferably in writing. And then apply them to yourself, look at yourself and place yourself in this tableau of individuals.
All these questions are a real pain. But the alternative is just living with abandon, living it up and risking that you will end up somewhere where you won’t feel good, have trouble getting out again, get stuck, feel that a cloud of bad luck is hovering over you – and fail to seek the reasons for this within yourself, not to mention starting with changes with yourself. Good intentions but not more.
One exercise that is helpful for finding one’s self is the following:
Make a list of all the terms our language offers that refer to people. For instance, real friend, super buddy, good listener, spontaneous person, brown-nose, know-it-all, hair-splitter, high achiever, someone who deals with whatever life throws at him, narrowminded specialist, daredevil, reliable partner, font of knowledge, good observer, boaster, hippie wannabe, squabbler, etc.
There is a wealth of words and idioms used to characterize people as they are perceived by others. This can be wrong and slanderous. It is subjectivity that has become reality. It comes about through communication and has a strong influence, especially when the social media send it out into the world and amplify it.
The task: Take the individuals living in our surroundings to date and assign them to the labels on our list. How are the people seen by their surroundings? Then, for each person, mark whether we think this evaluation is right or wrong, whether I agree or disagree. For example, my mother thinks my father is a coward. That is wrong. My father just takes longer to make a decision.
The pièce de résistance of this work: Applying the list to yourself! How do the people living in my surroundings see me? As a lovable peer? As a clown? As an unconventional thinker? As a front man? As a chaotic person? And so on. The second to last question: Do I see myself this way too? Or is none of this correct or at most, only some of it? The final question: Why am I seen this way?
How do I perceive myself?
The way others value us plays a key role in shaping our selfesteem. We should try not to depend on it. By the same token, neither should we sit up on a high horse and say that I don’t care what people say about me, since I know myself what I’m worth. Everyone wants to be acknowledged and to be as popular as possible.
Words of praise from our boss, from our training instructor or our professor feel good. Friends who accept us as we are feel good. Recognition of our achievements feels good. However, this “feels good” goes too far if we are dependent on it, are addicted to it, and are unhappy without it. If this is the case, we are manipulable!
In my perception of my surroundings, it is important to realize what other people think about me. Not, however, because my well-being depends on it, but because it provides me with information that I need to find and evaluate myself, in order to be able to compare the way I perceive myself with the way others perceive me.
While there will always be a discrepancy between these two perceptions, if it is too great or even contradictory, then there is something wrong with my self-awareness. More illusion than substance? Or too nondescript to be properly recognized? Am I unable to communicate what I am?
There are situations in life in which it is obvious that we are living in a way that is controlled by outside influences or that we have self-esteem that is autonomous. Here’s an example: I lose my job. Am I ashamed of myself and wear a bag over my head, or do I go to my friends and ask them to help me find a job?
Another example: I reach retirement age and leave my job as a top manager of my company. Do I withdraw and suffer from the fact that I am now a private individual without any status symbols and am no longer needed, even though I still feel completely fit? Or do I have a project in which I volunteer my time, contributing my know-how and my experience?
There are shining examples of a successful “change of scenery”: helping the up-and-coming generation, providing service for a good cause after a successful career, providing social services, promoting research, taking on a task in the field of art and culture or setting up a foundation. All of these activities demonstrate a feeling of selfworth from which people know how to make themselves useful.
To acquire “adult” self-esteem, you need to detach yourself from the trial phases of your youth, leave the “borrowed” self-esteem of the group behind and find personal self-confidence. This is a constant balancing act that you cannot achieve by standing still, but only by constantly moving forward in your life. Be active! Do something!
We are so talented!
And what do I have to do to develop independent self-esteem? The first step involves ongoing reflection as the expression of conscious living. The second step calls for accepting my lifelong imperfection. The third step involves a way of dealing with my feelings that continually guides me toward life’s joys.
Reflection: Constantly thinking and writing about the fundamental questions of my existence in a new and more profound way. Where do I come from? Where do I want to go? Who am I? What do I want to do in this world? What means are at my disposal for doing it? Which of them are immutably imposed on me? Which of them can I influence?
If you refuse to reflect on these questions, others will tell you what to do in line with their notions. Your thoughts will be controlled by outside parties. Sometimes it doesn’t fit very well, but you don’t do anything about it because you are cowardly, inept and lazy. You moan, you scold, and you condemn, putting everyone in a bad mood. You are a weakling who just cannot be taught.
Reflection calls on you to get out of your rut, to pause, become quiet, listen to yourself, think about your thoughts, words and actions, re-examine your relationship with your fellow human beings – and ask yourself questions!
Imperfection: Even if we would like to be perfect, and we are constantly tempted to try, we are not perfect, all-knowing, almighty, omnipresent, timeless, absolutely just, showing unconditional love. No, we are imperfect.
This is what motivates us in life: Expanding our knowledge without any limits, gaining new insights, gathering experience, learning lessons, correcting ourselves, improving, recognizing interactions, making distinctions down to the last detail, thinking in terms of alternatives, sharpening our senses, seeing and hearing precisely …
We are so talented! It is so much fun to use one’s talents! You may have to overcome yourself, at least at the beginning or when starting over, but it is so worth it! It is not unlike the incredible view after hiking to the top of a summit or the feeling of euphoria after you have run a marathon.
Character gives freedom
Feelings: If you allow them to run rampant, you will lose your freedom. And you will demote your sense of reason to its lackey, which has to keep coming up with new justifications and excuses. Without a robust character, you can’t come to terms with your feelings, and they turn into a danger. You cannot live them as love and joy.
My character determines the way I deal with myself and with my fellow human beings. Am I honest with myself? And with others? Do I deal with my things carefully? And with those of others? Am I reliable? Can I count on myself? Can I do without things? Can I be seduced? Can I admit to mistakes? Do I keep my word? Can I restrain myself? Am I so self-assured that I can live to my fullest?
If you are the epitome of self-control, you have misunderstood the meaning of character. My character, which like all of my other expressions of life requires ongoing self-improvement, gives me security in my actions. Without it, I would have to reflect in every situation. It gives me the freedom to be spontaneous. It helps me to diminish the discrepancy between self-perception and other perception. It opens up the joys of life to me!
The freedom given to me by my character must be used, to keep orienting myself and my fellow human beings toward what makes life in this world worth living. This means focusing attention on people who build peace, save lives, comfort others, give love, alleviate need, create values, resolve conflicts, give praise and recognition, provide hospitality, excite us with works of music and art, … discover nature and immerse themselves in it.
In order to allow this orientation to predominate, we have to shift our gaze from what brings us down, spoils our mood and turns us into spoil sports. We cannot pay any more attention to what is bad and reckless than what is required to keep it in check. This begins with us: not allowing our alter ego to get the upper hand, and overcoming ourselves.
Our yearnings give us notions of absolute justice, boundless freedom, unlimited knowledge, unbreakable peace and total love. The name for our notions of perfection based on our yearning is God. Living toward God, in the conviction that death is not the absolute end, but the start of a new beginning, gives us hope. Our self-esteem that is filled with joy can hinge on this.