Monthly Archives: December 2010

Conditional self-esteem is a losing game.

I’ve lately been thinking a lot about concepts like self-esteem, ego, identity, you know the drill. Well, I’ve always thought about them, but you know how ideas boil slowly at the back of your mind until they suddenly sort of erupt?

I’ve come to believe that conditional self-esteem in any form is a poor strategy/approach to life. Conditional self-esteem is the belief system that almost all of us subscribe to- that people can be defined, and that we are defined by our accomplishments, abilities, possessions, relationships and a plethora of other things. It’s a part of conventional wisdom that nobody really questions. It can manifest itself in both “healthy” and “unhealthy” ways. Anorexia, for example, I think could be described as a manifestation of conditional self-esteem.

Other people don’t have to come into the equation at all. You could start an entire side-discussion on whether or not other people matter- I personally think that as long as you live amongst other people, they matter- whether you realise it or not. (A lot of people want to be loved for not wanting to be loved, and they want to be famous as the people who don’t care about whether they’re famous.) You might not be concerned with being seen as ‘the cool kid’- because to you, in the long run, it matters more that you be seen as the successful, well-adjusted, happy and accomplished person. Which is a good thing, right?

I always thought so too, but now I’m starting to question that. I’m not questioning the value of success, being well-adjusted, happy and accomplished- those are all obviously good things, and we’d all be better off for them. I’m questioning something a bit deeper than that- that it matters so much to us how we be seen at all- EVEN IF IT’S ONLY IN THE MIRROR. Why? Because we’re not perfect, and chances are, we’re probably not lucky enough to be in that top 1% of people who come pretty close. Our bodies will never be as nice as we can imagine them to be, we will never be as accomplished as we would like to be, our relationships will never be as perfect as we’d like them to be.

I’m not saying that we shouldn’t try. We should, and we must. I’m just saying that we shouldn’t define ourselves, and other people, by these arbitrary yardsticks. Let’s face it- people are too complex to be measured or evaluated. And life is infinitely more complex. We should all work really hard at everything we do- but we should do it because working hard is fun, and intrinsically fulfilling- and we shouldn’t expect results. We shouldn’t be harsh on ourselves when we fail. We shouldn’t expect the world to be fair.

There are a lot of subtle problems with conditional self-esteem.

While both of them agreed on enlightened self-interest, Nathaniel Branden stressed focusing on achievement & excelling leading to pride (arriving at a state where you can rate yourself above other people), Albert Ellis stressed the fallibility of the humans leading to unconditional self-acceptance and the existential and social constructivist stance that rating of a human is both invalid and pernicious.

How can rating of a human be pernicious? For example, today I do well on my job or talk rather fluently, I can stupidly rate myself as a “better” human being. But what happens if I have a dysfluent day? What happens if I, as I age, become less self-efficacious? What happens if I flunk out of school? If I have associated my worth with my achievement, my looks, what I own, and something changes, I no longer can rate myself as “worthwhile”.

What happens if I keep on doing well but demand that I keep on doing well? I get anxious. Very anxious. So I stutter more.

With unconditional self-acceptance and understanding that no person can be rated no matter how they screw-up, how dysfluently (sic) they speak.

If I can totally unconditionally accept myself when I make mistakes (act like the fallible human being that I am) I still can accept myself. Period. No self-blame. No self-downing. Of course, I do dislike my misdeeds and try to change them. But because I am not flagellating myself, I have more of a chance to stay calm and correct my mistakes and “go out and sin no more”.

Many people confuse conditional self-esteem with unconditional self-acceptance. However, Nathaniel Branden did not appear to be one of them. The way I understand him self-efficacy is essential in having being worthy and having a high self-esteem. Being an ordinary fallible human being I am sticking to unconditional self-acceptance and refusing to either rate (compare) myself now with myself in the past, but above all I forgo both the possible pleasure and the subsequent displeasure with my whole existential self.

I hope that you in your interactions with your clients teach them that all people have in their power the refusal to rate themselves and accept themselves unconditionally, whether they stutter or not, whether they struggle with their speech or not, whether they make other errors or not.

When a person rates themselves as bad, incompetent, how can they hope to change what they do, how can they hope to talk with less struggle, how can they hope to communicate better?

I have more to say, and I think I could say what I have said in a more coherent and clear manner, but I have to think about it a while more first.