This post is written by Dr Tim O’Brien – @Doctob – a former lecturer in Psychology and Human Development at The Institute of Education, University of London. This post draws on ideas he explores in his latest book ‘Inner Story: understand your mind change your world’ – I’d be fascinated to know your thoughts on Tim’s ideas. Do please take a moment to comment.
Self-Esteem is a Mental Trap
Self-esteem has been a star of stage and screen in the world of psychology and mental health for over one hundred years. The self-help and personal development industry overflows with books about self-esteem. If you cannot achieve what you want to achieve, cannot think what you want to think, cannot feel what you want to feel, cannot be what you want to be, then you need to take a good hard look at your self-esteem.
I am pleased to tell you… You don’t.
The reason put forward for paying attention to self-esteem is that your self-esteem is likely to be low and your personal task is to boost it, build it or raise it – whatever the descriptor is for moving it from low to high. The ability to raise self-esteem is being sold to us as the key to personal success and individual fulfillment.
I am pleased to tell you… It isn’t.
If your self-esteem is high then the message is that you feel good about ‘you’ as a person – all of you. If your self-esteem is low then you feel bad about ‘you’ as a person – all of you. But the idea that you have as self-esteem that is high or low (and is about the whole of your self) is a mental trap. We need a new solution and we need it now. In new book ‘Inner Story: understand your mind change your world’ I propose a solution – a realistic and optimistic solution that is linked to the concept of changing a word so that you can change your world. In this case, a minimal alteration to the word self-esteem can have a maximum impact on your life. Just one additional letter is all that it takes. Today I would like to introduce you to self-esteems.
Say Hello to Self-EsteemS
Decades of real-world experience inform me that people do not have a self-esteem that is high or low. Instead, we have multiple esteems. That’s right, lots and lots and lots of them. We interact with others in many personal and professional contexts and we feel differently about who we are and what it means to be us in all of those different contexts. We also have different esteems that we attach to different areas of our life.
One of my close friends becomes uncomfortable and anxious when she meets new people; she presents as withdrawn, keeps her distance and is quieter than usual as her anxiety takes time to resolve. If the people who know what she is feeling inside do not encourage her into the conversation she becomes a socially awkward floor gazer. This is because her esteem is low regarding her ability to create rapport quickly in any new social context. Mundane human activities like getting a haircut is a living nightmare for her because she knows that she will be stuck in a chair and forced to engage in small talk about how busy her day has been or where she is going on holiday. Interestingly, when she is with friends she is often the centre of attention. This is because her esteem is high in relation to how she behaves amongst people that she knows and in situations that are more predictable for her. She does not have self-esteem that is high or low, she has esteem in one context that is low and esteem in another context that is high.
Self-esteem is about all of you as a person.
Self-esteems are about some parts of you as a person.
Let me offer another example. When I first started explaining inner stories to children I also used to talk to them about self-esteems too. I did this to help them understand how they can feel different about themselves in different situations and to ensure that they did not feel bad about their whole self. They usually grasped and understood the concept very quickly. It made sense in their world.
Allow me to introduce you to Clarke, a gravel-voiced nine-year-old boy whose default assumption was that everyone would instantly dislike him. If it did not happen instantly then he believed it would happen eventually. Like all of us he lived his inner story and tested it out every day, often behaving in a way that would fulfill his prophecy of being disliked. Once, when I was talking with Clarke about how things were going for him in school, he began to tell me how he struggled with the skills of reading, writing and spelling. I explained to him that his skills in school were only part of who he was and asked him about his skills outside of the school environment. At this point he looked at me, became physically animated and his voice rose by an octave. He shuffled on his seat, waved his arms about and began to chirp and bubble. It was like being with a different person. It became clear that outside of school Clarke excelled at two skills: breaking and entering. He was very proud of being exceptional at those skills.
Now let’s look at Clarke in relation to his self-esteems,
His esteem was low in relation to literacy.
His esteem was high in relation to burglary.
Listening to Clarke describing his out of school escapades, it was clear that Clarke did not have low self-esteem. He had esteems that varied according to what he was doing. In that way, Clarke is just like you and he is just like me.
Avoid the Trap
Be aware of being allured into the self-esteem trap because it is a very easy trap to fall into. There are well-intentioned people and books that will seduce you into it. Thinking about areas of your life where you feel good about your self and where you have positive esteems will keep you out of the trap. Just because you feel bad about your self in one aspect of your life it does not mean that you should feel bad about your self in all aspects of your life.
Nurture your self-esteems.
Nurture your inner story.
Dr. Tim O’Brien is a former lecturer in Psychology and Human Development at The Institute of Education, University of London.
Find him on Twitter: @Doctob
Sir Elton John has this to say about Inner Story:
“I have had the pleasure of working personally with Tim over many years. Change and re-evaluation of ourselves is vital if we want to move forward in life. I know how much Tim has helped me to do this with his wisdom and kindness. Inner Story contains original and inspirational thinking at its very best. I wholeheartedly recommend it to you.”
If you have an idea, experience or resource you’d be interested to share via my blog, please email me: firstname.lastname@example.org