Friday, May 14, 2010

Hands Up: Who Has Great Self-Esteem?

Back when I was a theater student, one of my instructors opened his class by asking: “Does anyone here have an inferiority complex?”

The room was silent. I wanted to raise my hand and say, “Yes... well, that is, I sort of have an inferiority complex, but it’s not a very good one.”

But because this was the truth, I did not.

I recently came across a reference to a book called The Golden Ghetto: The Psychology of Affluence by Jessie O'Neill. The book apparently argues that inherited wealth or "money without meaning" can lead to a whole host of problems for the wealthy recipient. Among these are "low self-esteem, low self-worth, lack of self-confidence."

There are, of course, endless studies on poverty that blame a lack of money on low self-esteem, low self-worth and a lack of self-confidence.

So having too much money or too little can leave a person feeling unworthy. The key to a fulfilled and psychically balanced life must be to have just enough: enough to meet your needs; not so much that you don't know what to do with yourself. That's one possibility.

Another possibility is that those people in the middle, the ones who have just enough, also have low self-esteem. In fact, being alive may well be a cause of low self-esteem and a lack of self-confidence. Blaming it on circumstances could be just our way of trying to force our inner dialogue to conform to some kind of logic. "I think this way because..."

One of the wonders of being human is our ability to imagine. We do not just exist in the concrete world of today. We dream of different lives for ourselves, scary worst-case scenarios of poverty and misery and wild fantasies of stress- free luxury travel to exotic locations with an adoring fashion model (who happens to also have a PhD and a complete lack of annoying personal traits) at our side.

We compare our reality to these fantasies, we prepare for the worst (which almost never happens) and constantly measure our reality against the positive fantasy and wonder if we have somehow missed our true calling. This doesn't mean something is terribly wrong. If we didn't do that, we would be sea urchins, not human beings.

If you accept occasional nagging self-doubt and uneasiness as a rather unremarkable part of human life, you do not need to find a "cause" for it and identify what is to "blame." That should free up a lot of your brain power for other things.

It is very easy to identify something or other as the cause of your lack of self-worth: It is because you were raised too rich, or too poor, or you're too fat, or too thin, you're too driven, or too lazy, or the kids teased you, or your parents were too distant or smothering, their expectations of you were too high or too low.

Once you've identified the supposed cause, you look at other people who have the thing you've identified as lacking, and without the benefit of being inside their heads, assume they have no problems at all with their self-esteem. Well, guess what? They do.

And you know what else? I couldn't be bothered to come up with a conclusion for this story. I'm such a loser.

Self-Esteem Bowl Photo credit: / CC BY 2.0

*Opening paragraphs of this article excerpted from Broke is Beautiful by Laura Lee.