Fortunes have been made by so-called self help gurus on the topic of self esteem. Hundreds of books have been written and countless others touch on the subject in way or another. I have to admit, I haven’t read any of them. Every thing I’ve ever learned about self esteem was through my own process of discovery and examination, and it started when I was very young.
When I was a child, my mother read to me every night.
My favorite was always Dr. Seuss; it didn’t occur to me until decades later what made him so special. Theodore Geisel (aka Dr. Seuss) reveled in the abstract. Possessing a curious, active imagination, I was instinctively drawn to Geisel’s wild characters and escapist worlds. Unlike Geisel, many authors of children’s books choose instead to tell stories of this world, or at least their versions of it. They intend harmlessly enough to teach values and lessons, but sometimes they do more harm than good.
For example, how many children’s books introduce young minds to the idea of career selection before they’re old enough to ride a bike? The question commonly raised is, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” A fireman? A banker? This instills in a child’s mind at an early age that their value in society is directly tied to what they want to be when they grow up. Of course, it’s not only children’s books that take this approach. Parents and teachers are just as guilty. So are we allowing our children enough space to just be themselves?
Perhaps dad places a heavy emphasis on athleticism but his son has no athletic ability and besides that, no interest. Son wants to play the guitar and write songs for a living. Is it a father’s right to stifle that desire? Who decides which is more important? Is it time to reevaluate the old adage, “Father knows best?” The more space a child is given to assign his/her own value to the various building blocks of self, the greater the chance that a strong, healthy self image will take shape. A parent’s role is to facilitate this discovery with loving kindness, not dictate the terms and steer the ship.
The classic case studies of individuals with self esteem problems often paint a picture of someone who’s consistently told “you’re not good enough” or “you’re smart enough.” Many have suffered not only demoralizing verbal abuse, but physical and sexual abuse as well. Still, as prevalent as these scenarios are and not to minimalize them by any means, I would argue that the roots of many self esteem issues are far less insidious and affect all of us in one way or another.
Self esteem issues are found in the twenty-something executive who went to college to please his parents and now plays salesman during the day and paints at night. Or the devoutly religious who deny themselves earthly pleasures in the name of dogma and guilt. Or the teenager raised on MTV’s version of how to be a rock star, win friends and influence people. The problem lies in our social sonar, the signals we send out to the world around us for feedback on where we stand on the food chain.
We live in an “on demand” world now and expect fast, convenient snapshots of who we are rendered at 300 pixels per inch. Unfortunately, these pictures are blurred and skewed by other people’s shortcomings and value judgments, and by media and advertising with their slick ploys to squeeze us into their narrow demographics.
Eastern religions have recognized this problem for centuries and addressed it through the doctrine of negation of self and ego. So shall we eliminate all outside influences by removing ourselves to nature and destroy the self? I’m not advocating such a radical step. On the contrary, I believe a sense of self is important. The concern is that ours is too often built like a house of cards, nothing more than a series of illusions stacked precariously on top of one another. A strong self image can only be built on a foundation of truth to our own inner nature.
The philosopher J. Krishnamurti said, “You will see how absurd is the whole structure that you have built, looking for external help, depending on others for your comfort, for your happiness, for your strength. These can only be found within yourselves.”
So meditate often on the things you love. Journey inside yourself with no fear of what you might find there. Good and evil exist side by side in every one of us, so resist the temptation to judge yourself. Embrace your contradictions—they become you. And remember that no one’s opinion of you means more than your own. A book can’t and shouldn’t touch you self-esteem. It comes from within, not from without.
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