Why “Self-Esteem” is Misleading

So you want high self-esteem? What are you doing about it? Are you forcing yourself to think positively? Are you trying to convince yourself that you can do anything? How is that working for you?

For a long time, I chased after the goal of having “high self-esteem” and being happy. I didn’t even really know what those things meant, I just wanted to stop feeling like a disappointment, like a failure, like I was worthless. As I searched for clarity, I was bombarded by various self-help gurus, some of which were helpful, most of which were harmful.

The most common belief is the belief of positive thinking, where if you just force out negative thoughts, you’ll be able to accomplish more and find happiness. This makes sense at face-value, for consciousness does seem to be colored by your thoughts; happy thoughts make us happy, sad thoughts make us sad. Now do me a favor and don’t think of a white bear.

Of course, you did think of a white bear, because your brain is going to process stimuli, whether you like it or not. And I think the term happy, in the way it’s usually used, makes us believe that happiness is the state of always being joyful. It’s probably impossible to have such a state of mind. Our thoughts are often just reflections of outside stimuli, and sometimes they’re just random permutations of stimuli flashing inside the mind’s eye. Regardless, you don’t have much control over them. “Positive thinking” is putting yourself in a terribly responsible position; you’ll be blaming yourself for every negative thought that enters your head.

Some take this a step further and say, “you can do it, you just have to believe you can do it, believe in yourself!” After a solid 30 seconds of moderate scrutiny, you should be able to see just how delusional this is. I can’t be a Olympic long-distance runner; I simply don’t have the genetics favorable for high muscle endurance. My best mile time is nine and a half minutes; I will never be a great endurance runner, no matter how hard I try- and furthermore, it would be harmful to create hope that I could ever be that kind of athlete. That is just not a very realistic understanding of myself or the world.

I think all of these people are describing near-perfection. They’re all defining a healthy mind as one that believes it can directly control outside events, events which are mostly outside of our control.

The only thing you can really control in this life are your choices. Your freedom of choices may become limited for a variety of reasons, but you’ll always have the ability to decide at least some things. The outcomes of any choice may not be what you expect, but you can do the best to make the best possible, reasoned choices.

You cannot control things like, how others feel about you, your health, your wealth, or your social status. All of these things are beyond your choices. You can’t control the thoughts of others, your genetics, the laws of economics, or the culture around you. All of these things can be hindered or completely taken away from you.

But rejoice, for this is a relieving position to be in. Think about how terribly responsible it would be to directly control every outcome of your life. Every problem in your life would absolutely be your fault. How much more would you blame yourself?

I think the word we’ve been looking for all along is contentedness. Not self-esteem, but the ability to accept the things that are outside of our control and to keep guard over the things we can control: our choices.

We can choose to adjust our desires accordingly. A child places his hand in a cookie jar and grabs a handful, only to realize he can’t get his hand out again. If only he would drop a few cookies, he could be free again. Freedom isn’t secured by creating more hopes and desires, but by removing them. This isn’t to say having a million dollars is a bad thing, but one must understand that this money can be taken away from you at any time. It would be extremely risky to base your happiness on such material things. Be content with all that you have, regardless of what it is.

This is the path to living a peaceful life. The Stoic philosophers taught these things thousands of years ago. They simply can’t do as much advertising as the self-help gurus of today.

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