I’ve long avoided ‘self-esteem’ as a concept. I’ve never identified with issues of low self-worth and, considering myself a seeker of truth, found it more natural to think in terms of self-critique instead. Self-critique, I argued, allows for all elements of ourselves to be seen and processed – both those elements we admire about ourselves, and those elements that we struggle to accept. Self-critique deals in reality, while self-esteem seemed to deal more in how I wanted to feel about myself (and could therefore be dismissed as self-indulgent delusion).
Have you spotted the problem in this thinking? For years I have used the pursuit of growth via self-critique as a kind of ‘tough mudder’ exercise. Dig deep, push those mental and emotional muscles to their breaking point, and consider your resultant exhaustion and mud-caked self a sign of a job well done.
However, feeling great about yourself as long as you are on top of life and succeeding does not mean you have great self-esteem. It just means you are winning the tough mudder challenge at the moment. If you drop behind for some reason, and the mud starts to suck you under and all the good feelings about yourself disappear, then this is an indicator that you don’t have as firm a foundation for your self-esteem as you’d hoped.
Third Culture Kids and Self-esteem
Low self-esteem can hit anyone. But if you are a Third Culture Kid struggling with self-esteem, there might be additional complications that make leaving the tough mudder approach behind scary. Changing education systems, learning new languages, or simply feeling like the new kid often enough can lead us to assume that unless we drive ourselves, we won’t quite make it. It can feel a shock when we find things working for us. We are often used to the hard work of ‘fitting in’ but perhaps haven’t stayed long enough to really reap the fruit of our efforts. So rather than enjoying goodness when it comes our way, we focus instead on the next thing coming over the horizon that will need us to work hard.
Sometimes the very qualities that enriched our lives abroad, that helped us to enjoy the experiences that came with high mobility, are qualities that don’t sit as easily in our lives later on. Perhaps we never gained a sense of what our great qualities are, given that the peer feedback shifted so much depending on the country or culture we were engaging with. It is hard to value our own sense of humour, for example, where it alienates one culture or confuses another. So self-esteem can feel like shifting sand; with our sense of our strengths an unreliable resource.
Chronic conditions and Self-esteem
Another experience that can complicate our self-esteem is chronic illness or chronic pain. For those of us managing limiting conditions, self-esteem can feel like a self-indulgence. It can feel hard to reach for attributes we are proud of when we seem to achieve so little. Celebrating our growth when it seems so small can feel like lowering the bar of our expectations, our hopes for ourselves.
When getting out of bed can in itself feel like a tough mudder race, the idea of not striving for our own growth can feel like simply giving in. Letting go of that stick that we drive ourselves with can feel an absolutely terrifying prospect. How will I get anything done at all? Perhaps those things which used to bolster our self-esteem not longer feel accessible to us.
A new way to grow?
Yet self-esteem is what allows us to pursue growth beyond simply the knowledge of where you feel weakest. With self-esteem you can start to really acknowledge and accept your strengths as being part of the picture too. Perhaps your mind is quick to find areas where you are disappointed with yourself, where the ‘must try harder’ muscle kicks in.
Self-esteem says you can nurture, rather than simply drive, yourself into growth. You can notice your strengths and your needs, and instead of pushing them away, or pushing through them, you can instead simply respond to them. Self-critique leads you to focus on your weaknesses; self-esteem allows space for your strengths.
Self-critique or self-esteem; how will you grow today?
Having read many inputs on the value of a “high self-esteem” over the years, I came to a personal concept that resonated with me. Lay aside all the blather about low self-esteem and high self-esteem. Rather, to the best of your ability, consider yourself realistically (if you think about self-esteem at all); acknowledge your faults and your virtues (to yourself). Don’t wallow in the lows; don’t exult in the highs. You have better topics to occupy your mind! This is just my own story. Others, much better qualified to dig into this issue, see it differently. Viva la difference! Thank you, Dr. Rachel for putting the lens of the TCK experience onto the subject.
Thanks for reading, Dan! Realism is a wonderful thing if we can stick to it 🙂 Unfortunately so many of us have a natural bias towards fault-focusing! I’m glad you have found a concept that works so well for you, and it’s a wise one! Thank you for sharing your story – we can help each other this way for sure.
As always, thanks so much for your words of wisdom!
Not sure I compeletely agree with your distinction between the two as I think I feel like they’re two sides of the same coin…or my ‘good cop/bad cop’ inner voices, maybe.
What I really appreciate most is your reference to the extent to which we drive ourselves in our efforts to fit in. Particularly familiar and helpful is the suggestion that we don’t know what our good qualities are because feedback so frequently shifts. Hear, hear!
I feel like we ATCKs have spent so much time trying to fit in that we never got the chance to cultivate and nurture that inner green shoot of ‘who we really are’ and much of what develops is the bad cop voice telling you you’re not doing it right, you’re an imposter, etc…The shifting sands of the cross-cultural norms I was always trying to understand were the drivers of the development of a shaky and very permeable sense of self. Now at 60, I feel I like I should be able to let this all go, but instead find myself in a chronic state of ‘making an effort’ (your tough mudder certainly resonates) to fit in – a permanent seeker of external approval through ‘taking part’ in all kinds of activities and groups where ever I currently find myself living, often at considerable cost to my energy and certainly not always fruitful in the long run. More fragmentation.
I have started my own campaign to figure out who I AM this year ( again!) , starting with just exploring what I like to do and doing more of that, while trying to side-step the ever-present drivers of trying to fit in and getting it right in the eyes of others. I have to say, 2weeks in, it’s not easy to look at the extent to which these TCK behaviours have defined my path in life.
Thanks again for your helpful reflections.
Thanks so much for reading, and commenting, Sherry! My distinction between the two ‘sides of the coin’ is subjective, of course, so it’s great you have your own framework for this. Yes, I relate that that ‘bad cop’ voice, for sure! I think it’s wonderful you are being so intentional about figuring our who you are. It’s not easy, and it can often feel tempting to rely on bad cop again to push us through… but you aren’t alone!