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?