Self-Esteem is Overrated

I was so terrified about speaking up in school that if I had to give a presentation, I’d spend the whole class thinking of what I had to say. I’d become deaf to what everyone else was saying.

After I spoke, my deafness persisted. My heart pounded as I numbly replayed my mistakes, and I shuddered at the memory of my faltering voice.

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People sometimes say, “I have low self-esteem.”

Does that mean they don’t like themselves? They think they’re stupid? They regard their life as a failure?

Having low self-esteem is defined as having a negative image of yourself, but the problem goes much deeper. Thinking about your self-esteem means you’re focused on yourself and not on the world around you. My fear of speaking up was entirely self-centered. If I could have somehow thought of my classmates, I would have triumphed over my fear.

So how do we climb out of that pit of self-consciousness?

Strive to be a mensch.

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Although mensch is a German word for man, or human being, the concept comes from the Yiddish implications of the same word. A mensch is a decent, upright person of great integrity. A woman can be a mensch too (although I’ve heard menschette used in jest).

People ask me, “How do I raise my self-esteem?”

The only way to feel better about yourself is to be a guiding light for other people.

Instead of thinking about what you want to say in a conversation, ask other people questions, then listen to their answers. Think about what they are trying to communicate. Then, and only then, think about what you’d like to contribute.

This is hard to do. It means opening your eyes to what’s in front of you, not what is in your own head.

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The experience of being truly listened to is so rare that people pay for it. As a therapist, I spend most of my time asking questions that encourage people to express their thoughts and tell their experiences. Then I listen carefully. This type of listening takes a lot of energy.

But it’s endlessly rewarding. I feel honored to hear someone’s deepest wishes, fears, and feelings. I can only hope that they learn half as much from talking to me as I do from listening to them.

Sometimes clients will be amazed that I remember details of their stories months and even years later.

It’s easy to remember the details when you’re grounded in the present moment and making sure your mind doesn’t wander off to other places. (This wandering happens to everyone but, if you practice a lot, you can catch yourself quickly.)

Affirmations are popular. While they can temporarily dampen the negative soundtrack in your brain that spews out such nastiness as, “You’re fat, you’re stupid, you’re ugly, you’re selfish,” they will always be only a first step.

All the “you’re beautiful’s, you’re smart’s, and you’re special’s,” in the world, won’t convince you. You’ll have a sneaking suspicion that you’re lying to yourself.

After you’ve looked in the mirror and told your image how strong and good you are, turn away from the mirror and look out the window. See the people and the world around you. What do they need?

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Once you’ve decided what you’d like to do to make the world a better place, get to work.

I’m oversimplifying this lifelong process, of course. It’s a daily struggle to learn to live in peace with these inner conflicts.

But if you practice working on improving the world around you, you’ll realize you’re not a bad person after all.

You may even qualify for that highest of Yiddish compliments. You’re a mensch.

4 thoughts on “Self-Esteem is Overrated

  1. Love this expression of listening, of being in the moment and listening well with such focus, and feeling privileged to hear people’s stories. It’s so beautiful. Sort of makes me want to be a therapist just so I can hear people’s stories – hehe. Definitely found the biggest help going to a psychologist is that someone listens to me.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes. Of course, we can practice listening with everyone we care about, and with strangers. I always ask clerks in stores how they’re doing, especially if they look unhappy, and they enjoy telling me their story (as long as there’s not a long line behind me!)

      Liked by 1 person

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