Free Therapy #86: The Myth of Self-Esteem


“We realize--often quite suddenly--that our sense of self, which has been formed and constructed out of our ideas, beliefs and images, is not really who we are. It doesn't define us, it has no center.”

When I was a kid, it was called an “inferiority complex.” Some people, I learned, believed themselves to be inadequate. They compared themselves with others and determined they were not as good. Others were better. Their negative belief about themselves became self-fulfilling. Since they thought they were less worthy, they felt less worthy. And it affected how they behaved which further reinforced their conviction that they were inferior.

Almost immediately, I realized that was me. I not only thought I was not as good as others; some part of me knew it to be true. My older brother and sister did what siblings normally do in “picking on” their little brother. But I didn’t need them to remind me I was worthless. All I needed is what any of us possess: a mind that thinks and believes its own thoughts.

In The Confidence Gap, A Guide to Overcoming Fear and Self-Doubt, Russ Harris explains how “the normal human mind has a natural tendency to judge and criticize, to find the negative and predict the worst, to tell us scary stories about the future and dredge up painful memories from the past, to become rapidly dissatisfied and seek more.”

I was a normal kid with a normal mind but I used it to hurt me. I turned on myself but didn’t realize I was doing it. It didn’t matter that school was easy and I could effortlessly earn A’s if I wanted them. It didn’t matter that by the third grade I knew I was good at writing. It didn’t matter that girls seemed to like me and I had plenty of friends. It didn’t matter that I was a fast runner or could adequately compete in various sports and outdoor games. It didn’t matter that my parents loved me and made sure my needs were met.

Despite my external success, I carried a secret assassin in my mind that was always poised and ready to pounce. Inside, I secretly worried that I was not a good person, that others didn’t really like me or that I would not be successful at what I tried to do.

All worldly signs of acceptance, belonging and achievement were not enough. An ominous, dark and menacing enemy lurked within. Its job was to undermine my confidence, increase my fear and regularly remind me of my flaws. My daily life was a continuous marathon; an endless pursuit of an elusive peace. I was seldom content, frequently worried and I longed for a respite from my gnawing, grinding insecurity.

In college, as I began taking psychology classes, I sensed I might have a solution to my private hell. By pursuing a career as a psychologist, I thought, I could fix myself and make a living at the same time. I didn’t know if it was true – I still felt inadequate – but at least I had hope. When I was first accepted into a graduate program that would lead to a doctorate in clinical psychology, I was both elated and terrified.

For the first few months, I lived in fear that the school’s administration would realize they’d made a mistake. I imagined them coming to the class and calling me out into the hall where they would inform me of their error. They did not mean to admit me, they would nervously explain. It was another person who was supposed to be in my place. I pictured myself nodding. “I knew it,” I would say. “I’ve been waiting for you to discover what I’ve always known. I’m a failure. I don’t belong here.”

I thought it would get better when I graduated, moved to California, got licensed and started my practice. But not really. It didn’t matter how many clients I had or how much they seemed to benefit. Their words of gratitude and psychological growth had nothing to do with me, I told myself.

The voices of self-hatred continued to talk and I patiently listened. Thoughts of suicide occasionally showed up. I pulled them out from time to time like old news clippings from the bottom of the drawer and read them carefully. I could easily feel disgusted with myself. I wondered why anyone cared for me. Perhaps one day I thought, I would achieve enough to become worthy in my own eyes.

By then, I understood a lot about “self-esteem.” We were supposed to “feel good” about ourselves. It was the 1990s and I had read David Burns’ books, Feeling Good, The Feeling Good Handbook and Ten Days to Self-Esteem. I traveled to distant cities to personally train with Dr. Burns and I became skilled at Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). I learned to teach my clients how to confront their negative thoughts and replace them with positive ones. I even taught a five-week class at Shasta College based on the Ten Days to Self-Esteem book and had about 30 students in the class. One of my students became a therapist and now has a successful practice.

But I was still a failure in my mind. I was successful and my income rose year after year. I had an amazing wife, beautiful daughters and many benefits of material success. Still, I drove myself obsessively to work harder. It didn’t matter how well my clients did. I could always find evidence that I was inadequate. I was too busy with my practice to have close friends. I knew deep down that few really knew me. I sometimes wondered if the world would be better with me gone. I pictured myself erased from existence and it seemed right somehow. At times I longed for it because I felt it was the only way I would ever find peace.

Weirdly, I seemed to “enjoy” hating myself at times. It was my secret. It was a kind of reverse egotism. I placed myself in a special category above (below) all others. I was special and unique in my mind because I was the only human I hated this much. And yet (and this is a bit hard to explain) surrounding all this contempt for myself was a profound, spiritual love that made itself known to me on a frequent basis. When I could occasionally step back from my dark thoughts, I realized I could trust this pure, sweet and limitless “self” to take care of the small “me” that seemed so sad and confused much of the time.

My salvation, so to speak, finally came from a fellow traveler, a psychologist who bravely battled his own inner demons. His name is Steve Hayes. It was 2006 and I read about Dr. Hayes in a Time magazine article that started this way: “Before he was an accomplished psychologist, Steven Hayes was a mental patient.” The article went on to explain that Hayes suffered with a severe panic disorder that nearly destroyed his academic career at the University of North Carolina where he was an assistant professor in the psychology department in the late 70s and early 80s.

Eventually, it got so bad that Hayes could “lecture only with great difficulty, and he virtually never rode in an elevator, walked into a movie theater or ate in a restaurant.”

Hayes describes his recovery from his own tortured tribulation in a riveting YouTube TEDx talk but what spoke to me in the article was the radical notion that “Happiness isn’t normal.”

What Hayes actually meant is that “pain is ubiquitous and suffering is normal.” As I read the article, I knew my life was about to change. A few minutes later, after an on-line search and a couple phone calls, I found myself talking to Hayes on his cell phone as he sailed on a boat on the South China Sea. I had only one question. When was his next training? Something wondrous was beginning. I could feel it. I had real hope again.

As I related in a previous column, I first trained with Hayes in Vancouver, Canada but that was just the start. In the last ten years, I’ve traveled to Portland, San Diego, Berkeley, Reno and Los Angeles to learn more from this man and will be at it again later this year in Phoenix.

“Why?,” you might ask. There are many answers but the best one is that through Hayes and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), I finally felt whole. The self-hating thoughts still show up but I don’t care. I understand I have a choice whether I believe them or not. I realize I’m free. I’ve always been free. I understand that my thoughts have nothing to do with reality. They are just words in my mind that I can use to help or hurt myself. When I fused with the lies in my mind, I gave into them. They ran my life because I let them. I fell for the ruse that my mind’s monologue contained some meaningful connection to my physical reality. That’s just not true. It’s never been true. Once I understood my thoughts only possessed the power I gave them, I realized my worth did not depend on their “truth.”

Essentially, I learned the key to high self-esteem was to give up wanting, pursuing or believing in high self-esteem.

In The Confidence Gap, Harris defines high self-esteem as “evaluating oneself positively.” In other words, we judge ourselves to be good. We think and believe positive thoughts about ourselves. This sounds fine on its face until we realize we are basing our sense of self on the cognitive labels or attractive appellations that we attempt to glue onto ourselves. Does calling a sunset “beautiful” make it beautiful or is it beautiful, regardless of our words?

Harris explains that a 2003 study of high self-esteem failed to find any benefit for it. The study found boosting self-esteem does not improve our performance or our relationships and fails to make us more likeable or better leaders. Instead, high self-esteem correlates with egotism, narcissism, arrogance, prejudice, discrimination, self-deception and defensiveness when faced with honest feedback.

Hayes, Harris, ACT and careful experiments with my own mind led me to the startling awareness of the huge difference between who I think I am and who I am before I think I am. The trouble with pursuing healthy self-esteem or a positive self-image is we are still identifying with an idea of self instead of the direct experience of who we deeply are. We can’t make ourselves worthy with glittery words when we are already worthy without them.

When our thought-based sense of self becomes more important than our core reality, we become lost and disconnected from our essential nature. Pursuing good, positive or healthy self-esteem is a fool’s errand.

So if pursing high self-esteem doesn’t lead us to psychological health, what does? Harris suggests we are better off focusing on self-awareness, self-acceptance and self-motivation. The goal isn’t to think positively and feel good. Instead, our aim is to know and accept ourselves, without reservation, as flawed, imperfect people who occasionally make mistakes, sometimes fail and have natural limits. It is from this non-judgmental, honest, authentic, unflinching, open embrace of self as we are that our true healing can bloom. Our essential adequacy is not attained with good P.R. It is simply affirmed as we allow ourselves the freedom to see and appreciate it.

Our minds are seldom silent. Their constant chatter adds nothing to our worth or value. That is already secure. We will never find our fundamental sufficiency through words and thoughts. They obscure our truth, instead of reveal it. It is only when we give up our constricted concepts of self and esteem that we can begin holding ourselves lightly and kindly. Only then will we discover our true nature as love. Only then can we realize the peace we’ve always had and been. The time to wake up to our true self is now. What are we waiting for?

Douglas Craig
Doug Craig graduated from college in Ohio with a journalism degree and got married during the Carter administration. He graduated from graduate school with a doctorate in Psychology, got divorced, moved to Redding, re-married and started his private practice during the Reagan administration. He had his kids during the first Bush administration. Since then he has done nothing noteworthy besides write a little poetry, survive a motorcycle crash, buy and sell an electric car, raise his kids, manage to stay married and maintain his practice for almost 30 years. He believes in magic and is a Dawes fan.
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3 Responses

  1. sue k says:

    As always — TREMENDOUS!

    Thank you

  2. Frank Treadway says:

    Finding one’s self is likely a never-ending process.  Besides it’s fun, I’ve always thought I was like a diamond, having many facets.  I’ve discovered that I have to simply go along with the process and let the consequences fall where they may.  The more you try to block something that’s in your path, the more it’ll move in front of you.  We have to play life-jujitsu to get around those difficult times. We have to be so creative in order to keep ahead of the electrons that are  building up that negative force all around us.  We are in constant struggle with our self, that sometimes it seems not worth pushing through all of the detritus and circumstances around us.  But, something grabs hold of us and pushes us through this life force and we keep going, going, until there’s no more go, and I guess that’s what is called the end of life.

  3. Dorothy says:

    Thank you Doug.  Your contributions to this website, have always helped me.  Keep them coming.


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