So how does one get self-esteem or a feeling of self-worth? Where does it come from?
It all depends, doesn’t it. Your boss may define your self worth in one way. While your wife or your husband or family may define your worth in a very different way. In a culture increasingly dominated by people born after 1980 — the millennials — worth may be defined based on appearances or having innovative ideas or on being “millennial-like.” Those of us in the baby boomer generation often are fighting to preserve a sense of worth by staying fit and flexible, eating right, boosting our 401-K’s, and basically fending off the effects of old age at every turn.
Books, articles, and blogs are written about how to develop one’s sense of worth, but I wonder if any of them have lasting value. I’m sure some do. They encourage us to learn to love ourselves. But how, prey tell, does one love oneself if he or she is already feeling unlovable? This makes no sense to me. I recall those silly Saturday Night Live skits where the comedian sat in front of a mirror mimicking the words, “I’m special, I’m lovable, and darn it – people like me!”
I am guilty, myself, of misplacing my sense of worth from time to time. I used to think that if I had the right job or the right relationship or worked out just the right amount of time, that I would gain a sense of self worth. While these methods work temporarily, I can tell you that, after many attempts at these ego-centered solutions, my research says conclusively that they do not work!
So what does work, we ask?
Consciousness. Consciousness, alone, is the sole lasting solution to the challenge of self-worth.
My Methodist heritage and my training as a Jungian-oriented psychotherapist teach me the same thing. There is an inner wisdom instilled in us from the moment of our conception that resides within us until the time we die. John Wesley used an unfortunate, linguistically difficult term for this: “Prevenient Grace.” Jung taught the existence of a Divine or Sacred Self that is constantly working silently in the background to shape us and to develop our felt sense of worth. The problem is not that we have to find our self worth — it’s more that we are rarely encouraged in our culture to look within to locate its source. To actually become fully conscious is a lifetime task, and it’s not really for the weak of heart. Consciousness requires effort, awareness, and usually a spiritual guide, a compassionate therapist, or a guru to help bolster my courage along the way.
For example, if I am truly conscious, then there may be those in my circles of influence who will disapprove if I am not working so hard to please them. Or if I am being consciously aware of what is going on in my selection of relationships, I may begin noticing whether this or that relationship is actually healthy for my soul. Is it the right timing? Am I carrying too much of my share of the relationship load? Is the relationship a good balance of communicating and responding to each other’s needs, or do we spend enormous amounts of energy avoiding any hint of a conflict — choosing to remain unconscious? Or it may be a job that puts pressure on me to stay unconscious, to avoid what is truly in my heart, to follow the crowd, or just get a paycheck. This kind of situation is a prescription for loss of soul and loss of one’s sense of health and meaning and spirit.
You see, consciousness is about values — inner values. Values connected to the way you and I are within ourselves, and how we express those values in the ways we live and work. And values are connected to our emotions: sadness, longing, desire, pleasure, pain, anger, joy, shame, and fear. Our emotions are designed to be like a compass that guides us through life, steering us away from the rocks and guiding us to what makes our souls sing the songs they were meant to sing. Consciousness brings with it a certain amount of felt anxiety, to the extent that we are refusing to simply adapt to others’ values. But consciousness also breathes into us the joy of self worth and living a life that is completely worth living. Not a life without failure from time to time; but certainly a life that has loads of meaning, heart-felt experience, and a fair dose of adventure.