Since self-esteem is a consequence, a product of internally generated practices, we cannot work on self-esteem directly, neither our own nor anyone else’s. We must address ourselves to the source. If we understand what these practices are, we can commit to initiating them within ourselves and to dealing with others in such a way as to facilitate or encourage them to do likewise. To encourage self-esteem in the schools or in the workplace, for instance, is to create a climate that supports and reinforces the practices that strengthen self-esteem.
Here are the six pillars of self-esteem:
- The practice of living consciously
- The practice of self-acceptance
- The practice of self-responsibility
- The practice of self-assertiveness
- The practice of living purposefully
- The practice of personal integrity
The Practice of Living Consciously
Living consciously is both a practice and a mind-set, an orientation toward life. Clearly it exists on a continuum. No one lives entirely unconsciously. No one is incapable of expanding his or her consciousness.
The ways we know what area of our life needs more awareness are usually fairly obvious. We look at the area where our life is working least satisfactorily. We notice where the pains and frustrations are. We observe where we feel least effective. If we are willing to be honest, this is not a difficult task. Some of us may need to bring more awareness to the territory of our basic material needs. Others need more focus on relationships. Others need more focus on intellectual development. Others need to examine unexplored possibilities of creativity and achievement. Others need more concern with spiritual growth. Which need requires priority is a function of where we are in our overall evolution, and also of our objective circumstances. Context determines appropriateness.
The Practice of Self-Acceptance
Without self-acceptance, self-esteem is impossible.
In fact, it is so intimately bound up with self-esteem that one sometimes sees the two ideas confused. Yet they are different in meaning, and each needs to be understood in its own right.
Whereas self-esteem is something we experience, self-acceptance is something we do.
The act of experiencing and accepting our emotions is implemented through (1) focusing on the feeling or emotion, (2) breathing gently and deeply, allowing muscles to relax, allowing the feeling to be felt, and (3) making real that this is my feeling (which we call owning it).
In contrast, we deny and disown our emotions when we (1) avoid awareness of their reality, (2) constrict our breathing and tighten our muscles to cut off or numb feeling, and (3) disassociate ourselves from our own experience (in which state we are often unable to recognize our feelings)
Now let us consider the question: Suppose our negative reaction to some experience is so overwhelming that we feel we cannot practice self-acceptance with regard to it?
In this case, let us say, the feeling, thought, or memory is so distressing and agitating that acceptance feels out of the question. We feel powerless not to block and contract. The solution is not to try to resist our resistance. It is not useful to try to block a block. Instead, we need to do something more artful. If we cannot accept a feeling (or a thought or a memory), we should accept our resistance. In other words, start by accepting where we are. Be present to the now and experience it fully. If we stay with the resistance at a conscious level, it will usually begin to dissolve.
The Practice of Self-Responsibility
Embracing self-responsibility not merely as a personal preference but as a philosophical principle entails one’s acceptance of a profoundly important moral idea. In taking responsibility for our own existence we implicitly recognize that other human beings are not our servants and do not exist for the satisfaction of our needs. We are not morally entitled to treat other human beings as means to our ends, just as we are not a means to theirs.
a consistent application of the principle of self-responsibility implies the following rule of human relationships: Never ask a person to act against his or her self-interest as he or she understands it. If we wish people to take some action or provide some value, we are obliged to offer reasons that are meaningful and persuasive in terms of their interests and goals. This policy is the moral foundation of mutual respect, goodwill, and benevolence among human beings. It rejects the notion that some people may be treated as sacrificial fodder for the goals of others, which is the premise underlying all dictatorships and, for that matter, most political systems.
The Practice of Self-Assertiveness
Self-assertiveness means honoring my wants, needs, and values and seeking appropriate forms of their expression in reality.
Its opposite is that surrender to timidity that consists of consigning myself to a perpetual underground where everything that I am lies hidden or stillborn—to avoid confrontation with someone whose values differ from mine, or to please, placate, or manipulate someone, or simply to “belong.”
Self-assertion does not mean belligerence or inappropriate aggressiveness; it does not mean pushing to the front of the line or knocking other people over; it does not mean upholding my own rights while being blind or indifferent to everyone else’s. It simply means the willingness to stand up for myself, to be who I am openly, to treat myself with respect in all human encounters. It means the refusal to fake my person to be liked
Appropriate self-assertiveness pays attention to context. The forms of self-expression appropriate when playing on the floor with a child are obviously different from those appropriate at a staff meeting. To respect the difference is not to “sacrifice one’s authenticity” but merely to stay reality focused. In every context there will be appropriate and inappropriate forms of self-expression. Sometimes self-assertiveness is manifested through volunteering an idea or paying a compliment; sometimes through a polite silence that signals nonagreement; sometimes by refusing to smile at a tasteless joke. In work situations one cannot necessarily voice all one’s thoughts, and it is not necessary to do so. What is necessary is to know what one thinks—and to remain real.
The Practice of Living Purposefully
To live purposefully is, among other things, to live productively, which is a necessity of making ourselves competent to life. Productivity is the act of supporting our existence by translating our thoughts into reality, of setting our goals and working for their achievement, of bringing knowledge, goods, or services into existence.
Self-responsible men and women do not pass to others the burden of supporting their existence. It is not the degree of a person’s productive ability that matters here but the person’s choice to exercise such ability as he or she possesses. Nor is it the kind of work selected that is important, provided the work is not intrinsically antilife, but whether a person seeks work that offers an outlet for his or her intelligence, if the opportunity to do so exists.
Purposeful men and women set productive goals commensurate with their abilities, or try to. One of the ways their self-concept reveals itself is in the kind of purposes they set. Granted some deciphering may be necessary because of the complexities of private contexts, if we know the kind of goals people choose, we can know a good deal about their vision of themselves and about what they think is possible and appropriate to them.
The Practice of Personal Integrity
When we behave in ways that conflict with our judgment of what is appropriate, we lose face in our own eyes. We respect ourselves less. If the policy becomes habitual, we trust ourselves less or cease to trust ourselves at all.
No, we do not forfeit the right to practice self-acceptance in the basic sense discussed earlier; we have noted that self-acceptance is a precondition of change or improvement. But self-esteem necessarily suffers. When a breach of integrity wounds self-esteem, only the practice of integrity can heal it.
At the simplest level, personal integrity entails such questions as: Am I honest, reliable, and trustworthy? Do I keep my promises? Do I do the things I say I admire and do I avoid the things I say I deplore? Am I fair and just in my dealings with others?
Sometimes we may find ourselves caught in a conflict between different values that clash in a particular context, and the solution may be far from self-evident. Integrity does not guarantee that we will make the best choice; it only asks that our effort to find the best choice be authentic—that we stay conscious, stay connected with our knowledge, call on our best rational clarity, take responsibility for our choice and its consequences, do not seek to escape into mental fog.