Monday, 19 December 2011

Is Low Self-Esteem Really Such a Problem?

When I look at many of the traits listed in relation to people with ‘low self-esteem’, I see myself. I’m not greatly worried by that, because I don't see ‘low self-esteem’ as a problem. At least, not where I'm concerned. Obviously, if you have so-called 'low self-esteem' and it makes you unhappy, then that is a problem. But I don't believe that feelings of insignificance, a lack of confidence that people will appreciate your abilities, high sensitivity to criticism, obsessive perfectionism, or other characteristics of 'low self-esteem' are a cause for concern in themselves. In this piece I’m going to present an unusual take on self-esteem, explaining why I feel comfortable with my own characteristics, and why I'd never want to end up with so-called 'normal self-esteem'...

Psychologists say that ‘low self-esteem’ is typically difficult if not impossible to surmount. If someone has the characteristics, then usually, they’ll never change. I wonder why that is? Well, maybe it’s because they’re right. Surely, if there was a shred of clear evidence to suggest that the picture seen by people with ‘low self-esteem’ was truly wrong, then they could be persuaded to accept the fact. I want to try and illustrate why I believe that my own level of self-esteem (regarded by society as low) is accurate and not misguided, and why I believe supposedly ‘normal self-esteem’ is in truth typically unrealistic, over-inflated, prone to exploitation, and can actually be more of a burden than a benefit.

I believe that people with ‘low self-esteem’ see themselves from the viewpoint of others. People with ‘normal self-esteem’, meanwhile, see themselves primarily from their own viewpoint, and in the majority of cases I don’t think that gives a reliable picture. Most people are regarded as insignificant. Maybe not by their families, or their boss when he or she wants them to fill in for an absence at a moment’s notice. But to the wider public, the typical citizen couldn’t matter less. In the light of this, is it really so strange for someone to regard themselves as insignificant?

MY ‘PROBLEM’ 

I regard myself as insignificant in the eyes of most other people. But that, in my opinion, doesn’t mean I have a problem – it simply means I recognise an obvious fact. The majority of people are too caught up in their own egos to even think about what I’m doing, let alone evaluate it positively. That makes me insignificant as far as they're concerned.

A common allegation levelled at those who supposedly have ‘low self-esteem’ is that they don’t believe in themselves, or feel they’re good enough. But in my case, that’s not true, and I wonder if it’s really true for anyone with ‘low self-esteem’? It is true that I don’t have much confidence, when I’ve created something, to pro-actively push it at other people, and it’s true that I doubt they’ll like it. But that’s not because I doubt my abilities. It’s because I don’t have faith in other people to recognise or in some cases even evaluate those abilities. It’s not, then, that I think I’m useless – it’s that I think the majority of other people…

a) …Can’t be bothered to evaluate what I’ve done, but will, out of politeness, pretend that they have. Accordingly, anything they say about my work will be meaningless.

b) …Don’t evaluate on merit anyway, and will form any opinions they form based almost totally on my level of pre-existing success, or whatever recognised qualifications I have. In other words, if I have a degree in psychology, they’ll regard this article much more highly than if I have no qualifications at all.

c) …Will always safeguard their own interests as a priority, and therefore, if they feel that my abilities might threaten their prosperity, may automatically play down what I’ve done, and may even deliberately try to rubbish it.

So the overwhelming dynamic behind my feeling that it’s pointless me trying to engage other people with my abilities, is not a lack of faith in me, but a lack of faith in them. I know that sounds terribly insulting, but it’s honest, and it’s realistic, and it makes sense. I have to be more polite in the real world of course. I can’t go round saying I have no faith in people, because it’s rude, and it makes me sound arrogant. So when asked why I don’t aim higher with the stuff I’ve created, I simply say it’s because I don’t think people will be interested. That’s then interpreted as a lack of self-belief on my part, so I’m condsidered to have ‘low self-esteem’.

LOWER SELF-ESTEEM PROMPTS GREATER EXCELLENCE 

I believe that if it wasn’t for what’s generally referred to as ‘low self-esteem’, some of the greatest examples of creativity (or other amazing achievements) would never have existed. The higher someone’s self-esteem, the less impetus there is for them to push themselves to their limits. People with lower self-esteem are obsessed with improving themselves. They don’t expect others to be easily impressed, and importantly, they don’t take expressions of interest which are made out of politeness, at face value. If they did, they’d accept as excellent quite an average level of quality. The fact is, if you’re talking face to face to people you know, they’re probably going to butter you up. Even if what you've done bores them senseless, they'll still say they think it's good. That’s just human nature and protocol. So unless you’re able to look beyond that and find criticism in the face of praise, you’re never gonna produce anything truly amazing. Only those who refuse to accept faint, false or unfounded praise, and who recognise how the wider world really sees them, will better themselves to their full potential.

Here, the distinction must be made between success and true excellence. There are millions of successful people in the world who never produce true excellence and probably never will. Equally, there are millions of unsuccessful people in the world who constantly produce true excellence. Success, most typically achieved by those with high self-esteem, has a lot to do with persuasion, and often the successful person's high self-esteem is persuasive in itself. Success is a kind of secondhand appreciation, based on popular consensus. True excellence, on the other hand, has more to do with obsessive self-improvement. It can become successful, but it often doesn't because the majority of people are more influenced by hype and persuasion than merit. I'm saying that lower self-esteem prompts greater excellence, not necessarily greater success.

THE HIGHER YOUR SELF-ESTEEM, THE EASIER YOU ARE TO CON 

People with ‘low self-esteem’ are much harder to con than those with ‘normal self-esteem’, because most cons use a mixture of greed and ego to achieve their ends. Since this is a blog, I’ll use ‘blog awards’ as a handy example. ‘Blog awards’, or at least all the ones I’ve seen, are a con. They’re essentially a sort of non-financial pyramid scheme in which the ‘awards’ don’t come from independent bodies – they come from other bloggers. So, one blogger gives another blogger an ‘award’. But there are conditions attached to the receipt of that ‘award’. In order to receive the ‘award’, the recipient has to: 1) publicly thank the giver and provide a hard link to their blog – in other words, give them a permanent free advert. And 2) award the ‘award’ to a number of other bloggers (let’s say ten), and contact them requesting that they accept subject to the same conditions – in other words, spam ten blogs asking for free adverts, and asking those bloggers to spam ten more blogs each… It’s also the case that these ‘awards’ will typically be restricted to small blogs, with modest numbers of followers. The ‘award’ blurb will say that this is to recognise the unrecognised. But in truth it’s simply because larger blogs know the ‘awards’ aren’t real, don’t have time to spam ten other blogs for petty and largely useless ads, and will definitely not have the space, time or inclination to give some random blogger a permanent free ad and link. They won’t care to display a fake award either, come to that. So, the ‘award’ limits itself to small blogs because those are the only blogs whose administrators will have the time and motivation to put in the required effort.

So, it will be obvious to any non-blogger (as well as many bloggers) reading this, that these ‘awards’ have absolutely nothing to do with recognising achievement in the world of blogging. And yet, if you Google the ‘award’ names, you find an endless line of bloggers genuinely thinking they’ve been recognised for their amazing blogging skills, and saying how honoured they are. They don’t see the ‘big picture’ staring them in the face – their unrealistic sense of self-significance overrides the true motivations behind the giving of the ‘award’ and persuades them that this really was all about them, and not all about the giver.

Of course, there’s no great danger with the ‘blog award’ con (other than the fact that displaying fake ‘awards’ can persuade new visitors that a blog has merit when it doesn’t). But it does give a great insight into how easily people with supposedly ‘normal self-esteem’ can be driven by ego into giving someone a free ad and then embarking on a mini spam crusade.

In the commercial world, however, the consequences can be much, much worse, with people getting ripped off for £thousands. Modelling and music recording scams are an all-too-real example of how those who see themselves as more significant than they really are, can be taken for large sums of money on that exact basis. So powerful is the victim’s belief that he or she is highly significant to the world at large, that he/she completely overlooks the real motivations (i.e quick cash) behind the scammer’s actions. The victim is assured that he or she has great potential to be a star, and that the scammer has spotted that potential. All the victim need do is pay “a token contribution” to the cost of a professional portfolio or recording, and the likelihood is that he/she will be on the road to fame. The victim believes that he/she really is that significant in the grand scheme of things, so the scammer’s motives seem genuine and the victim pays the money. What’s fascinating about this type of scam, though, is that whilst the victim is blinded to the truth by an unrealistic ('normal') sense of self-esteem, a third party (who sees a realistic picture of the victim’s significance), will normally suspect a con straight away.

‘Psychics’ use flaws in the ego to exploit clients for money too. They understand that most people (those with so-called ‘normal self-esteem’) see a different picture of themselves from the one the world at large sees of them. By perpetually telling clients that they’re brilliant, talented, under-appreciated, undervalued, etc, they describe the way the clients feel about themselves. But because this isn’t how the world at large sees those clients, it’s a description they won’t be hearing from the wider public. The result? It looks like the psychic has seen into the client’s soul and found the ‘real them’ which no one else can find. It’s very basic psychology really, and simply uses the egotism in people with ‘normal self-esteem’ to persuade them that the ‘psychic’ knows more about them than anyone else.

But those with ‘low self-esteem’ are suspicious of any egotistically-based scams by default. They initially dismiss the concept of other people thinking they’re amazingly brilliant and look for other explanations as to what’s going on. That, to me, is not unhealthy. It’s a completely logical and healthy approach to have in contemporary society.

REALLY SO BAD?

So, is ‘low self-esteem’ really low self-esteem? Maybe in some cases it is. But in my case it isn’t, and whilst I conform to most of the traits for a person with ‘low self-esteem’, I’m not unhappy, I don’t feel under pressure, and I’m enthusiastic about doing something better tomorrow than I did today. Yes, I’m insignificant in the grand scheme of things, but then, aren’t most of us? And do we really have to be significant to have a great life? I know I don’t.

Posted by: Bob Leggitt