I recently started reading ‘The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem‘ by psychotherapist Nathaniel Branden (after reading so many reviews and recommendations in so many different places). Here’s what I’ve discerned from this great book so far…
What is self-esteem?
As Nathaniel Branden puts it, self-esteem is our:
- experience that we are appropriate to life and the requirements of life.
- confidence in:
- our ability think,
- our ability to cope with the basic challenges of life,
- our right to be successful and happy,
- our feeling of being worthy and deserving,
- our feeling in being entitled to assert our needs and wants,
- our feeling in being entitled to achieve our values, and enjoy the fruits of our effort.
In essence, it is our own:
- trust in our mind.
- knowledge that we are worthy of happiness.
How self-esteem works
As a natural law, you get from life the average of:
- All characteristic thoughts you embody. These are the thoughts that define your outlook and motivate and inspire your behaviour.
- Your behaviour i.e. actions and physical expressions (body language, tonality etc.) that are broadcast out towards the world. These are largely the effects of your characteristic thoughts.
It is your outlook and behaviour that constitutes your (inherently-dynamic) character.
Harbouring positive characteristic thoughts will by definition motivate and inspire positive action. The execution of positive action will in turn further strengthen healthy characteristic thoughts. This of course is a bit of a paradoxical dilemma. What comes first, the chicken (harbouring positive characteristics thoughts) or the egg (execution of positive actions)?
Just to be clear, the term ‘positive’ from the perspective of self-esteem is that which enforces our own trust in our mind, and the knowledge that we are worthy of happiness. This is somewhat synonymous to a well-developed sense of personal value and autonomy (Branden recommends and references ‘The Psychology of Individualism’ by Alan S. Waterman).
The problem is that execution of positive actions without correct motivation will not necessarily lead to a greater degree of positive characteristic thoughts. One example of this would be an action done for the sake of validation or approval alone, missing any sentiment of genuine expression. The sentiment of approval (regardless of whether one is consciously aware of it or not) arises from negative characteristic thoughts, which will only be reinforced upon the execution of that action. And when, one day, those actions stop getting the “the correct response” of validation/approval that one’s rationale dictates, extreme unhappiness and a painful feeling of low self-worth will automatically ensue.
Likewise, attempting to consciously harbour positive characteristic thoughts without taking action will not have much of an impact on one’s character. The positive characteristic thoughts will not be engrained deep-enough into the subconscious if correct action is not taken. It’s impossible, since it’s the process of witnessing the result of those actions that will act as positive feedback to further strengthen and enforce those thoughts.
An even worse scenario would be (hypothetically speaking) if one, despite attempting to harbour positive characteristic thoughts to begin with, only managed to execute negative actions. This would imply the negative characteristic thoughts are deeper engrained than the positive ones (and therefore negative actions almost habitual). This would require an even greater conscious effort (and external accountability) to commit to the positive actions in order to engrain the positive characteristic thoughts – a psychotherapist perhaps?
It’s at this point I realize that Branden does not actually define a working model of the mind to begin with – it could’ve been immensely helpful. Perhaps he does in some of his other work, I don’t know. But, being familiar with the Vedic model to some extent, I can see how discerning between the four functions of the mind (as separate co-operating units), developing awareness of their function, and consciously utilizing them could perhaps make the development of self-esteem a simpler codified process (executed until death, or for the programmers: “while(life == true)”). Topics that could arise from this synergy:
- How buddhi (the conscious, conceptualizing, reasoning and discerning aspect of the mind; the decision maker) can be used to generate and rationalize positive characteristic thoughts which govern the other three components of the mind (manas, chitta and ahamkara).
- How ahamkara (ego) can be manipulated to favour positive behaviourial imprints (in the chitta) in-line with positive characteristic thoughts/a high self-esteem character.
Now that I’ve linked to his site, I must mention that Swami Jnaneshvara’s material on the Vedic model of the mind are incredibly profound, probably more in-depth than anything I’ve come across. The visual illustrations are priceless.
If a working model of the mind (Vedic, Freudian, Jungian, etc.) has been applied to Nathaniel Branden’s work in the sense of a practical framework, I would like to know!
Nathaniel Branden develops his solution in Part 2 and Part 3 of the book. In Part 2 (internal sources of self-esteem) he describes the importance of focus on action, and gives a thorough explanation of the six practices (pillars) that increase levels of self-esteem. In Part 3 he details the external influences on one’s self-esteem and how to recognize them (at school, work, psychotherapy, and in culture). He concludes, in Part 3, with the seventh pillar of self-esteem (which is vitally important!).
Since I’ve barely reached a third of the book, I’m not able to give a detailed summary of the solution just yet.
So, the general solution seems to be the practice of living consciously and thereby being responsible and one hundred percent accountable for oneself. One must not only generate and harbour positive characteristic thoughts that are in-line with high self-esteem characteristics, but also simultaneously find ways of acting on them. Action is mandatory.
Two points to remember about action:
- High self-esteem seeks the challenge of worthy and demanding goals. Reaching such goals nurtures good self-esteem.
- Low self-esteem seeks the safety of the familiar and undemanding. Confining oneself to the two weakens self-esteem.
|Characteristics and observations of High Self-esteem
|Characteristics and observations of Low Self-esteem
|Realist||Blind to reality|
|Creative||Fearful of the new and unfamiliar|
|Able to manage change||Defensive|
|Willing to admit and correct mistakes||Over compliant|
|Cooperative||Fear of / hostility towards others|
|Expresses self||Proves self|
|Seeks challenges||Seeks safety of the familiar and undemanding|
|More honest communications||Evasive/inappropriate communications|
|Better equipped to cope||Less equipped to cope|
|Quicker to recover||Less quick to recover|
|More ambitious to experience life||Less aspiration|
|Forms nourishing relationships||Forms toxic relationships|
|More persistent in difficult times||Gives up|
|Solves problems||Worries about problems|
|Takes risks||Avoids risks|
|Tolerates frustrations well||Easily frustrated|