By John Ward


self esteemWhen Groucho Marx said: “I wouldn’t belong to any club that would have me as a member,” he was, obviously, making a joke, but he was also touching on a far more pervasive and insidious characteristic of human frailty.

Recently I gave a talk at LCS’s version of “TED” – Open Circle, a venue started and run by the astonishingly intelligent and erudite James Spivey. The subject of self-esteem is enormous and quite complex. In the allotted time I was able to touch on only a few causes and effects of Self-esteem, both Low and High.

High Self-Esteem is not conceit or arrogance. True high self-esteem is based on objective self-awareness. Sounds impossible, but it is achievable by looking at the results of one’s deeds and activities. In other words, building a homeless shelter for an impoverished homeless family should invoke a feeling of high self-esteem, whereas saying “I am a great actor/director/musician/manager” despite all evidence to the contrary is more in the realm of conceit, self delusion and arrogance, and usually inspired by a need to offset feelings of low self-esteem.

Low Self-Esteem is the most destructive form of self-esteem. This form runs the gamut from self doubt to self hatred and not only tortures the person who suffers from it, but tortures those around them and denies the sufferer the experience of enjoying a compliment, and of enjoying people of ability and talent.

At one point I had, in my employ, a young woman who was a brilliant ballet dancer. She had danced with the Joffrey Ballet in San Francisco, (Ron Reagan Jr’s alma mater). She wanted to stage the Peter Pan Ballet and I was included in the meeting as I would be paying for everything she needed, props, set, costumes, etc.) I asked her if she would like me to determine if the venue had the ability to “fly” Peter Pan in with cables from the ceiling and she exploded at me saying she was not flying anyone in and that it was her show and she would brook no interference.

When her tirade calmed to the degree that I could ease a word in edge-wise I said: “Please calm down. I was just offering to set it up if you wanted it. I am not saying you must, not even suggesting it… Just saying if you want to fly Peter in I will make the arrangements.” Her response was: “This is my show and I do not want any of that “special effects” nonsense in it, so don’t even suggest it!”

Anytime I asked a question, or made any suggestion I was shot down immediately with the admonishment: “This is MY show!” At one point I decided to bring the discussion down to a rational level and I said: “Please listen to me for a second. I think you are a highly qualified, creative talent with a tremendous amount going for you artistically…” and she cut me off saying: “Don’t you patronize me!” I said: “Wait, I am being most sincere, let me finish, I’m still getting to the part where I have some talent. So despite the fact that I truly do appreciate your abilities, I am also fairly creative and I would like to make suggestions which you can then reject completely, or accept if they please you.”

The point is, she could not see the sincerity of the compliment. She was actually unable to feel appreciated no matter how sincerely I expressed it. Her low self-esteem would not allow it.

Her inferiority complex also caused her to settle for the first jerk that came along—a handsome exploiter who abandoned her with two of their own children and a child his sister had abandoned that she had taken in and fostered—all of this adding to her low self-esteem. The woman was, in fact, highly accomplished, talented, creative, capable and, as her compassion for her abandoned nephew showed, a humanitarian of great empathy. Still her low self-esteem would not allow her to believe she had any value.

One of the worst effects of low self-esteem is described in the saying “Familiarity breeds contempt.” This is where the Groucho Marx statement applies. People refuse to believe that anyone they know can possibly be someone who can achieve great things. This happens all the time and is terribly destructive to creativity, enthusiasm, inspiration, etc. Also it eliminates that sublime pleasure knowing that you are rubbing elbows with great people and your abilities will be commensurately enhanced.

Low self-esteem also results in what is referred to by psychologists as Schadenfreuda, which translates as “obtaining pleasure from the misfortune of others.” Many people enjoy/suffer this negative pleasure. Because we all naturally compare ourselves to the people around us, if we have low self-esteem we believe we are on a lower rung of the ladder, comparatively. Then, if someone who is thought of higher suffers a reversal, or a loss, or humiliation, it can be very gratifying to us. The person with low self-esteem can say: “See, they’re not so great, so I am not so bad by comparison!”

It is important for everyone, even those who were driven to low self-esteem by a parent, teacher, boss, etc., to see and appreciate their victories of achievement, creativity, ability, skill, kindness etc., and then raise their self-esteem so they can enjoy the fact that they are in the midst of similarly gifted individuals and enjoy their own lives more comprehensively. There will always be someone better at something than we are and there will always be people who are not as good as we are. The thing is to enjoy our own personal space on the hierarchy without resentment or jealousy.



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