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Problems with self-esteem?

‘My self-esteem is too low,’ says a doleful friend. ‘My counsellor says I need to work on it’.

I’m not her therapist, just her friend, so I pour another cup of tea and ask what’s been going on, wondering privately how helpful this concept of ‘self-esteem’ really is. It gets mentioned a lot as a desirable, even essential, attribute, but what does it mean to have esteem, for self or another?

While my friend ponders which disaster to kick off with, I compile a list of people I might say that I esteem, and find quite a variety of characters with just a few common traits. They tend to live their lives with a background thoughtfulness, and to be honest at least most of the time, and generous in unostentatious ways. They do what they say they’ll do, on the whole, and when they let others down, they are sorry, but not in a self-flagellating way. They focus their energy largely on things they enjoy, or on things they believe matter to beings and situations outside their immediate circle. They love their families and friends, or at least some of them some of the time, but their love goes much further; they tend to be far-sighted in seeing who and what matters.

What are they not, these esteemed ones of mine? They are not necessarily (though some are) successful, or hard-working, or creative, or intelligent. I might revel in somebody’s artistic output or clever conversation without a great degree of esteem. Some of the authors and painters whose work delights me would not be my chosen companions, or indeed role models, in real life.

How is my own self-esteem? Middling. To have more would mean demonstrating more of the above attributes myself than consistently happens. I’m too selfish for self-esteem. Too keen on instant gratification. If self-esteem were the breath of life, I would be eking out an asthmatic sort of existence, gasping or yawning or breathing steadily according to mood and circumstances.

Different people will have different lists of estimable qualities, but I doubt that many live up to all of theirs all the time. So, is self-esteem a sensible thing to aspire to? Selfish, you see – here I am musing on a spin-off that interests me rather than focusing properly on my friend. Fortunately she is still cataloguing her latest series of personal disasters, more animated now, but not in a good way. There’s trouble at work again for missing deadlines, debts galloping to new heights, relationship going the same way as the previous one. ‘I never learn,’ she growls, piercing her palms with her fingernails, and looking furious as well as sad.

The problem with recommending that somebody increase their self-esteem is that it means such different things for different people, and some of the requisites might be out of reach, temporarily or permanently. My friend’s list of estimable qualities includes professional success, financial competence and a happy relationship, and her total score on these points is currently zero. If I should attempt to restore her self-esteem – I am her friend, not her therapist – how could I do it? Would I have to convince her that the job is going splendidly, that she is a wiz at managing money and that her lover has not in fact gone back to his ex? Or maybe I could suggest she modifies her esteem-list to include more attainable (for her) behaviours such as being adventurous, being fun, being a good friend – all of which she reliably is.

I rather fear that this counsellor has added self-esteem to the list of attributes she feels she ‘ought’ to be able to demonstrate.

I think the real problem is not lack of ‘self-esteem’ but that she hates herself and attacks herself for failing, rather than helping herself get where she wants to be. There is no denying that recent mistakes will impact her life for a while, but the self-hatred is by far the most pervasive and painful aspect of the situation. She doesn’t need self-esteem so much as self-love. Self-compassion. Self-respect. Unlike esteem, it is possible to respect somebody without admiring the way they get things done. She needs to value herself for being a person, a fallible human being whose life choices sometimes bring her joy and sometimes grief. She needs to be on her own side, however bad things get, and to keep believing that she has the capacity, however elusive just now, to do things differently.

It doesn’t feel the right time to say any of this, so I pass her the chocolate digestives and try to do it for her. Not the esteem, not at this moment, but the compassion, and the respect, and the belief that things can change, and the love.