Self-esteem is a funny old concept. It seems straightforward and easy to understand but it isn’t. Any psychological concept that seems ‘straightforward and easy to understand’ is bound, after all, to be nothing more than part of our collective delusion, it is bound to be nothing more than the consensus hallucination that we have all been brought up to believe in. It seems to make sense a a concept, but actually it’s just a delusion!
Self-esteem isn’t straight-forward at all because we don’t really understand who we are and if we don’t understand who we are then how can we possibly feel good about being who we are?
The problem is that we rush straight into this ‘self-esteem’ business without doing the groundwork first. It seems like a great idea so we jump on board but because we’ve missed out on the most important stage of the process (which is ‘gaining insight into the actual nature of the self’) it all becomes very ridiculous. The whole enterprise becomes absurd.
This unreflective hastiness is symptomatic of our modern age, where everything is about quick results and instant solutions. That’s why we are so sold on the idea of six week courses for this and eight week courses for that. Of course we can’t gain insight into who we really are in a few brief months, but it was never about that in the first place. The whole point of the courses we’re so keen to sign up to is to fix or augment the idea of who we are, not jettison that idea as being part of the consensus hallucination! We’re not interested in looking inwards, we only want to look directly ahead to the goal that is clearly marked out straight ahead of us, the goal that ‘the unexamined idea of ourselves’ is set to attain, if we play our cards right. We’re very interested in the goal in other words, but not at all in the one who is supposedly to attain the goal!
To the modern mind everything is about the destination rather than the journey itself, which is why we are obsessed (as Alan Watts has said) with continually developing faster and faster means of transport. This is not to say that there is necessarily anything wrong with rapid means of transport, but there is most certainly something deeply amiss with the mind-set that only wants to arrive at the destination, and has no interest at all what lies between ‘where I am now’ and ‘where I want to be’. This is the goal-driven mind-set that is only interested in ‘closing the gap’ between <what I want> and <when I get it>.
The problem is that <what I want> (or ‘where I want to be’) is purely a concept, and my concepts are necessarily only projections or extensions of my present state of mind. My goals are projections of ‘where I am now’ in other words, and so my obsessional interest in reaching them – no matter what the cost – is really just an obsessional interest in staying the same, no matter what the cost. I am fixated on the banal productions of my own mind, and anything that doesn’t match these productions is of precisely zero interest to me.
The trouble is therefore that in our eagerness to attain the goal we are circumventing life itself – we are trying to live our own version of life. We are taking a short-cut that is bound to prove as meaningless as it is futile…
Self-esteem – in the way in which we usually understand it – is a thoroughly meaningless concept. It is a meaningless concept because it is purely based upon the theatrical appearance (or image) of ‘who we think we are’, and not at all related to the underlying and fundamentally unacknowledged reality of ‘who we actually are’. For this reason any interest that I might have in improving my self-esteem is inevitably going to a betrayal of my true nature in favour of some banal socially-validated fiction. The fact that I am interested in ‘working on my self-esteem’ doesn’t really reflect anything therefore other than my unreflective commitment to the unexamined status quo.
It might sound rather extreme to put it like this but there is no way that it could be otherwise – either I am committed to the theatrical appearance of who I am or I am committed to the underlying truth of who I really am. I can’t have it both ways. Thus, we read in Verse 47 of the Gospel of Thomas that
A person cannot mount two horses or bend two bows. And a slave cannot serve two masters, otherwise that slave will honor the one and offend the other.
It’s either the one thing or the other, either the one way or the other, and between the two there is no middle ground. If I am interested in what lies behind the image then I am not interested in the image, and if I am invested in the image being true then I absolutely cannot afford to have any interest in the deeper truth that lies behind it.
It ought to be very obvious – just by the way that I phrase it – that if I am concerned with ‘working on my self-esteem’ then I am not concerned with finding out the truth of what is going on; if I was, then I would say that I am ‘unconditionally interested in uncovering the truth of what is going on’, rather than saying that ‘my goal is to improve my self-esteem’. After all, if my allegiance is purely to the truth, then what I find may – for all I know – utterly destroy any good feeling that I have about myself! It might not, but then again it might – how could I possible know? Gaining insight or self-knowledge is not a goal-orientated pursuit because we do not have the slightest clue about what the goal is! If we did know then we would be circumventing reality – we would be living our own version of life.
The attitude of wanting to discover the truth no matter what is a different sort of a thing altogether from the attitude that I have when I want to improve my self-esteem, or boost my confidence, or empower myself through this or that fancy-sounding therapy. The attitude of wanting the find out the truth no matter what that truth may turn out to be is courageous, and uncontaminated with any unconscious allegiance to this illusion or that illusion. Any other motivation that I might have (other than this unreservedly courageous one) will always come down to the same thing in the end – the desire to escape pain.
So if I wish to improve my self-esteem, then it is because I wish to escape the pain of my ‘low self-esteem’. I’m not really curious about why I feel bad about myself, I just want to change this situation. Or if I want to improve my ability to identify goals for myself, and then effectively achieve them (which is of course the standard formula found in all ‘positive thinking’ courses) I want this because I am trying to get away from the pain of feeling that I am not ‘achieving’ in life, or the pain of feeling that I am not able to achieve in life. So achieving (or obtaining the feeling that one is an achiever rather than a non-achiever) is what it is all about, rather than finding out who it is that wants to achieve, and why.
Running away from pain always means becoming progressively more and more superficial in one’s concerns, so if the question is asked as to why it is so wrong to wish to escape from existential pain of one sort or another, then we can see that the answer is that it is ‘wrong’ only insomuch as escaping from legitimate existential pain puts us in line to suffer from a far more unpleasant and nefarious type of pain, which is the pain of being ‘superficial without knowing that we are superficial’ (or ‘limited without knowing that we are limited’).
Being involved in the sort of ‘therapy’ that has goals is always a deeply superficial sort of a business; if I have a goal then it is – needless to say – the goal that I am interested in and nothing else. I will only be interested in other stuff if I think that it might help me attain my goal (or contrariwise, if I think knowing the information will prevent me from failing to attain it). Whatever way we look at it, I am only really interested in skipping ahead to the ‘ultimate prize’ and if I try to say otherwise then I am only fooling myself. I am not a ‘philosopher’ because a philosopher would be concerned with the question of what the nature is of the one who seeks the goal and why he wants to seek it. I am a less reflective sort of a creature – I am ‘a creature who wishes only to know how he might obtain the goal’, and who doesn’t want to know if it is really worth pursuing, really worth investing all one’s time and energy in. Rather than being ‘a philosopher’, therefore, I am ‘a player of games’, ‘a committed self-distractor’.
Collectively speaking, we very much tend admire the hard-headed, no-nonsense, go-and-get-them, take-no-hostages ‘business’-type approach that only wants to know ‘how’ – the more philosophical approach we see as being quaint or amusing at the best. This in itself is a very funny thing – that we should perceive the type of ‘concrete mind-set’ that is only interested in achieving its unexamined goals (and is not at all curious about why these goals should seem so extremely important) as being something we should admire and try to emulate is quite extraordinary, to say the least. It is quite incredible. It is fantastically bizarre – it is utterly and completely absurd. One would without any question at all have to be ferociously stupid to value such a mind-set…
What is happening when we do the ‘unreflective thing’ (and concentrate on ‘skipping ahead’ or ‘fast-forwarding’ to the ultimate prize) is that we are valuing the imagined outcome over the actual process. So if my goal is to obtain this thing called ‘good self-esteem’ then I skip ahead regardless of any philosophical considerations that might come up along the way; I ‘cut to the chase’ and seize the prize with both hands. The process that I am overlooking in all this feverish goal-orientated activity is however the process of discovering ‘who I really am’ and so when I obtain the desired outcome of ‘good self-esteem’ (if I obtain it, that is) then the one who obtains it isn’t my true self at all but merely some half-assed, half-baked notion of who I am…
So the so-called ‘good self-esteem’ doesn’t belong to me at all! Or rather, it does belong to me but the ‘me’ it belongs to isn’t actually who I am. This – needless to say – represents a fairly major snag, a glitch that we can’t really afford to turn a blind eye to, much as we’d probably like to. What we are talking about here is self-esteem (or self-valuing’) that belongs purely to a purely theatrical identity, a made-up image of myself that I am pretending to be in the course of some game that I am playing and don’t know that I am playing. Insofar as I continue with the illusion that this theatrical identity is who I really am, then the so-called ‘self-esteem’ is of value – it is of value within the terms of the game. Outside of the game that I am unknowingly playing however, this type of ‘self-esteem’ is utterly worthless, utterly pointless, utterly meaningless.
The ‘me’ that we are talking about here is in reality just some ‘idea’, just some ‘notional identity’ that I have latched onto as a result of whatever random processes happen to have been operating in my life at the time of acquiring them. This notional identity provides me with the security of being able to feel that I am such-and-such a person, and beyond this immediate (and deeply superficial) sense of security I am not usually concerned one way or another. If it seems to fit the bill (i.e. if I am able to successfully latch onto the contrived or notional identity) then it will do just fine! If it works, then why would I complain? If it ‘does the job’ then why on earth would I want to go any deeper?
In general, it is of course true that the definite sense of identity that I have found for myself – be it good, bad or indifferent – has been provided for me by the social matrix, which acts as a kind of repository or store-house of ideas or images or formulae regarding what it means to be a human being, what life is supposed to be about, what types of identities we might have within the context of that life, what possibilities for change and development exist for us, what type of goals or dreams we might entertain about ourselves, and so on. In short, the social system provides me with my ‘way of thinking’ and I use this inauthentic way of thinking in order to construct myself.
On a superficial level, therefore, I have the freedom to ‘make of myself what I will’. On a deeper level however I don’t have any freedom at all since all my so-called choices has been provided for me, such that when I do ‘choose’ I choose what has already been chosen for me! The conditioned self has only this type of freedom, but because it never sees beyond the conditioned realm (which it assumes to be the whole world) it cannot tell this false or inauthentic type of freedom apart from the real thing. Within the realm of choices open to it in the conditioned realm, therefore, the conditioned (or socially-constructed) self also has the choice of manoeuvring itself into the position of having ‘good self-esteem’.
The possibility of developing good self-esteem is, then, a freedom that I perceive myself to have within the game, whether or not I choose to utilize it, whether or not I choose to learn the necessary skills or methods to help me obtain it. I could also manoeuvre myself (or be manoeuvred) into a position of having low self-esteem, a position of not valuing myself, and this is also a legitimate possibility within the game. But as we have just said, this sort of freedom – the freedom to ‘make of myself what I will’ – is completely hallucinatory. I have no freedom to make myself into anything or anyone else, except in the context of some sort of game or role-play.
A statement like this tends to sound limiting (to put it mildly), but it isn’t at all. If I were to take on board the notion that I cannot achieve the dream that I have cherished for myself then this would of course come as a crushing disappointment, the ultimate loss of freedom’. This big ‘NO’, this big negation, means that all of my prospects, all of my aspirations, are wiped out in one swoop. My entire future – as I saw it, as I believed in it – is annihilated. But the spiritual path is, as Chogyam Trungpa says, an endless series or succession of such bitter disappointments. And enlightenment, as he also says, is ‘ego’s ultimate disappointment’.
Enlightenment is ego’s ultimate disappointment because it is not the limited ego that gets to be enlightened. Enlightenment – we could say – is when we are no longer trapped in that painfully narrow (not to mention appallingly short-sighted) viewpoint which is the conditioned self, and so there is no way that we can speak of this narrow and short-sighted viewpoint as becoming ‘enlightened’. That’s looking at it the wrong way. We lose the narrowness completely; we don’t crown it with the spiritual trophy of ‘enlightenment’. We lose the limited notion of self, we don’t promote it. Enlightenment is not a hat for the ego or conditioned self to wear, much as we might like to imagine that it is.
Similarly, then, the notion that the most precious form of freedom or empowerment that I could have is ‘the freedom to make of myself what I will’ is a deranged fantasy of the conditioned self – it is only meaningful from this limited viewpoint, and the reason it is meaningful for this limited viewpoint is because it represents a promise of compensation for the pain and misery of its limitation. And what is more, this promise is destined to remain fantasy since the only way the pain and misery could cease would be if I ceased to identify with this peculiarly abstract viewpoint that I call ‘me’.
No matter what I make of myself it will still be the same old self, and no matter what estate I attain in terms of how well I regard myself that is still only just another adornment, another temporary hat for this hallucinatory sense of ‘self’ to wear.
Or we could look at this the other way around and say that because who I really am is the Unbounded Reality itself, the idea of improving myself (or ‘making of myself anything I want’) represents a profoundly meaningless form of freedom. The only way in which this type of freedom could mean something would be if I were a strictly limited being, a constrained being, a finite ‘this-but-not-that’ type of being. But this is all purely hypothetical since ‘who I already am’ is the Unbounded Reality and all I need to do to see this is to look into the question of who I am underneath all the layers of spurious conditioning. I don’t need to develop this conditioning, or change it, or correct it, or improve it in any way. I don’t need any methods, any skills, any special knowledge or permission. There’s nothing anyone else can give me, and equally there is nothing I can give myself.
This is actually a very good test – if I do feel that there is something about me that needs to be improved or empowered in any way, then whoever it is that I think I am, it is most certainly only some sort of trivial hallucination. If I feel that I need improving in some way then I’m not my true self, I am falsely imagining that who I am is some half-baked notional identity, some half-assed conditioned image…
There is really no point in improving the conditioned image that we have of ourselves because any improvement in one area is invariably going to be offset by some disimprovement in another area. It’s swings and roundabouts all the way. The self-image can only ever be what it is; it can never be what we want it to be. It is an ‘abstract representation’ of the Whole – an infinitesimal fraction of the Totality. What is more, it is an infinitesimal fraction or abstract representation that only gets to seem like a ‘going concern’ to us because of the way that it excludes all awareness of the Whole!
This being the case (i.e. that the self-image is essentially an impostor, ‘a pretender to the throne’) how can it ever be meaningfully improved? Through our manipulations of the situation we can get to feel that we really are getting somewhere, but this hopeful impression is inevitably going to be cancelled out by the reverse (i.e. the pessimistic) impression at some later stage of the proceedings. We facilitate within ourselves the illusion that meaningful change is possible, the illusion that we can move closer to a wholeness and authenticity which we ourselves have turned our backs on, in order to be able to experience the theatre that the self-image we imagine ourselves to be is real, but this abstract or theatrical self-image can no more move closer to becoming ‘whole’ or ‘real’ than a shadow can merge with the light and yet still remain a shadow!
Most of what we call therapy is in fact no more than mere ‘manipulation’ or ‘manoeuvring’. It’s just jiggling things about, in an attempt to improve them.
No jiggling things about is needed however. No manipulation is needed. All that is needed is to see the truth. All that is needed is for me to see the simple truth that I am not who I thought I was…
Author: Nick Williams
Nick Williams works and writes in the field of mental health and is particularly interested in non-equilibrium states of consciousness, which are states of mind that cannot be validated by standardized experiments or by reference to any formal theoretical perspective.