What’s Wrong With Self-Esteem?


But… how can I have a life? My hair is a mess! ”

There are two sources for this week’s article, besides my twisted little head. First, I received a question from someone who attended our teleseminar. The question basically asked, …is it possible to live the life I want to live?

The writer realized that she had some not so helpful beliefs around work–

” …that you have to work hard to get by. And that good people are hard workers.”

The second source was a typically great blog post by Brazen Careerist Penelope Trunk, called “How to have more self-discipline.” Here’s an important line:

But something I’ve noticed in the last year is that most of our happiness is actually dependent on our self-discipline.”

So, what’s all this have to do with self-esteem?

Well, talk about buzzy topics. Most people claim to have lousy self-esteem, and this gets the blame for lots that isn’t working. The thinking is that, if only I felt good about myself, everything would magically fall into place.

Emphasis on magically.

The problem with such an approach is that magical thinking, while appearing in movies with alarming regularity, simply does not create results in the real world. What’s required is a shift in thinking, and then the discipline to enact the new thought.

Used effectively, strengthening one’s self-esteem is beneficial.

Most, however, do not work on their self esteem. Most blame others for their perceived lack of it. Thus, most use “I need to develop my self-esteem” as another way to stay stuck, and to have someone else to blame. My favourite? One woman blamed her inability to get her life in order on her memory of her father dragging her out from under a table when she was 8. Yikes.

A good use of self-esteem is to let go of both judging and blaming.

To get there, everyone and everything has to be let go of. What I mean is this: our norm is to look around us both for what is happening to us and how we are reacting to it. The Buddha said, “Life is unsatisfactory [dukkha] precisely because of desire and aversion.” We see a moment in our life, and rather than hold it loosely and let it go, we cling to our belief that we are a poor, persecuted wretch, or we cling to our fantasy that, if only I have the right affirmations, things will change.

Things, however, are neutral, and your perspective about them shifts only when you shift.

Back to judging and blaming.


Have a breath, and look around you, right now. Notice the people that are in your life (or notice that no one is there,) notice your situation re: money, “stuff,” relationship quality, sexual satisfaction, career, creativity, life satisfaction, depth of self-knowing, etc.

Have another breath. Now, with fervour, say: “Absolutely everything that has to do with my life, to this point, is due to the choices I have made.”

Have another breath. Say, “The way it is, right now, is simply the way it is. Getting down on myself changes nothing. Having cheery thoughts changes nothing. Instead, here is what I choose to do next.”

This is approaching self-discipline.

I guess what I’m saying is that it’s silly to wait around for “things to change.” Typically, we get into the “loop” of thinking that shifting where I am requires all kinds of other stuff first (approval, feeling good about myself, that someone other than me to give me something, or behave differently, etc.)

The hard reality of life is this:

If you want your life to be different,
you have to live your life differently.

Without complaint, and without judgement.

Complaint: we are adept at looking around and seeing others, and judging that they “have it easy.” They have what they want, or appear to. I’ve had clients say, “Everyone I know is in a great relationships, except for me.” Even if this were so (Hint: it isn’t) so what? Anyone in a good relationship is engaging in their relationship in ways that work. That’s all.

Others complain that self-discipline is hard. Of course it is! Easy is doing what you always do, and thereby getting the same crappy results. The key to all of this is dropping clinging, including to complaining.

Judgement: A judgement is simply another way to avoid doing something different.

Often, people who stop, for example, blaming their parents for screwing them up, shift to blaming themselves. It seems to be an improvement, but in actuality, it’s the same silliness with different packaging.

Now, the most important use for non-judgement is to stop making pratfalls “bad.”

We all screw up, regularly. We will complain. We will compare. We will judge. We will procrastinate. The key is to let such things be. Feel, them, express the feeling, move on.

Self-discipline involves actually starting.

One illustration of this is something I do to myself all the time. I regularly notice how seldom anyone comments about my blog posts. I can get quite down as I think about this, and typically decide to stop writing — this happens twice a month. I sulk, and I stew, and often gripe to Dar.

And then, I go to the computer and write the next article.

I may indeed stop writing some day, but that will be because I think I’ve said all I want to say. I won’t stop because I’m caught in judgements. I’ll just have those, get them out, have a breath, and get on with what I’m getting on with.

Next week, a few ideas about developing self-discipline.

Make Contact!

So, how does this week’s article sit with you? What questions do you have? Leave a comment or question!

About the Author: Wayne C. Allen is the web\‘s Simple Zen Guy. Wayne was a Private Practice Counsellor in Ontario until June of 2013. Wayne is the author of five books, the latest being The. Best. Relationship. Ever. See: –The Phoenix Centre Press

4 thoughts on “What’s Wrong With Self-Esteem?”

  1. Will power only takes us so far, then we need a sustainable fuel source to power us through the persistent effort required for change. Wayne, you speak of self discipline. This requires motivation does it not? What do we do when we can’t find motivation? The uncomfortableness of our situation motivates us, but counteracting this motivation is the uncomfortableness of change and effort. Sometimes only great pain or great pleasure is motivation enough to continue on a path of change and unfortunately, sometimes great pleasure can be elusive and great pain can have a way of shutting us down and making us choose to feel nothing, which in turn shuts down the power of the motivating force of pain until every effort to revive the flame of desire becomes a reminder of all the times that we have tried and failed.

    • Hi John,
      This is where therapy or working with a teacher comes in handy. I remember (ruefully) going to my supervisor (same one since 78!) and telling her another version of my “Poor me, I’m stuck” story. She’d listen, then say, “Cute, but stupid.” That would be enough to remind me that there is no external “great pain or great pleasure.” There is just what is happening, and how I am choosing to “see” it.
      And yes, many of my clients choose to stay stuck in their story — maybe needing to “hit bottom” before choosing to go another way. I am not sure why this is a popular choice, although I have chosen it once or twice (see my “Watcher” booklet).
      The key here is to first fix the language, so that you truly hear — “I have ways of shutting myself down when I choose to feel nothing, and when I do that, I choose to stop motivating myself to come into the present.”
      Once you truly see what you do to yourself, you can have a breath and in that moment, find the wisdom to shift your viewpoint. The only hard part about this is that you have to do it persistently and consistently.

    • Nothing changes, until the pain of change, is less than the pain of remaining the same”. This is a quote from a MBA business coach I once had.

      • Yes, I agree. Most people do the distraction/drug thing, in order to mitigate the pain. Thus putting off the imperative to change.
        Some get it, most do not and the drug and alcohol producers are thrilled!


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