Many people feel incompetent in life. They fear the future, that their mistakes will lead to permanent suffering; they fear regret. They wonder how others are so confident. They worry they will be revealed as a fraud. The problem is often pictured as a lack of self-esteem, and that is often be true, however the pursuit of self-esteem can make things worse.
The value we place on self-esteem often implies an ethic of self-assertion, where the key to a meaningful life lies in our achievements and our recognition of them, as well as the respect we receive from others for them. This ancient ethic was given expression by Aristotle and has periodically received new impetus, for example in Nietzsche. But contrast two other philosophers, Socrates and Plato, who voiced a different ethic: a forgetting of the self. According to them what we need is to lose the focus on ourselves, to shift attention to worthwhile things beyond the self.
On the second account, a meaningful life is one where we fall in love with worthwhile things - people, the world, creative passions, meaningful projects, and so on. It is centred more on values and others than the self.
The first, self-assertive ethic, involves a pre-occupation with the self. It is one where we find our worth in things we might lose. This is fine when it is balanced, but if we lose that balance then we come to live our lives poised between anxiety about the potential of losing those things, and depression when we do lose them (or perceive ourselves to have done so). Consider a writer, to take a common example from my therapeutic work:
Most writers find a sense of personal value through their achievements in their art. However the one who puts pen to paper primarily because they love the art of writing, will experience life differently to one who writes mainly because they want others to hold them in high esteem. The second writer typically comes into therapy complaining of procrastination and emotional deflation, and repeatedly it emerges that this has to do with their failing to gain value through writerly achievement. They seek self-esteem primarily through being esteemed for their writing and, for that very reason, do not find it.
The first writer, however, who writes purely out of love for the art, is generally much more motivated, even if they have dry periods. For they gain energy through love of something beyond themselves. Self-esteem is not that same problem for them, because their focus is elsewhere. That which they love expands their view beyond their self. Our interior world is shaped by the things we love, and so the quality of this writer's inner life and their sense of connection and meaning is heightened.
Many things, material and abstract, can be the object of love. Iris Murdoch wrote, “Man is a creature who makes pictures of himself, and then comes to resemble that picture.” Values and ideas are among the most important objects of our love. Our interior life is transformed by our conception of life, including the values we fall in love with, and so come to live out, and to perceive life through. For example we can fall in love with a conception of human life as intrinsically valuable, or 'sacred' as some would say. This requires the work of sustained attention, of repeated picturing of others in certain, better ways, as we go about our day; it progresses as a gradual, constant re-orientation of the mind and heart, but through it we can find that our experience of others, of life, and of ourselves, is transformed. Our esteem for ourselves and others becomes something that we can neither increase nor which can diminish, for it is not conditional. In the light of such a vision of every person we simply step over the petty wars of self-comparison and its attendant envy and shame. We also diminish our fear of the future with respect to our value, and so diminish the anxiety I spoke of. Instead we find hope, rooted in love of life and the orientation of our mind and emotions to what matters. We are nourished by the love of things of genuine value, and the usual problem of self-esteem loses its power.
Author: Matthew Bishop
Image: Patrick Stromme
My name is Matthew Bishop. I am a counsellor, with a background in philosophy. I have spent years exploring how philosophy enters into therapy, both theoretically and practically. One of my big influences is existential therapy. Although uploaded here recently, these are reflections written at different times over the last ten years.