‘It’s not true unless someone else knows it or sees it.’
Actually, most would dispute this statement. But it’s surprising how many proceed or react as if it were true.
Got a good grade on a test? Accomplished something special or important? Then you did what you did, whether everyone knows, or not; whether everyone applauds you, or nobody applauds you.
Happy in your relationship or marriage? Then the only ones who really know or care are the two people in love. Why must everyone else know? How is the connection any more viable or valuable just because it’s visible to somebody else?
It also works in the opposite direction. ‘I told a lie, but nobody will know. So it’s OK, then.’ But if a lie is wrong, it’s wrong—isn’t it? And if you do something wrong, then somebody else knowing is not the standard by which you judge it—is it?
We talk a lot about ‘self-esteem’ in this society, but I don’t believe many who talk about it really understand what it is.
Schools that teach children they’re valuable because they belong to a certain racial, ethnic or social group obviously have no clue of what self-esteem is. Racial pride or gender pride are concepts opposed to self-esteem. You don’t take pride in a fact of biology which you did not choose (any more than you should be ashamed of it). A child won’t grow up with self-esteem because of his membership in a particular group or collective. That’s the opposite of self-esteem. A person can only grow up with self-esteem if he or she feels fit to live. The only way to feel fit to live is to know—not merely believe, but actually know—that your mind is competent to figure things out, things necessary to your survival and happiness.
Self-esteem is not an act of will. You can’t will or force yourself into ‘feeling good about myself.’ The overriding feeling good about yourself is a consequence of something more basic.
It’s reasonable to want visibility in your career or personal life. It’s one thing to know that you’ve done well, and to long for people who share your evaluations and will appreciate what you’ve accomplished. But it’s another thing to depend on others to make it real. ‘Someone likes me. That means I’m valuable.’ This is the unspoken attitude of a neurotic. ‘Someone likes me. And they’re right to do so.’ This is the spoken or unspoken attitude of a strong, confident person—who feels this way because of knowing one has earned it, and seeing the evidence for it.
Which comes first: Self-esteem or the actions required to earn it? Do you feel good about yourself because you’ve done well, or do you do well because you feel good about yourself?
The answer is: essentially both. Because you feel good about life, about existence in general, and your own existence in particular—and because you’re confident in the ability of the human mind (including your own mind) to be fit for life—then you take regular, constructive action to make your life good. So it’s really both. You take constructive action, over a continuous span of time, repeatedly, because you feel fit for life; and you feel more and more fit for life because you continually take constructive action.
It’s really important to internalize that human life is good, and the human mind is capable of achieving most of the good we see around us in life. Goodness is not self-sacrifice or self-destruction. Goodness is competence, and efficacy. What makes human beings good, when they are, is the competent, honest and efficacious use of their minds. This does take willful action and choice, not just once but consistently. When children enter young adulthood with this overall attitude, they’re confident and equipped to start taking constructive action to sustain and further their own lives.
Don’t look for evidence of your fitness from others. Sure, appreciate the visibility when you know it’s earned, and when you know the people to whom you’re visible share the same perspective as you do on what’s good, and why. But never depend on others to define that purpose and evaluation for you.
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