Branden transcription – side 5

You have free will. And from that free will, your need for self-esteem comes. It follows then that you should judge yourself by the things you can control, for example, your rationality, honesty and integrity. Judging yourself by things that depend on the will and choices of others is dangerous to healthy self-esteem.

Self-esteem pertains to the issue of your fundamental appropriateness to life, and to your mental operations. I hope you can appreciate the error of measuring your worth by such standards as your popularity, influence, affluence, material possessions, or good looks. Since we are social beings, some measure of esteem from others is important. But to tie your self assessment to the good opinion of others is to place yourself at their mercy, in the most humiliating way. And what will you do when all the different people whose esteem you desire have different expectations? Then the approval of one will risk the disapproval of another.

You may take pleasure in an attractive appearance, but to tie your self-esteem to your appearance is to be in growing in terror with every passing year, as the signs of age inevitably mark you. And if your good looks are better than your behavior, they will hardly heal the psychic wounds inflicted by dishonesty, irresponsibility, or irrationality.

In this program, I have focused on the ability to choose as a function of consciousness. I don’t want to deny the role of the subconscious, the wide range of mental processes and contents that lie outside awareness. Clearly, the self includes more than you are consciously aware of, and you are influenced in any number of ways by factors operating beneath explicit awareness. This is one of the reasons why your free will is not unlimited.

Nonetheless, your psychological freedom is a powerful force within your psyche. Admittedly, your freedom exists within limits. Admittedly, you can be under the sway of forces you don’t recognize or understand. But in the possibility of self-awareness and self-monitoring lies the possibility of change and evolution. And, some reasonable control of some measure of your existence.

A commitment to awareness, which I call “the will to understand”, is the central pillar of positive self-esteem. Lets pause to understand what this means.

The potential range of our awareness depends of the extent of our intelligence, and the breadth of our abstract capabilities. But the principle of being committed to awareness, or ‘the will to understand’, is the same for everybody. It is a behavior that seeks to integrate, to the best our knowledge and ability, that which enters our mental field, as well as the effort to keep expanding that field.

The beginning of self-assertion is the assertion of consciousness itself, the act of seeing and of seeking to grasp what we see. Of hearing and seeking to grasp what we hear. Of responding to life actively rather than passively. This is the foundation of honoring the self.

We have already seen that many children experience enormous obstacles in the way of a healthy development of this attitude. A child may find the world of parents and other adults incomprehensible and threatening. The self is not nurtured, but attacked. After a number of unsuccessful attempts to understand adult policies, statements and behavior, some children give up. And worse still, take the blame for their feelings of helplessness. Often they sense, miserably, desperately, inarticulately, that there is something terribly wrong – with their elders, with themselves, or with something.

The child who continues to struggle to make sense out of the world and the people in it is developing a powerful source of strength, no matter what level of anguish is experienced. Caught in a particularly cruel, frustrating and irrational environment, he or she will doubtless feel alienated from many of the people in the immediately surrounding world, and legitimately so, but the child will not feel alienated from reality, or incompetent to live. Or at least, he or she has a relatively good chance to avoid this fate.

The growing individual retains a commitment to awareness, learns subjects, acquires skills, accomplishes tasks and reaches goals. And these successes validate and reinforce the choice to think. The sense of being appropriate to life feels natural.

A commitment to thinking as a way of life is both the source and an expression of positive self-esteem. But often we associate positive self-esteem only with the result. With knowledge, success, the admiration and appreciation of others, and we miss the cause. The cause is all the choices that add up to what we call a commitment to awareness, or ‘the will to understand’. It’s easy enough to deceive ourselves about the actual sources of positive self-esteem.

The concept of the will to be effective is an extension of the will to understand. It places its emphasis on perseverance in the face of difficulties, like continuing to seek understanding when understanding doesn’t come easily. Pursuing the mastery of a skill or the solution to a problem in the face of defeat. Maintaining a commitment to goals, while encountering many obstacles along the way.

The will to be effective is the refusal to identify our ego or self with momentary feelings of helplessness and defeat. This is important, and I’m going to say this again: the will to be effective is the refusal to identify our ego or self with momentary feelings of helplessness and defeat.

All of us know times of bewilderment, despair, and a painful sense of impotence or inadequacy. The question is, ‘Do you allow such moments to define you?’

I remember as a child being enormously bewildered by the behavior of adults. I perceived the strangeness and superficiality in their values, a lack of congruence between their statements and feelings, an anxiety that seemed to saturate much of the atmosphere around me. And an overwhelming sense that often the adults did not know what they were doing. It seemed to me they were lost and helpless, while pretending to be in control. This experience was painful and sometimes frightening.

I desperately wanted to understand why people behaved as they did. Somewhere in my mind, at quite a young age there must have been a conviction that knowledge is power, safety, security, serenity. Doubtless this conviction played a significant role in my choice of profession.

The will to be effective. Here was a concept which helped me explain something I had observed in my clients and students. It was a principle that helped me understand the difference between those who felt fundamentally defeated by life, and those who did not. The will to be effective is the refusal of a human consciousness to accept helplessness as its permanent and unalterable condition.
It is impressive to see people who have been battered by life in many ways, who are torn by unsolved problems, who may be alienated from many aspects of the self, and yet who are still fighting, still struggling, still striving to find the path to a fulfilling existence.

Having the will to be effective doesn’t mean that you deny or disown feelings of ineffectiveness when they arise. It means you don’t accept them as permanent. You can feel temporarily helpless without defining yourself as essentially helpless. You can allow yourself to feel temporarily hopeless and overwhelmed while keeping in mind that after a rest you will pick up the pieces as best you can and start moving forward again. Your vision of life extends beyond the feelings of the moment. Your concept of self can rise above today’s adversity. This is one of the forms of heroism possible to a human consciousness.
Self esteem is not something you are born with. It lies rather in the way you use your mind, the choices you make concerning awareness, the honesty of your relationship to reality, and the level of your personal integrity. Self esteem is neither competitive nor comparative. Self esteems stems from your relationship to yourself, and to the choices of self.

A person of high intelligence and high self esteem does not feel more appropriate to life or more worthy of happiness than a person of high self esteem and more modest intelligence. An analogy might be helpful here. Two people may be equally healthy and physically fit, but one is stronger than the other. The one who is stronger doesn’t experience a higher level of physical well being. One can merely do some things the other can’t. Or one enjoys certain advantages over the other. But this does not mean there is a difference in the internal feeling of wellness and aliveness.

Your level of intelligence is hardly the most important issue with regard to the will to understand and the will to be effective. It is also far from the most important issue of another of the key pillars of healthy self esteem, and that is independence.

Intellectual independence is vital in the commitment to awareness or the will to understand. A person can’t think through the mind of someone else. We can learn from one another, but knowledge entails understanding, not just repetition or imitation. We can either exercise our own mind, or pass the responsibility of knowledge and evaluation on to others. Then we can accept their opinions more or less uncritically. The choice you make here is crucial for the way your experience yourself, and the kind of life you create.

All of us are influenced by others in ways we don’t recognize, true enough, but there is still a difference between the psychology of those who try to understand things for themselves, think for themselves, judge for themselves, and those who rarely do. What matters here is intention: the person’s basic goal.

I remember a client in therapy once telling me that she couldn’t understand why she was always relying on the opinions of other people. I asked her if she ever had wanted to be independent as she was growing up - if independence had ever been a goal of hers. Her answer was, “no”. So there is no need for her to be surprised that she never arrived there.

Often, what people call thinking is merely recycling the opinions of others. So thinking independently about our work, our relationships, our values and our goals enhances self esteem. And, healthy self esteem results in the natural inclination to think independently. So the relationship here is reciprocal.

But self esteem is not a given. It is acquired. One of the ways it’s acquired is by thinking independently when it may not be easy to do so. It may even be frightening, especially when the person doing the thinking is struggling with feelings of uncertainty and insecurity. It isn’t always easy to stand by your own judgment. And if it is easy for you, that is a psychological victory that you have achieved. It’s likely that you faced many pressures against independent thought, and along the way, had to confront and endure anxiety.
For example, conflict occurs when the child’s feelings or judgments conflict with his or her family members’, or when a woman thinks that her husband is wrong on some fundamental issue, and believes she must choose either to express her thoughts, or to suppress them to protect the relationship. Or in the case of an artist of a scientist, who sees a path that would carry him or her far from the mainstream of contemporary beliefs and values. In this case the question would arise of whether to follow the lonely path, or to draw back. The issue and the challenge in all situations like this remain the same: should one honor one’s inner signals, or disown them? Independence versus conformity. Self expression versus self repudiation. Self assertion versus self surrender.

Innovators and creators are people who have a greater than average ability to accept the condition of aloneness. They are more willing to follow their own vision, even when it takes them far from the mainland of the human community. Whatever anxiety they have doesn’t deter them. This is one of the secrets of their power. What we call ‘genius’ has a great deal to do with courage and daring, a great deal to do with sheer nerve.

We are social animals. We don’t normally enjoy long periods of alienation from the thinking and beliefs of those around us, especially people we respect and love. One of the most important forms of heroism is the heroism of consciousness, the heroism of thought, the willingness to tolerate aloneness.

Like every other psychological trait, independence is a matter of degree. No one is perfectly independent, and no one is hopelessly dependent all the time. The higher the level of our independence and the more willing we are to think for ourselves, the higher the level of our self esteem.

Part of thinking independently is learning the difference between facts on the one hand, and wishes and fears on the other. This can be difficult because thoughts are invariably touched or even saturated with feeling. The desire to do something isn’t proof that you should do it, for example, running out of the room in the middle of an argument if you’re upset. And just because you’re afraid to do something isn’t proof that you should avoid doing it, like going to a doctor for a check-up when there are signs of illness. If you buy something you can’t afford, and avoid thinking about the bills you won’t be able to pay, you have surrendered your consciousness to your wishes. If you ignore signs of danger in a marriage, and then profess to be bewildered and dismayed when the marriage finally explodes, you have paid the penalty for sacrificing consciousness to fear.

As far as self esteem is concerned, the issue is one of your intentions. You don’t have to be perfect at distinguishing among facts, wishes and fears, and choosing consciousness over some form of avoidance. What counts is that you have a great desire and intention to see things as they are, as best you can. You can’t always be sure if you’re being fully rational or honest, but you can certainly be concerned about it. You can certainly care. You aren’t always free to succeed in your thinking, but you are always free to try.

Your choices in this matter give you an inner sense of basic honesty or dishonesty. A fundamental responsibility or irresponsibility toward existence. From childhood on, some individuals are far more interested in and respectful of these questions of truth than others. Some people operate as if facts don’t have to be facts if they don’t choose to acknowledge them. They act as if truth if irrelevant, and lies are lies only if someone finds them out.

I remember a news article I once read about a medical researcher of high repute who was found to have been faking his data for years, while piling up grant after grant and honor after honor. His self esteem had to suffer from such behavior, even before his lies were revealed. He knowingly chose to live in a word of essential unreality, where his achievements and prestige were equally unreal. Contrast this with the psychology of scientists who patiently seek out evidence that will disprove their hypothesis. They understand that the unreal has no value.
The task of consciousness is to perceive what exists to the best of your ability. To honor reality is to honor consciousness. To honor consciousness is to honor the self.
Still another pillar of healthy self esteem is integrity. As you grow older and develop your own values and standards, personal integrity assumes increasing importance for your self evaluation. Integrity is the integration of conviction, standards, beliefs and behavior. When your behavior resonates with your values and when your philosophy and action are integrated, you have integrity. If you behave in ways that conflict with your judgment of what is appropriate, you lose face in your own eyes. You respect yourself less. If the policy becomes habitual, you trust yourself less, or stop trusting yourself at all.

Integrity is one of the guardians of mental health. It is cruel and misleading to encourage people to believe that practicing unconditional positive self regard will bring them to total self love, regardless of the level of their personal integrity. Sometimes people try to escape from the burden of integrity by denying all values and standards. The truth is, it’s impossible for human beings to regress fully to a lower level of evolution. We can’t draw back to a time before thinking and principles and long range planning were possible. We are conceptual beings and we can’t function successfully as anything less. We need values to guide our actions. We need principles to guide our lives. Our standards may be appropriate, or inappropriate, to our life and well being. But to live without standards at all, that’s impossible. The attempt to discard all values, principles and standards is itself an expression of poor self esteem and a guarantee that this expression will be ongoing.

At a common sense level, it’s easy to recognize the relationship between self esteem and integrity. But the issue of living up to our standards isn’t always as simple as it might first appear. What if our standards are mistaken, or irrational? We may accept a code of values that does violence to our needs as living beings. For example, certain religious teachings damn sex, damn pleasure, damn the body, damn ambition, damn material success, and for all practical purposes damn the enjoyment of life on earth. This acceptance of life denying standards is an enormous problem. So I would make this observation: if living up to your standards seems to be leading you towards self destruction, the time has obviously come to question those standards, rather than resigning yourself to living without integrity. You must gather the courage to challenge some of your deepest assumptions about what is good. Such conflicts, and the manner in which they are resolved, affect the quality of an individual’s self esteem. They affect the experience of integrity. And integrity is a pre-requisite of high self esteem.

No discussion of the central pillars of healthy self esteem would be complete without mention of the profoundly important role of self responsibility. Self responsibility is essential to self esteem, and it is also a reflection of positive self esteem. The relation between self esteem and its pillars is always reciprocal.
Working in psychotherapy I often see that the most radical transformation occurs after the client’s realization that no one is coming to the rescue. You are responsible for your choices and your actions. Not in terms of receiving moral blame or guilt, but responsible as the chief causal agent in your life and behavior.

Furthermore, self responsibility means accepting your basic aloneness, and accepting responsibility for attaining your own goals. The appreciation of self responsibility can be an exhilarating and empowering experience. It places your life back in your own hands. For example, a person learns to say, “Why and how do I make myself so passive?” Rather than saying, “Why am I so passive?” Instead of saying that he can’t care about anything, the person learns to explore why and how he prevents himself from experiencing strong feelings about anything. ‘Why’ in this context means ‘For what purpose?’ Instead of saying, “Why does the back of my neck hurt?” the person learns to say, “What feelings am I trying to avoid experiencing by tensing my neck muscles?” Instead of complaining that people are taking advantage of her, the person learns to say, “Why and how do I encourage people to take advantage of me?”

I don’t want to imply that people never suffer through accident or through the fault of others. And I’m not saying that people are responsible for everything in life that happens to them. We are not omnipotent. But self responsibility is clearly vital to good self esteem. Avoiding self responsibility makes you helpless.

Self esteem is rooted internally, not in external successes or failures. Failing to understand this principle will cause unnecessary anguish and self doubt. If you judge yourself by factors that are outside your control, your self esteem will be in chronic jeopardy. But your self esteem doesn’t have to be impaired if you fail at something in spite of your best efforts. You won’t experience the pride that would have come with the success, but your self esteem can remain unaffected. Remember that the self isn’t a static, finished entity. It’s a continually evolving creation - an unfolding of your potential. It is expressed in your choices, decisions, thoughts, judgments, responses and actions. You always contain within yourself the possibility of change. You never have to be the prisoner of yesterday’s choices.

The last issue I want to introduce on this tape is self acceptance. This quality is especially important if you are unhappy with the way you experience yourself and are looking for a change in self concept. In order to grow and change, you have to begin by learning self acceptance, which isn’t an easy concept for most people to understand. There’s a tendency to equate self acceptance with approval of every aspect of our personality or physical appearance, while denying that any change or improvement might be desirable. But that’s not at all what self acceptance rationally means.

To be self accepting doesn’t mean that there isn’t a wish to change or improve. It means to be at peace with yourself and not deny the reality of what is true of you right now at this moment of your existence. Once more, we’re dealing with the issue of respect for and acceptance of facts; in this case, the facts of your own being. To accept yourself is to accept the fact that what you think, feel and do are all expressions of the self at the time they occur. You cannot change if you can’t accept the fact of what you are at any given moment.

Accepting what you are requires that you think about your experience with an attitude that makes approval or disapproval irrelevant. The desire to be aware. There is still a deeper level for understanding self acceptance. Ultimately, self acceptance refers to an attitude of self value and self commitment that derives from the fact that you are alive and conscious. As such, it is deeper than self esteem. It is the birth-right of every person that human beings have the power to act against. An attitude of self acceptance can inspire a person to face whatever he or she most dreads to encounter within, without collapsing into self hatred, or surrendering the will to live. With self acceptance, a person can be unhappy about having poor self esteem, but accept it as part of his or her experience right now.

At this level, self acceptance is unconditional. Self esteem is not, and cannot be. If you can accept that you are who you are, that you feel what you feel, that you’ve done what you’ve done, if you can accept it, whether you like all of it or not, then you can accept yourself. You can accept your short comings, your self doubts, even your poor self esteem. And when you can accept all that, you have put yourself on the side of reality, rather than trying to fight reality. You are no longer twisting your consciousness and thoughts to maintain illusions about your present condition. And so you clear the road for the first steps of strengthening your self esteem.