EQI.org Home | Nathaniel Branden Main Page

Transcript of
Nathaniel Branden's Honoring the Self -
Side 6

The more a person suffers from poor self esteem, the more he or she is ruled by fear. Fear of other people
and fear of real or imagined facts about the self that have been evaded or repressed. There is fear of the external world and fear of the internal world.

A person without a reasonably satisfying level of self confidence and self respect will inevitably feel anxious, insecure and self doubting. He or she will have the nameless sense of being unfit for reality and inappropriate to the challenges of life.

Fear becomes the central motivating force within the personality. For example, consider the case of a man with low self esteem who becomes a husband and father. He rules his home, let's say, by evoking fear in his wife and children. He uses the same fear that motivates him as his chief source of energy and action. He avoids the expressions of pain and unhappiness in their eyes. He avoids their efforts to communicate with him, and he becomes sullen and withdrawn when they refuse to obey him. The years go by and he sees whatever love or respect they once felt for him vanishing. His spirits drop lower. At the age of fifty he is worn out, depressed and occasionally suicidal in his fantasies. He is the casualty of an uncorrected low self esteem.

Fear sabotages mind, clarity and effectiveness. Fear undermines the sense of personal worth. And actions motivated by fear, rather than by confidence, are generally the kind of actions that leave a person feeling diminished in stature.

When a person with low self esteem uses defenses or reality avoiding strategies to escape feelings of deficiency, distortions are introduced into thinking. The person will handle only the knowledge that maintains his or her defenses. There is no goal set for seeing reality clearly.

Someone who is faking a healthy self esteem puts conditions on the perception of reality. Certain considerations become more important than reality, facts and truth. Consciousness is pulled significantly and dangerously by the strings of wishes and fears; above all, fears. They become the masters. It is to them, not reality, that the individual has to adjust. As time goes on the person will strengthen the very self defeating ways that caused the loss of self confidence and self respect in the first place.

Consider a person who consistently thinks of themselves as a daring and shrewd operator who is just one deal away from a fortune. He keeps losing money in one get-rich-quick scheme after another. He is always blind to the evidence that his plans are impractical, always brushing aside unpleasant facts, and always boasting extravagantly. His eyes see nothing but the dazzling image of himself as a brilliantly skilled businessman. He moves from one disaster to another, dreading to discover that the vision of himself that feels life a life belt is really a noose choking him to death.

Or consider a middle aged woman whose sense of personal value is dependent on the image of herself as a glamorous, youthful beauty. Every wrinkle on her face is seen as a threat to her identity. She plunges into a series of sexual relationships with men more than twenty years her junior. Each relationship is rationalized as a grand passion, while she avoids the characters and motives of the young men involved. She represses the humiliation she feels in the company of her friends. She constantly seeks the reassurance of fresh admiration, running faster and faster from the haunting, relentless pursuer, which is her own emptiness.

There is no way to preserve the clarity of our thinking when fear takes precedence over the facts of reality. There is no way to preserve the power of our intelligence so long as we believe that having positive self esteem means certain facts just can’t be faced. We need positive self esteem to live the life appropriate to us, and positive self esteem is intimately related to honesty and integrity. This is why it is so important for a person to discover that it’s safe to be truthful about thoughts, feelings and behaviors.

Any time we admit a difficult truth, any time we face something we’ve been afraid to face, any time we acknowledge to ourselves or others facts that we have been evading, any time that we are willing to tolerate some fear or anxiety on the path to better contact with reality, our self esteem goes up.

Anxiety in general is a psychological alarm signal warning of real or imagined danger. In varying degrees of intensity, anxiety is a human condition. The anxiety I’m talking about is of a very special kind. I call it ‘self esteem anxiety’.

Self esteem anxiety is a state of dread experienced in the absence of any actual or impending threat. Many sufferers know there’s an occasional uneasiness, a diffuse sense of nervousness and apprehension coming and going unpredictably, pursuing a pattern of its own. They are oblivious to how much of their behavior is motivated by the desire to escape it.

Whenever a person feels fear – any kind of fear – the response reflects an estimate of some danger, some threat to something valued. In the case of self esteem anxiety, the thing of value being threatened is the sufferer’s very ego. By ego to repeat, I mean the unifying center of awareness, the center of consciousness, the ultimate sense of ‘I’. That which perceives reality, preserves the inner continuity of one’s own existence, and generates a sense of personal identity. Any threat to a human being’s ego, anything that he or she experiences as a significant danger to the mind’s efficacy and control is a potential source of self esteem anxiety. Anything that threatens to collapse the sense of personal worth is a source of self esteem anxiety.

Certain characteristics link the mildest form of this anxiety to the most extreme. The person feels afraid of nothing in particular and of everything in general. If the fear struck person tries to offer a rational explanation for the feeling, the explanations are obviously illogical. And the person acts as though reality is the object of fear, rather than anything specific or concrete. That is why anxiety of this kind is sometimes described as “free floating”.

This anxiety is a powerful force in the lives of countless millions of human beings. This is the vast, anonymous group of men and women who have accepted fear as a built in fixture of their soul, and who often dread even to identify that what they feel is fear. Such anxiety results when there is a perceived threat to self esteem, to the sense of control, effectiveness, and worth. The fear seems to be metaphysical, directed at the universe at large, at existence itself. It implies that to be, is to be in danger, beyond any other rational sense of the word.
There is a feeling of shapeless but impending disaster, a sense of helplessness. Sometimes there is also a metaphysical guilty. The person feels wrong as a person, wrong in some fundamental way that is wider than any particular defect he or she can identify. The threat and the danger lie within. The threatening demons are disowned perceptions, thoughts, memories, feelings or emotions the individual has resisted in order to preserve a psychological balance.

If self esteem is the conviction that we are competent to grasp and judge the facts of reality, and that we are worthy of happiness, then self esteem anxiety, in its extreme form, is the torment of a person who is crippled or devastated in this realm. This is a person who feels cut off from reality, alienated and powerless.


If you default on the responsibility of awareness, the result is self distrust. You will feel that your mind is an unreliable instrument. If you refuse to think about issues that require attention, you will be unable to escape the contradiction between what you know and what you’ve done. Taken actions contrary to what you believe to be right, you may escape the implications of the actions but not their existence. You are left with self distrust – the implicit knowledge that mind, judgment and convictions can fail you under emotional pressure.

The ability to feel anxiety, self distrust or guilt is an asset. These are alarm signals warning of danger to your well being. Such emotions can be painful, even devastating, but if they cause you to stop and question yourself, or even seek professional help, then they serve a useful purpose in protecting your life. If however they are ignored, they wreck havoc in your life. Self esteem anxiety always involves and reflects a particular kind of conflict. The ego confronts this conflict during the acute anxiety attack.
Let’s understand what kind of conflict we have here: Suppose that a man aspires for years to a position he secretly feels inadequate for. Shortly after he is promoted to that position, he awakens in the middle of the night with queer sensations in his head and painful, tightness in his chest. He experiences a state of violent anxiety. In the days that follow, he begins to express worry and concern about his children’s school grades, and he begins to moan that his house is under-insured, finally he begins to cry that he is going insane. But the fact of his promotion doesn’t enter his conscious mind. His anxiety is triggered by the collision of two absolutes: “I’ve got to know how to handle the responsibilities of my new position.” And the feeling that he is inadequate to obey that imperative: “I don’t and I can’t!” The conflict is not conscious. It is repressed, but the effect of the conflict demolishes his pretence of control over his life. It brings about his anxiety. Now observe the nature of the conflict. It is a clash that pits the man’s sense of personal worth against a perceived inadequacy.
Another example: A woman raised to believe that her personal worth is a function of her role as wife and mother. For years she has repressed any impulses towards self assertiveness or self expression that threatens to interfere with this role. Building within her is enormous rage that she doesn’t allow herself to identify or confront. But more and more frequently, she finds herself having fantasies of her husband and children being killed in an automobile accident. She becomes overtly eager to please her family to the point of annoying and burdening everyone. She feels rejected. Rage keeps on building. The fantasies of her family’s death increasingly dominate her consciousness. One day standing at the kitchen sink and washing dishes, she suddenly finds that she has difficulty distinguishing the colors of objects. Everything in her field of vision begins to swim and terrible pains appear to be coming from her heart. She feels certain that she is going to die of a heart attack. But what has hit her is the onset of an anxiety attack. The collision is between the value [?] imperative of “I must not!” and the contradictory impulse of “I did do, and will continue to wish for my family’s death.” The clash pits her sense of personal worth as a mother against her very contradictory fantasy.
In every instance of self esteem anxiety, you will find a conflict in the form of “I must” or “should have” versus “I cannot” or “did not”. Or conversely, a conflict between “I must not,” versus “I do”, “I did”, or “I will.” There is always a conflict on the one hand, between some value of parenthood [?] that has tied crucial weight to the person’s self appraisal and on the other, some failure, inadequacy, action, emotion, desire [?] or fantasy that the person regards as a breach of that imperative. The person believes that this breach expresses or reflects a basic and unalterable fact of his or her nature.
Psychologists have understood self esteem anxiety, which they call ‘pathological anxiety’ in many different ways. But I am convinced that the basic patter I’ve just described can be found in every case, no matter how different the details are. Self esteem anxiety is a crisis of self esteem, and the possible sources of anxiety are as numerous as the rational or irrational values on which people base their self esteem. The value imperative that each individual confronts in these anxiety producing conflicts may be different. And different value imperatives may be more or less appropriate, but the person somehow believes that satisfying the demand of this imperative should be within his or her power. The conflict is typically subconscious. Either [?] half of it however, may be conscious or partially conscious.
There is no object of fear more terrifying to human beings than fear itself, and no fear more terrifying than that for which we know no object. Few people consciously experience self esteem anxiety in the terms I am describing here. In order to make it more bearable, we usually convert it into specific and tangible fears. Though a person may be beset by a dozen narrower fears, all are a smokescreen and a defense against an anxiety that roots lie in the core experience of self [?].
Since positive self esteem is a fundamental need, human beings who fail to achieve satisfactory self esteem are driven by anxiety to fake it. Pseudo-self esteem is a pretense at self confidence and self respect. It is a non rational self protective device to lessen anxiety and to fulfill the need for positive self regard. With pseudo-self esteem it is necessary to avoid, rationalize or otherwise deny ideas, feelings memories and behaviors that could adversely affect self appraisal. And further, it becomes necessary to find a sense of effectiveness and worth from something other than the appropriate use of consciousness, rationality, honesty, responsibility and integrity. This alternative value might be something like doing one’s duty, or being [inaudible], or being altruistic, or financially successful or sexually attractive, or tough, or whatever.
This is a complex process of self deception, and a misguided attempt at self healing, on which an individual may build his or her whole life. It holds the key to the individual’s motivation, values, and goals – to the impulses that drive the individual along a particular path.
Lets establish a point of contrast here: In the psychology of a man or woman of authentic self value, there is no clash between facing the facts of reality and preservation of positive self esteem. Positive self esteem is based on wanting to know and act in accordance with the facts of reality, but to the man or woman with pseudo-self esteem, reality is often experienced as the enemy. Self confidence and self respect, or the illusion of them, is purchased at the price of avoidance. A person may be perfectly rational in an area that doesn’t touch on, or threaten pseudo-self esteem. The same person may be flagrantly irrational, evasive, defensive and downright stupid in an area that is threatening to self appraisal.
For example, a woman may operate her business smoothly, she’s open to recognizing her mistakes when she makes them and is quick to correct them. In this sphere she’s got a good, strong, reality orientation. At home, when dealing with her husband or children, she becomes hysterical at the smallest challenge to her authority. Her balance is disturbed by any failure of her family to go along with her judgment. Pseudo-self esteem is invested in being the perfect wife and the. Any suggestion of failure activates her anxiety. This activates her defenses and makes her unable to hear or respond appropriately to what her family is telling her. Her family is left to wonder how she could be so brilliant in one area for life, and so blind in another.
The process of avoidance and repression alone can’t provide a person with the illusion of good self esteem. That process is only part of the self deception. The other part consists of the values we choose to help us achieve a sense of personal worth.
Let me develop a point of contrast: A healthy individual derives pleasure and pride from the work of his or her mind, and from the achievements of that work. The individual who feels confident to deal with the challenges of life will desire a stimulating, creative existence. Feeling confident of his or her own value, the individual will be drawn to good self esteem in others. What he or she will desire most in human relationships is the opportunity to feel admiration. In the spheres of both work and relationships, the individual acts from a firm base of security and a love for the fact of being alive. What he or she seeks are means to express and objectify [?] good self esteem.
In contrast, the person with poor self esteem acts out of fear rather than confidence. The fundamental goal is not living, but avoiding the anxiety of living. Safety becomes the ruling desire. And in relationships, such a person seeks an escape from moral values, an escape from standards, a promise to be forgiven or to be accepted without being respected. Or to be admired without being understood, to be comforted and protected, or else held in blind awe.
High self esteem is motivated by love. Low self esteem is motivated by fear. There is motivation by the love of self and of life, versus the fear that one is unfit for life. Motivation by confidence places its primary emphasis on the possibility of enjoyment. Motivation by terror places its primary emphasis on the avoidance of pain. The more a person suffers from poor self esteem, the more he or she lives negatively and defensively, or out of motivation by fear. When that person chooses particular values and goals, the primary motive is to defend against anxiety, against distressing feelings of inadequacy, self doubt, guilt, and the possibility of being hurt.
An analogy may prove helpful: If a person’s life is in physical danger from contracting a major disease, the primary concern in such an emergency is not the pursuit of enjoyment, but the removal of the danger. To the person significantly lacking in self confidence and self respect, life is a chronic emergency. The person is always in danger psychologically. He or she never feels free to pursue the enjoyment of life because combating the danger means pretending it doesn’t exist. I call any value chosen to support pseudo-self esteem a ‘defense value’.
A defense value is motivated by fear and aimed at supporting an illusion of psychological balance. It is an anti-anxiety device. Sometimes the value chosen for this purpose may be intrinsically [?] admirable. What is irrational and unhealthy about it is the reason for its selection. Productive work is certainly a value worthy of esteem, but escaping into work as a means of avoiding one’s conflicts, short comings, anxieties and resultant unhappiness is not admirable. Sometimes however, defense values are irrational in both respects, as in the case of a person who seeks to escape anxiety by gaining power over other people.
The number of different defense values that people can adopt is virtually limitless. However, most of these values have one thing in common: they are values held in high regard by the culture or subculture in which a person lives. The number of common defense values of this type appear in the following examples:
- The man who is obsessed with being popular feels driven to win the approval of every person he meets, clings to the image of himself as “likeable”. He regards his appealing personality as his sole means of survival and a proof of his personal worth.
- The woman who has no sense of personal identity and who tries to lose her inner emptiness by being a martyr for her children, demanding only that her children adore her, so that their adoration feels the vacuum of the ego she hardly possesses.
- The man who never forms independent judgments about anything, but who tries to compensate by making himself an expert concerning other people’s opinions about everything.
- The woman whose chief standard of self-appraisal is the prestige of her husband, and whose pseudo self-esteem rises or falls according to the number of people who court her husband’s favor.
- The man who works at being aggressively masculine, whose main concern is his role of woman-chaser and who derives less pleasure from the act of sex than from the act of reporting his adventures to the men in the [inaudible?]
Sometimes, defense values are of a religious nature. The practice of religion is sometimes used to combat anxiety and purchase a sense of worthiness.
Still another type of defense value may be seen in the person who rationalizes behavior he or she feels guilty for by insisting that such behavior doesn’t represent his or her ‘true self’. The concept of a ‘real me’ that bears little relation to anything one says or does in reality, is a very common anti-anxiety devise and often co-exists with other defense values.
If people took responsibility for their actions as they perform them, not only would defense values of this kind be impossible, but a radical raising of self esteem would be inevitable. When we take responsibility of our actions, all kinds of changes are inevitable.
If you can, step back from any of your defense values, and ask yourself, “does this really make me good?”, “Why do I think so?”
You have the power to move towards placing your self esteem on a saner and less precarious foundation. Even when you’re afraid, this possibility is open to you. You can accept fear and then rise above it by taking unfamiliar but desirable risks in the service of your mind and life. No one has to remain trapped at the level of poor self esteem. If you tell yourself you do, that’s just one more cop-out. That’s just one more self-betrayal.
While some defense values are less harmful than others, all of them rob an individual of possibilities for evolution and aliveness. Perhaps the ultimate defense value, at a concrete and specific level, is the tranquilizer:
The fire alarm is turned off, but in the subconscious, the fire continues to rage. I am hardly denying that tranquilizers have their uses as short-term emergency measures, but as a way of life, they become a denial of life. Drug abuse is a metaphor for the entire issue of defense values and the problem of motivation by fear. If tranquilizers are a boom industry, it is absurd to blame pharmaceutical companies, quite simply because it’s the human inclination to follow path of least resistance - the tendency to accept the easiest and least demanding solution over the right solution.
In drug abuse, people often find “solutions” that seem appealing when other defense values break down, when the tide of anxiety fails to be stemmed [?].
Tranquilizers, alcohol and recreational drugs share these common features that tend to make them addictive: They reduce pain and anxiety. They sometimes create a temporary illusion of buoyancy, power and high self esteem, and they tend to perpetuate just those behaviors that created the need for their use in the first place.
Drug abuse is intimately connected to problems of self-esteem and can’t be understood outside that context. Just as drug abuse is a defense value, so is an obsession with approval and popularity, or role-playing the ‘good boy’ or ‘good girl’, or compulsive pursuit of sexual conquests, or sexual renunciation, or selfless obedience to a leader to escape the burden of identity and responsibility. These are all anti-anxiety devices. They are all engaged to cope with the problem of the human need for self esteem, but in self destructive ways.
When an addict withdraws from his or her particular addiction, the individual must ask, “What am I without this particular crutch?” We might ask the same of any defense values. Who am I without my popularity? Who am I without my possessions? Who am I without my leader, my movement - the cause in which I lose myself? Who am I when there is no one to tell me what to do - no one to obey or rebel against? No one to surpass, or be subordinate to? No one to impress, or control, or manipulate, or serve? Who am I, facing myself in the mirror? Perhaps this is the ultimate question all of us must face: Who am I, naked and alone, with only my mind and my being, and with no external supports or trappings?
One of the core meanings of enlightenment is liberation from false and [inaudible] value attachments that blind the individual to his or her true essence. When and if you learn that ultimately you are your mind, and your manner of using it… when and if you understand that ‘ego’ is only the internal experience of consciousness, the ultimate center of awareness - you are free.
But for those who are trapped in a maze of false notions of self, an elaborate structure of social roles and images, and barricaded behind a network of defense values, freedom is almost unreachable. Or so it seems. At best, it is a distant vision. The path of our evolution is the path we follow toward actualizing that vision.
We can’t complete our discussion of the dynamics of self esteem without considering the impact of self esteem on two cardinal issues of our existence: work and love.

END of side 6

EQI.org Home Page

Core Components of EQI.org

Other EQI.org Topics:

Emotional Intelligence | Empathy
Emotional Abuse | Understanding
Emotional Literacy | Feeling Words
Respect | Parenting | Caring
Listening | Invalidation | Hugs
Depression |Education
Personal Growth

Search EQI.org | Support EQI.org

EQI.org Library and Bookstore

Online Consulting, Counseling Coaching from EQI.org