Thursday, January 10, 2008


By Suma Varughese

How much do you think you are worth? No, don't check out your bank balance. Look within and assess your self-esteem. For the true measure of your worth

Vedanta teacher and workshop trainer Acharya Ram Mohan has a question for his students. "If someone close to you were grieving over a failure, would you call them a dolt and write them off, or would you console them?" Inevitably the answer is the latter.

"Why then," Ram Mohan asks, "do you call yourself a fool each time you make a mistake?"

Why indeed? Why do we fail to give ourselves the love, consideration and respect that we offer others? Why is it so hard to do jai (to conquer) unto ourselves?

The answer lies in that contentious issue: self-esteem. "Psychologically, it's a core issue," says Mumbai-based psychiatrist Dayal Mirchandani of India. The well-known psychologist Abraham Maslow, who charted out a hierarchy of human needs, put self-esteem above basic survival needs such as food, shelter and clothing. Nathaniel Branden, the guru of self-esteem issues, says in The Six Pillars of Self-esteem: "The level of our self-esteem has profound consequences for every aspect of our existence—how we operate in the workplace, how we deal with people, how high we are likely to rise, how much we are likely to achieve."

In his book, Healing The Shame That Binds You, John Bradshaw says: "Total self-love and acceptance is the only foundation for happiness and the love of others. Without total self-love and acceptance, we are doomed to the enervating task of creating false selves." Anand Tendolkar, reiki master and workshop guru, recalls his lifelong attempt to match up to his father's expectations. "My father was a perfectionist and a larger-than-life figure. For 40 years, I tried to be like him. Today, it's such a freedom simply to be me," he says.

Self-acceptance, self-love, a positive self-image, the freedom to be ourselves; all these are crucial aspects of self-esteem. Whether seen from the ultimate perspective of spirituality, which exhorts us to be our true self, or from the more modest psychological imperative to develop a positive self-image, the struggle towards self-esteem is everyman's journey.

Says Branden: "Healthy self-esteem correlates with rationality, realism, intuitiveness, creativity, independence, flexibility, ability to manage change, willingness to admit (and correct) mistakes, benevolence and cooperation. Poor self-esteem correlates with irrationality, blindness to reality, rigidity, fear of the new and unfamiliar, inappropriate conformity or inappropriate rebelliousness, defensiveness, an overly compliant or controlling behavior, and fear or hostility towards others."

Self-esteem becomes a wide-ranging term for it is intimately connected with our relationship with our selves. That relationship determines everything about our lives. Every problem that we have—relationships, health, money or work—is ultimately caused by inadequate self-esteem. Branden, in fact, describes it as the one common denominator in all neurotic problems. He sees them either as direct expression of or a defense against inadequate self-esteem. Yet the subject has not received the kind of attention that it deserves. Unless our self-esteem plummets to the extent that we can no longer handle our lives effectively, we are content to leave it alone. The reason is that few of us are really conscious of its wide-ranging impact on our lives.

Says writer Devi Narayan: "Before I started reiki, I didn't know I had low self-esteem. I used to think I was just being negative. I was unhappy with my job but did not have the confidence to leave it. Reiki made me aware that the way I react to situations is based on how I feel about myself."

From the spiritual perspective, one is free of self-esteem problems only when one transcends the ego. Paradoxically, we need to develop a healthy ego before we can transcend it. Psychologists agree that low self-esteem is related to weak ego boundaries. Says Bradshaw: "An ego boundary is internal strength by which a person guards her inner space. Without boundaries a person has no protection. A strong boundary is like a door with the doorknob on the inside. A weak ego boundary is like a door with the doorknob on the outside." Says Acharya Ram Mohan: "Ego problems arise from low self-esteem. Egoistic people are insecure about themselves." Hence, only one with a healthy self-esteem is qualified for spiritual evolution.

So how do psychologists define self-esteem? There is no single definition. However, Branden offers a comprehensive understanding of the term in The Six Pillars of Self-esteem: "Self-esteem is the disposition of experiencing oneself as competent in coping with the basic challenges of life and as being worthy of happiness." There are two components to Branden's definition. The first he calls self-efficacy: "Confidence in the functioning of my mind, in my ability to think, understand, learn, choose, and make decisions; confidence in my ability to understand the facts of reality that fall within the sphere of my interests and needs; self-trust, self-reliance."

The second is self-respect: "Self-respect means assurance of my value; an affirmative attitude towards my right to live and be happy; comfort in appropriately asserting my thoughts, wants and needs; the feeling that joy and fulfillment are my natural birthright." Branden further subdivides these two factors into six components:

• Living consciously: This is an active mind rather than a passive one, being in the moment, with a concern to know external and internal reality. Says he: "To live consciously means to be aware of everything that bears on our actions, purposes, values and goals to the best of our ability and to behave in accordance with that which we see and know."

• Self-acceptance: This means accepting all feelings, thoughts and acts and being compassionate towards oneself. "Self-acceptance entails our willingness to experience—that is, to make real to ourselves without denial or evasion—that we think what we think, feel what we feel, desire what we desire, have done what we have done, and are what we are."

• Self-responsibility: This includes being responsible for the achievement of desires, for the level of consciousness; our behavior with other people; for prioritizing time and for personal happiness. "In taking responsibility for our own existence we implicitly recognize that other human beings are not our servants and do not exist merely for satisfying our needs." TIED UP IN KNOTS
As a country, we need to loosen up and like ourselves a little more

India exhibits classic low self-esteem symptoms. Says Mumbai psychotherapist Sushma Sharma: "It's because we think so poorly of ourselves that we ape the West. We don't have an identity of our own."

The contempt we have for ourselves as a nation is in evidence when we relentlessly run our country and ourselves down, whether in print, at the local teashop or while commuting. Every Republic Day and Independence Day is an occasion for a national dirge on our many iniquities.

Intellectuals gnash their teeth in impotent fury about our lacking the killer instinct, our unwillingness to patent nature's bounty or our lack of commercial sense. A thorough grounding in our values would reveal to them that they arise from a spiritual outlook of life rather than a material one.

We can also never appreciate the achievements of any of our countrymen unless they produce a certificate from the West. Tagore needed the badge of approval from Y.B. Yeats and R.K. Narayan from Graham Greene before we would deign to acknowledge them.

Even our lack of discipline, sloppiness, poor quality control and chalta hai (it's okay) attitude indicate a fundamental lack of self-belief. We fear that we cannot rise to Western standards and accordingly value ourselves less, thereby writing ourselves off.

It is this innate lack of self-worth that creates endemic corruption and makes us tolerate it from others. Manufacturers rip us off, people jump queues, politicians exploit us, other countries palm off their rejected goods on us. We take it all, because we feel we deserve no better.

The corollary is an awe of the West. Ever since the country's independence, we have unthinkingly adopted the western model of civilization, whether political, economic or social. Today, when the West is examining many of its tenets, we continue to careen heedlessly on the road to liberalization and globalization.

How we long for the West's approval! How we lap up even insignificant mentions of India or Indians! How we protest against their criticism or even worse, their indifference to us!

How do we restore our self-esteem? Ours is a spiritual country. Why not try the spiritual approach? Our sages described us as amrutasya putrah (children of immortality). Ours was the only civilization that dared to proclaim our divinity. Now, we need to believe it and live it.

This is what the Swadhyaya group has tried to instill in the villagers of Maharashtra and Gujarat. The villager is exhorted to believe in himself because God is within him. I have seen the miracles this belief has wrought. Village women hold themselves like queens and the village sarpanch (headman) turns away opportunistic politicians. Faith in themselves has set them free from many addictions, to alcohol and tobacco, as well as to external manipulation. Why can't we try it too?

• Self-assertiveness: It is your right to exist as you are. It is the acceptance that your life does not belong to others and that you are not here to live up to someone else's expectations.

• Purposeful living: "To live purposefully is to use our power for the attainment of goals we have selected; the goal of studying, of raising a family, of earning a living," says Branden.

• Personal integrity: "When our behavior is congruent with our professed values, when ideals and practice match, we have integrity."

Says Maya Kripalani, psychologist and family therapist at Jaslok Hospital and Research Center, Mumbai, India: "A person with high self-esteem is happier, more serene and accepts failure. She is also more truthful and compassionate."

Though it is commonly believed that people with low self-esteem are the eternal wallflowers of life, they can just as easily be flamboyant and attention grabbing.

Says psychotherapist Sushma Sharma, who runs a counseling center, Ashray in Mumbai: "Those looking to be the center of attention actually have rock-bottom self-esteem. When your self-esteem is high, you don't need to prove anything. You can accept yourself."

Even high achievers often fuel their actions by the need to earn society's approval. Says Bradshaw: "Feeling flawed and defective on the inside, I had to prove I was okay by being exceptional on the outside. Everything I did was based on getting authenticated on the outside." As long as our actions are based on getting approval from the outside world, our self-esteem is not whole.

Says Mithu Basu, a PR practitioner: "Right from childhood, my parents imbibed self-worth into me. Later, as life tested me, I found that I was not easily breakable. When you know that as a human being you are worthwhile, nothing else really matters."

In contrast, she describes the case of a friend who lost her job recently: "She became a recluse because she felt that without a visiting card she couldn't go out and circulate. Her identity was her job."

So how do you develop healthy self-esteem? All experts agree that much of it is developed in the first three years of life. "The basic developmental task between 0 to 3 years is trust. The denial of trust impairs development of self-esteem," says Maya. "Unconditional parental love at this stage is crucial. A constantly berated or ridiculed child will find it hard to develop good self-esteem. A critical teacher can hinder the development of good self-esteem, and so can negative peer experiences. At adolescence, acceptance or rejection in relationships, particularly with the opposite sex, can have an impact on self-esteem."

Says psychotherapist Neeta Mohan: "The price tag attached to a child is his self-esteem. Parents give that price tag." She cites the example of a fourth standard girl whose dark complexion was a source of low self-esteem. "She would sit alone and eat her lunch and burst out crying if anyone talked to her. Constant comparisons to her younger brother increased her problem. When I spoke to her, I tapped her basic qualities and made her aware of her good points. I also told her mother to spend more time with her and not to compare her with others."

Says Bradshaw: "Children need mirroring and echoing from their primary caretaker. Mirroring means that someone is there for them and reflects who they really are at any given moment of time. In the first three years each of us needs to be admired and taken seriously."

Says Ram Mohan: "Even the loving messages we get can be mixed with negativity. A child going to school is told, 'Be very careful; don't do anything on your own, always check with the teacher.' The implication is that the world is a dangerous place and that you are not capable of doing anything on your own." Sushma opines: "Right from the time a child is born, he is invaded and bombarded by other people's feelings and concepts. Consequently, he doesn't know who he is." Says Tendolkar: "I had an issue on my skin color. I was born in England. My grandmother used to warn my mother not to have chocolate or she would have a dark baby. My mother did have chocolate and I was born a dark baby in a family that was generally fair. This led to feelings of inferiority."

That perhaps is the crux of the matter. People with low self-esteem don't feel okay in being themselves. So they cover up who they are. One of the chief manifestations of this cover-up is creating a false self.

Says Bradshaw: "Because we experience ourselves as flawed and defective, we cannot look at ourselves without pain. Therefore we must create a false self. The Jungians call it the 'Persona'. Others call it the 'Adopted Child'. It is crucial to see that the false self may be as much a polar opposite as a super achieving perfectionist or an addict in an alley. Both are driven to cover up their deep sense of self-rupture, the hole in their heart."

The obliteration of the authentic self is the defense mechanism most of us use in order to earn external love and esteem, though at a high cost to ourselves. Says Sushma: "The real us came into the world absolutely open. But the urge to avoid being hurt at any cost drives us to ignore our intuition and listen instead to the society's voice that tells us what to do and what not to do, and which keeps judging us." Bradshaw estimates that there are 25,000 hours of internal voice tapes in our minds that keep carrying on a monologue.

According to some experts, low self-esteem is rampant today. Says Sushma: "If I ask my clients to name 10 positive things about themselves they find it difficult to do so, but they have no problem identifying 10 negative things about themselves." Says Mirchandani: "We are witnessing a crisis of low self-esteem. The advertising industry and media support it by stressing that we are not good enough. I've come across more anorexics in the last two years than I had in the last ten years."

Yet, it is never too late to develop self-esteem. Says Maya: "I do believe an individual can develop self-esteem at any level. That's borne out by my experience with the people I've counseled." How does counseling help?

Says Sushma: "Psychology's intervention helps you to sort out impulses. It enables you to discard ineffective ways of doing and to see things in a new perspective. For example, in the case of a person who has a problem controlling his temper, we would analyze what made him lose his temper, when, where and in what circumstances. This would help him distance himself from his feeling and see it objectively. A counselor helps sort out feelings."

Counseling for Sushma is like sorting out and restoring a house to order. "Psychological problems are due to a lack of systematizing. Our minds are full of outdated concepts, unexamined feelings, unconfronted fears and unrealistic ideas of who we are. All we need to do is spring-clean our minds. We must learn to discard what we don't need. If for the last two years you thought of yourself as shy, you need to reexamine the idea for yourself."

As Branden puts it: "First, we need to decide that self-esteem and our happiness matter more than short-term pain. We take baby steps at being more conscious, self-accepting, responsible. We notice that when we do this we like ourselves more. This inspires us to push on and attempt to go further. We become more truthful, with others and ourselves. Self-esteem rises. We feel a little tougher, a little more resourceful…we are building the spiritual equivalent of a muscle."

If psychology views self-esteem as a function of self-efficacy and self-respect, spirituality sees it as a function of who we are. As children of the Most High, we are divine. Innately, we are whole and perfect. Says Ram Mohan: "At the ultimate level, there is a shift from what I do to what I am. If I understand my Self in Vedantic terms, my self-esteem will be high."

While psychology takes the outside approach, which is to increase self-esteem by added doses of self-worth and self-efficacy, spirituality operates inside out. The trick, the masters say, is to allow the Real Self to shine through. Says Jenny Bhatt, artist and cartoonist: "I have reached a stage where my self-esteem is not based on what I do. I discovered that I don't have to be "somebody". We are all already somebody."

The knowledge of being whole and perfect takes one out of the ambit of external props. Says Mirchandani: "The spiritual path is internal, so one is not involved in competition and keeping up appearances." Ultimately, though, the two paths merge and become mutually supporting. As the seeker de-conditions everything about himself that comes in the way of the perfect Self, his self-respect and self-efficacy improve.

As the truth of being whole and perfect manifests in us, we accept ourselves more, like ourselves more and find ourselves trusting and relying on ourselves more. Then respect for the self fills us, and we learn to treat ourselves better, insist on others doing so too and even care for the body better.

Through the psychological method, we discover our selves as our increasing levels of self-respect and self-efficacy release knowledge of them. Which is the better way? There is no right or wrong way. It's only what works for you. The introverted ones would most probably benefit by the internal approach; the extroverted ones by the external one.

Spirituality helps you uncover your self-esteem through simply being; psychology helps you build it up through doing. And ultimately we are both—human beings and doings.


It's a long and rocky road to recovery of total self-esteem. However, if you are determined, nothing is impossible. There are different aspects to recovering your self-esteem. You have to learn to go within yourself and become aware of your feelings, thoughts and deeds, then accept them. Give fresh commands to your internal monitor that you are whole and perfect. Learn to become self-assertive, to deactivate the voices within your head that tell you how to run your life, to love yourself unconditionally. No matter what it takes, keep going at it. One fine day, you will find that all your internal discomforts have disappeared and the new you, innocent, beautiful and unscarred, waits to taste life afresh.

To improve self-esteem, Nathaniel Branden suggests a technique called Sentence Completion, which you can use with the six pillars of self-esteem. The technique is based on the premise that all of us have more knowledge than we are normally aware of, more wisdom than we use, more potential than we reveal in our behavior. The technique basically consists of creating an incomplete sentence and writing six different endings to it as rapidly as possible.

Assume we are dealing with the first pillar—conscious living. Now, first thing in the morning, before proceeding to the day's business, sit down calmly to write the following:

Living consciously to me means… write six endings to this as quickly as possible. Go on to the following:

• If I bring 5 per cent more awareness to my activities today…
• If I pay 5 per cent more awareness to my most important relationships…
• If I pay more attention to how I deal with people today…

At the end of the day do six to ten endings each for the following:

• When I reflect on how I would feel if I lived more consciously…
• When I reflect what happens when I bring 5 per cent more awareness to my activities…
• When I reflect on what happens when I bring 5 per cent more awareness to my most important relationships…

Do this exercise every day of the week from Monday to Friday. There will be many repetitions but new endings will also occur. At the end of the week write a minimum of six endings for this stem:

• If any of what I wrote this week is true, it would be helpful if I…

Says Brandon: "Try to empty your mind of expectations. Do the exercises, go about your day's activities and notice any differences in how you feel or how you operate. You will find that you have set in motion forces that virtually make it impossible to avoid operating more consciously." Branden suggests that after two weeks find other stems to do with increasing consciousness. In this way work your way through all six self-esteem pillars.

Good luck and good self-esteem.

Exercise I

Be self-assertive
Self-assertiveness comes from self-worth, the knowledge that you are okay as you are. It means not allowing anyone power over you or the right to control you. The self-assertive individual neither controls nor allows others to control him. In the book, Don't Say Yes When You Want to Say No by Herbert Fensterheim and Jean Baer, we are told to do basic things like make eye contact, stand straight, speak loud enough to be heard and learn to communicate directly. Unassertive people, according to the authors, can be wordy, have shallow feelings, and lack clear-cut desires. Know your rights and enforce them—rights to judge your own behavior, thoughts, emotions, and to take responsibility for their initiation and consequences upon yourself. You have the right to change your mind. You have the right to make mistakes and be responsible for them. You have the right to say: "I don't know" or "I don't understand" or "I don't care."

Exercise ll

Heal the inner child
Sit erect. Relax and focus on your breathing as you breathe in and out. Now imagine walking down a long flight of stairs. As you reach the end of the stairs, turn left and walk down a long corridor with doors to your right and left. A force field of light shines out from the end of the corridor. Walk into that light and find yourself going through time to a street where you lived before you were seven years old. Walk down the street to the house. Look at the house. Notice the color of the house, its roof, windows and doors. See a small child come out of the front door. How is the child dressed? What color are his shoes? Walk over to the child. Tell him you are from the future, that you know better than anyone what he has been through—his suffering, abandonment, his shame. Tell him that of all the people he will know, you are the only one he will never lose. Promise your child you will meet him for five minutes each day. Pick an exact time. Commit to that time. Place your child in the palm of your hand and let him shrink to the size of your hand. Place him in your heart. Now walk to a beautiful outdoor place and reflect on your experience. Get a sense of communion with yourself, your Higher Power and with all things. Now gradually count up to five, feeling sensation return to your body and you will feel happy, restored and fully awake.

Exercise III

Choose to love yourself
Close your eyes and imagine that the person you currently love and respect the most is sitting across you. Take three to four minutes to see the person fully. Get in touch with your feelings when you experience the person. Now imagine yourself sitting next to you. Take three to four minutes. What are your feelings? Notice what you felt when you looked at yourself. Most of us have negative feelings about ourselves. To counteract these, say to yourself: "I love myself. I accept myself unconditionally."

A variation: Strip and stand in front of a full-length mirror. Look at every part of yourself. What do you feel? If there are parts of yourself that you flinch at or reject internally, repeat to yourself: "I accept all of me unconditionally." Says Bradshaw: "When we make the decision to love ourselves unconditionally, we accept ourselves unconditionally. We are at one with ourselves. If you decide to love yourself, you will give yourself time and attention. You will allow yourself solitude, a nourishing time of aloneness. You will take time for hygiene and exercise, for fun and entertainment. It means learning techniques for getting in touch with your feelings. It means discipline."

Exercise IV

Rework personal history with NLP
Close your eyes and relax. Recall a moment that filled you with shame, inadequacy or embarrassment. Now think of what new resources you have that could have helped you counter these. For instance, if your classmates teased you about your reading glasses as a kid, why not use your greater powers of articulation and assertiveness to rewrite the history? Recall the moment as vividly as you can. What are the visual memories it evokes? What sounds do you associate with it? What feelings do they arouse? Recreate these factors to their highest level of intensity. Anchor the moment by bringing your left thumb and forefinger together. Recall an experience when you were articulate. Recreate it by evoking visual, auditory and kinesthetic associations. Anchor it again by bringing the right thumb and forefinger together. Do the same with a memory of being assertive. Use the same anchor as that for being articulate. Now return to the original memory of being humiliated and use the new resources. This is done by simultaneously activating both sets of anchors. Now say whatever needs to be said to those who hurt you to prove that you can stand up for yourself. Feel complete within yourself. Take a deep breath and open your eyes.

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All of us, to an important extent, experience who we are in the context of our relationships.

– Nathaniel Branden

The Official Website of Nathaniel Branden

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