Learning to Grow in Self-Esteem
By Mel B.
A Low Opinion of Self Drove Us into Many of Our Difficulties
Volume 31 Issue 9
YOU’VE PROBABLY heard the story about Groucho Marx’s refusal to belong to any country club that would accept him as a member. One of our AA members used to tell this story with quite a flourish. It was a delightful illustration of a prevalent human problem: low self-esteem. The story probably clicked especially well at AA meetings because alcoholics apparently have lots of trouble in building and maintaining self-esteem.
At least, I did. I cannot remember ever having thought well of myself or ever being very secure, even as a small child. In school, I always felt threatened by the competition of others. Later on, I was critical of any girl who became interested in me. During my WW II service in the Navy, I was certain that I had been assigned to the lowly amphibious forces because of incompetence, despite the fact that wartime need in this branch was unusually high. Afterwards, I was suspicious of job offers, believing that there was a catch somewhere if an employer was willing to accept me. And so it went; I was always supercritical of myself and, at the same time, overawed by the accomplishments and achievements of others.
How does one get over such a problem as low self-esteem? Well, I am not entirely sure that some people can completely recover from this malady. I am convinced, however, that the AA program has at least helped me come to terms with many of my own problems with low self-esteem. But I suspect that the fundamental problem is much like my problem with alcohol: The problem is arrested, but it is never cured. In the same way, I have been able to make up for a deficiency of self-esteem, but the problem often reasserts itself at the very moment I think I’ve acquired true self-confidence.
But I am in good company. I have been a devoted student of the writings of Bill W., the AA co-founder who produced much of the textbook AIcoholics Anonymous and its companion volume Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions. If there is any message that comes through loud and clear in Bill’s writings, it is that he continued to suffer from low self-esteem and various other inferiority feelings throughout his long years of sobriety.
What is self-esteem? I define it as the total perception one has of his own intrinsic worth. There are many related, almost synonymous terms for self-esteem. There are lots of references, for example, to self-concept, self-image, self-consistency, self-confidence, and self-assurance. A person acquires and maintains a number of beliefs and feelings about himself, and these beliefs and feelings then control and shape his behavior. The columnist Sydney J. Harris recently pointed out that almost anybody you might designate as “difficult”–a troublemaker, a braggart, a sneak, an alibier, a die-hard, an apple-polisher–suffers from low self-esteem. “Such people basically do not like themselves (whether they know it or not),” Mr. Harris writes. “[They] are not satisfied with themselves, and seek to achieve gratification by manipulating the outside world, rather than by reforming their own personality structure.”
Mr. Harris might have added the alcoholic to his list of difficult persons. Drinking can almost be described as a frantic attempt to win approval from oneself and from others. This attempt is doomed to failure from the start. For one thing, most of the alcoholic’s efforts to win approval tend to engulf him in further difficulties. I told lies in bars because I had a low opinion of myself and mistakenly believed that falsehoods would cause me to be admired and accepted. But my lies caused me to hate myself and undoubtedly caused others to further despise me. Also to get attention, I talked loudly in bars and ridiculed certain people. But I then wanted to crawl into the earth and hide when my insane remarks were repeated back to me. Sometimes, I bought drinks for others in a show of generosity. I then hated myself because I was neglecting other financial responsibilities.
Not every alcoholic is guilty of such exhibitionistic practices. Some AA members were lone drinkers who hid from the world. Even here, however, low self-esteem may have been the culprit; many of these persons tell of their fear of meeting others and of facing the world. What can be the root of such fear, if not the belief that one is unworthy and does not have a rightful place in society?
It’s unlikely that many alcoholics are willing or able to understand such problems while they are still drinking. Most of us are so wrapped up in ourselves–preoccupied with the problems of defending and maintaining a drinking pattern–that we are unable to perceive why we behave as we do. Improved self-understanding can come only with sobriety, and even then our progress may be painfully slow. The recovering alcoholic who begins to perceive that he suffers from low self-esteem also may be plunged into depression and self-condemnation. He may even arrive at the erroneous conclusion that his low self-esteem means that he has “problems other than alcohol” or is not “working the program” in the right way.
Most of the articles I have read about low self-esteem lay the blame on a person’s upbringing. We did not learn to like ourselves in the right way as children, and this deficiency turned into a major problem when we became adults. Perhaps we were cruelly ridiculed because of personal shortcomings or were unfairly compared with another person, whose behavior was considered more acceptable. However, the child who is rejected and criticized is not the only one who fails to develop self-esteem. The person who is pampered and praised as a child may have similar problems, if only because he perceives that such pampering is false and is perhaps given as a reward for good behavior or certain achievements. In my disorderly family environment, I was the child who seemingly did nothing right, while my older sister was an outstanding student and the model of the perfect child. But I learned years later that her self-esteem was no higher than my own. She suffered from anxiety and depression during the very years when she was receiving the most approval from others.
In looking back over a bumpy and unhappy experience as a child, it is tempting to place blame on one’s parents and to resign oneself to a lifetime of problems simply because one’s early development was neglected. But this form of resignation is unnecessary if we have available the principles of AA. The AA Fellowship is really a “second chance” program for people who made a number of false starts in life. We may always have a trace of anxiety or doubt that blocks our route to the kind of self-esteem we envy in others. Nonetheless, we can build and maintain a fairly high self-esteem that will enable us to live comfortably and to work effectively most of the time. There are many ideas in AA that will help us reach that goal.
One of these ideas is AA’s pure democracy, its acceptance of any person, without reference to sex, age, class, creed, color, religion, or occupation. I once envied people who belonged to exclusive clubs (although, like Groucho, I would have resigned from any club that would have accepted me for membership!). I thought that the path to importance–and presumably the path to self-esteem–lay in the direction of possessing hard-to-get memberships and other symbols of distinction. I would not have believed that one could enhance one’s own self-respect by joining an outfit such as AA–an outfit that was open to anybody and had many former outcasts in its ranks.
But it was AA’s inclusiveness that taught me to respect my fellow members as persons, rather than as representatives of social, business, or racial groups. Sure, I still made friends with those who shared my interests, and I could still be awed when a wealthy person or a local celebrity joined the group. I learned, however, that it was wrong to look down upon certain people or to expect other people to look up to me. In learning this, I began to feel more self-confident and comfortable around people I had formerly envied. Quite often, I found that many of the seemingly important people needed more help than the persons who had come to AA as outcasts. Alcohol does not discriminate. Neither does God, according to the Scriptures. And the closer we get to the real principles of AA, the more we are able to perceive that we have self-respect when we learn to respect all others in a general, impersonal way.
Another idea of AA is the continuous inventory, the Tenth Step routine that suggests a review of our motives and actions when things go wrong. I discovered that I did not like the Tenth Step very well. I preferred never to be wrong, and my meager self-esteem was easily bruised when I was proven wrong. But I could not build genuine self-esteem by ignoring or denying my mistakes. I had to face them. I also learned that I did not think well of myself when I tried to build myself up at the expense of others.
Sometimes, I found my feelings and actions puzzling. Even in sobriety, I would do and say things that seemed stupid. One such problem, which came to my attention some years ago, was my inability to protect company secrets. Largely as a result of several years’ sobriety, I had been promoted to a supervisory position with a manufacturing firm. At times, I was given confidential information that would not be released to the public or other employees for several weeks.
On one occasion, I am sorry to say, I told certain people within the company about an important executive promotion that was in the works. This betrayal of trust did not damage the company in any way, but I went through an agony of self-crucifixion when I realized what I had done. Why was I not more trustworthy? What had gotten into me? Did I still need to be restored to sanity?
I found the explanation for my behavior in a magazine article by a popular writer. The article discussed a young man who, like me, had been promoted within a company, but still felt rather insecure and inferior among associates who surpassed him in educational and social credentials. He would reveal company secrets in order to get the attention and approval of others. In a short time, this had backfired, and he was about to lose his job because of his unreliability. The real cause of his trouble, however, was not stupidity. He simply lacked sufficient self-esteem, and he was trying to get it by obtaining approval from his associates. In some ways, this compulsive behavior resembled the barroom lies and boasting of the alcoholic.
I could certainly see myself in this case history, and I made a successful effort thereafter to use better judgment in the way I handled company information. Since then, I have dealt with confidential material for years without yielding to the temptation to discuss it with unauthorized persons. There is still an urge to let others know that I have access to certain company secrets; I sense this most strongly when I am around a person who makes me feel a bit inferior. But by being aware of my own motives and unmet needs, I have so far been able to live up to my responsibilities in keeping company secrets.
Still another AA idea is that we should avoid becoming too dependent on others or trying to dominate or use people. I do not like to admit it, but I have often used other AAs as crutches for my battered self-esteem. When I was criticized or rejected, I would rush off to find reassurance from certain AA members who usually had been willing to tell me what I wanted to hear. I have served in this same capacity for other AAs whose own sagging confidence needed bolstering.
Up to a point, this practice is an acceptable part of AA. But it can also retard our growth. After all, we must eventually develop the ability to decide when we are right and when we are wrong. If our motives and actions are right, we should not need reassurance. If we are wrong, there is nothing that reassurance can supply as a remedy. A friend of mine puts it this way: “If my ways are right, I cannot fail; if my ways are wrong. I cannot succeed.” There are times when a right action will bring criticism and disapproval, while a wrong action may bring applause. We must not deceive ourselves. We will maintain lasting self-esteem only if we live according to our inner convictions.
Implicit in the AA program is another important idea–that we should not solicit public applause, although it is desirable to cultivate friendship and goodwill. This principle was designed to protect the Fellowship and the sensitive member, but it is also a useful standard for the person who has been hungering and thirsting for applause. The individual who has an insatiable need for applause may ask himself whether he is trying to obtain self-esteem through others. If he is so motivated, his effort is bound to fail, because there is no way that the crowd’s approval can serve as a lasting substitute for real self-esteem. It is notorious that some actors and other celebrities have had a pathetic reliance on popularity as a means of building self-esteem. But this does not really work. There is an almost delirious feeling of well-being that accompanies any public triumph, but it quickly subsides, and the applause usually is shifted to another figure. If we have a need for the limelight, there is always an anxious feeling that we will not receive the proper amount of applause the next time around, or that we will fall out of favor.
I have arrived at the belief that applause is wonderful, but that it cannot really do the job of strengthening my self-esteem. However pleasant it is to be cheered and praised, we should also have the kind of self-respect and self-confidence that enables us to survive occasional criticism and condemnation. Perhaps Cromwell had something of this sort in mind when he remarked that the crowds which were shouting his praises would “turn out just as cheerfully to see me hanged.”
Still another telltale of a self-esteem problem is the tendency to maintain unusually high goals and to become depressed if the goals are not reached. There is nothing wrong with forming high goals and striving to reach them. But how are we to react if, for some reason, we fail to make it all the way? Even worse, what if we fail miserably or don’t even manage to make a good start?
I believe the individual is in real trouble if his self-esteem is too closely tied to certain achievements. Most of us are failures in some things, successes in others. If we are trying to improve the quality of our thinking and behavior, we will soon begin to know that each person is likely to have a complex mixture of strengths and weaknesses. We are successful if we are using our strengths properly and are improving upon our weaknesses. We should not be too harsh on ourselves when we fail. Quite often, the failure to reach one goal may be instrumental in pointing us toward new goals that could turn out to be more suitable for our purposes.
I believe today that the AA principle of anonymity, in its spiritual usage, is the best route to genuine self-esteem. Anonymity, at the practical level, is a principle suggesting that we do not identify ourselves as AA members in the public media. At the spiritual level, the anonymity principle shows us how to establish right relationships with ourselves, our neighbors, and our Creator. It will work unfailingly if given a chance, and we will soon realize that we are also able to meet most of our very human needs for self-esteem.
There are several ancient ideas that seem to be the sources of AA’s anonymity principle. One of these ideas is that a person should not have a “trumpet” sounded before him while he is doing good works. In other words, we should know that good actions bring their own rewards in personal well-being and may even be somewhat cheapened if, at the same time, we seek approval from others. If we know that a certain action, such as carrying the AA message, is right, we will also feel self-confident and self-approving while we are participating in such an action. We will like ourselves much better than we did when most of our effort was self-serving. We will begin to feel useful. We will feel closer to others and will become more conscious of their sufferings and needs. We will also know that it is much better to do the right thing because it ought to be done and not simply to win the approval of others.
Another ancient idea covered by the anonymity principle is that of the trusted servant: The person who would be chief should be the servant of all. This is important to remember when there’s a temptation to use power as a means of building self-esteem. It is false to believe that we can ever find genuine self-esteem simply by acquiring power over other people’s lives. AA as a society has avoided the trap of power struggles by refusing to create positions which would give unusual powers to individuals.
But this does not protect the individual AA member from seeking excessive power, in business and social organizations or from becoming a tyrant in his own family. If an individual realizes that he has been guilty of such practices, he may profit by taking an inventory that includes a close look at his own motives. Have we been using power over other people as a means of building ourselves up? Or are we guilty of a reverse form of the same practice? Are we clinging to a more powerful person whom we look to for support and approval? If so, we should reflect that the right way to use any kind of power is for the service and benefit of others. If any person in a position of responsibility will begin to look upon himself as a trusted servant, he will actually find himself rich in self-esteem.
Finally, there is a lot to be said for the ancient axiom “He who seeks to save his life shall lose it, and he who seeks to lose his life shall save it.” This could be translated to mean: The person who seeks to find self-esteem in this world will never find it, while the person who turns his life over to the care and keeping of God will find that he has all the self-esteem he needs (although he probably will not pause to reflect on whether or not he has self-esteem!). The point of this is that too much self-concern is always self-defeating. Evidently, genuine self-esteem cannot be sought directly; it is a natural result of following a spiritual way of life.
When does a person know whether he is making progress in building self-esteem? I believe that we can measure our progress by studying our own reactions. A person who lacks true self-esteem cannot stand criticism and rejection. At the same time, he goes overboard when lie receives approval and acceptance. In a way, this is similar to the alcoholic’s problem of being unable to stand either adversity or success. The person who is growing in self-esteem can handle criticism as well as praise, rejection as well as acceptance. Perhaps this person is beginning to realize that one’s view of himself should not be merely a mirror of other people’s opinions. If he has a measure of genuine self-esteem, he can use criticism and praise as aids to progress, knowing that none of this either adds to or subtracts from what he really is. It is always good to reflect that every person, in the sight of God, is more than he seems to be in the eyes of the world. When a person accepts this idea for himself, he accepts it for everybody.
It is useful to remember, however, that the recovering alcoholic may always be conscious of certain problems caused by low self-esteem. But we can easily live with such problems; indeed, they can help us grow. And for that matter, most people suffer from such problems to a certain extent, so who are we to think we should have complete immunity?
Meanwhile, we can also laugh at ourselves. Several years ago, I was invited to join the board of a local organization. My wife and I had a hilarious time discussing the invitation. We agreed that the board position must have been declined by several persons and that I was at least fourth choice. But I accepted and enjoyed every minute of my participation.
Perhaps Groucho Marx would have enjoyed belonging to that country club, too!