February 28, 2018 • Sarah Jean Gosney
Let’s talk about self-esteem.
Low self-esteem is a common problem these days. It’s mostly discussed as an issue among young girls, but I think it affects young men equally, if not more so. People blame this crisis on the media, saying it promotes unrealistic body standards (newsflash, a lot of those are in fact real bodies. Not everything is Photoshopped). Even though those bodies might not be unrealistic for the human population, they may very well be unrealistic for me or for you (can’t do much about your leg length or breast size, without surgical intervention). So this certainly has an effect; scrolling through Instagram models’ pages all day can make you feel like a bag of garbage when in all likelihood you’re fine. Well, that’s not true. As of 2014, 70.7% of adults in the U.S. are overweight or obese, so probably you’re not fine, but you definitely could be fine if you put in the effort.
Which brings me to my main point. Self-esteem is not simply an internal phenomenon. Body positivity, self-love, and positive-thinking alone will never build a healthy self-esteem. Self-esteem comes from both internal and external value. That means you can tell yourself in the mirror all day long how beautiful you are, but if no one gives you a second glance or any romantic attention, you won’t feel very attractive.
All this is not to say that physical appearance is the only component of self-esteem. It is simply the most often talked about aspect of it and is a very obvious and easily observed example. True self-esteem goes well beyond looks alone.
Let’s discuss a few of these points.
Positive role models and a spiritual/moral compass go hand in hand. Both are different pathways to access a blueprint of good, righteous behavior. Role models give a worldly, concrete map for a person’s actions, while a strong religious or ethical code imposes broader guidance from a higher authority. Without both of these, a person has no frame of reference with which he can determine whether his activities are beneficial to himself and to society. Without these, a person will default to societal standards of value, which in the present day highly incentivizes drug dealing a soft prostitution.
A lack of skills is another common culprit for low self esteem. Without any skills to speak of, a person will have no sense of accomplishment or being able to effect change in the world. This, in turn, will make him feel powerless and often useless. However, many people with low self esteem, men in particular, do have well defined skills. The problem is that those skills have very little social capital. Take, for example, a man who is very skilled at building models—airplanes, trains, villages. He may be very good at what he does, but outside a very small subset of other people–usually other men–society does not value his skill. He is not going to find a trophy wife by building the best model plane the world has ever seen.
For self-esteem to exist, internal and external validation must meet with equal force. Unsurprisingly, to build healthy self-esteem, you take the opposite route of what I mentioned above.
What are some examples of skills with social capital? One surprising example would be professional gamers. I don’t know how good they are with women (if I had to guess, I’d say not great), but they still get validation and monetary compensation from a relatively large audience. An even better example would be playing an instrument. This is considered by almost all people as a valuable and appealing skill and can get you far with both sexes and in many social circles.
As you can see from this list, looks are only one factor in the equation. It’s clear that the media can’t be blamed for everything.
I did mention that there needed to be a balance of internal and external validation for self-esteem to flourish. This goes back to the body positivity example. If a person is overweight and out of shape, no amount of work on their inner belief of being beautiful will make this true. On the other side of the coin, if a person is lauded for their beauty but has body dysmorphia, self-esteem is still not present. This is the case for achievements too. If, for example, a man makes a lot of money starting a company and receives acclaim for this, his self-esteem may remain stagnant if he feels the company’s success comes from a product designed by another man who is getting little credit.
Of course, self-esteem can turn pathological as well. Even if external and internal forces are balanced, if they become exaggerated, it morphs into vanity. Take any Kardashian, for example. They most likely estimate their self-worth very highly, and society does the same. However, it is taken to such an extreme that the validation and valuation are no longer healthy.
If you have a problem with self-esteem, you probably have a lot more problems than just that. Mantras and telling your reflection you love it are not going to cut it to create long-lasting self-worth. That being said, know too that there are many concrete steps you can take to raise your self-esteem in a stable manner. It’s not simply that your mind is flawed and thinking incorrectly. It’s trying to signal to you that you need change.
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