In recent decades there has been a great deal of emphasis placed on the importance of self-esteem. Our children will grow into unhappy adults unless we can build up their sense of specialness and unique importance. Young people should believe in themselves, that anything is possible, and that nobody has a right to get in their way. What this self-esteem campaign has produced is a generation of entitled and self-absorbed consumers. Whining, deserving, litigious little brats.
Okay, not all young people are this way, and it’s not just young people who are stuck on themselves. To some degree I am stuck as well, and so are you.
What might be an unimpeded path to the actualization of our true potential as human beings becomes instead an obstacle course where our time and energy are tied up with something much smaller, and much, much less important. As with all living things that develop according to a genetic ideal encoded in their DNA, human beings are destined to grow into maturity and express the essential nature of our species.
This developmental achievement is what I call fulfillment, which is not exactly the same as happiness or positive self-esteem, although these are highly correlated. When our progress to maturity is frustrated – blocked, undermined, or snagged – a fixation on being happy (or less unhappy) and admired (or at least respected) can drive us deeper into suffering. Critics of the term fulfillment tend to confuse it with a self-focused aim in life where the only outcome that matters is personal pleasure, success, and glory. But that’s not how I’m using it.
Again, our fulfillment as human beings is what comes about when our individual talents, creative intelligence, and deeper potential are actualized – discovered, expressed, and allowed to flourish.
To understand why so many of us don’t make it there, and what might be personally holding us back, we need to move our attention to where it all starts. At the other end of this developmental and evolutionary time-line is our primal need to know that reality is provident. This knowledge is not a conceptual understanding but instead plants itself in the basic workings of our nervous system.
From even before we were born, our brain and nervous system were picking up critical information from the environment and matching these with our body’s internal state. Survival was the primary concern, which meant that our baseline internal state needed to match those conditions so as to optimize our chances to live.
An impoverished, unstable, or hostile environment triggered our nervous system to assume a more vigilant baseline state, which turned up our sensitivity and decreased our reaction time to any sign of threat or danger. For some of us, this sensitivity was set so high as to keep us in a chronic state of anxiety. Most of us, however, were fortunate enough to have gotten what we needed not only to survive but to be fairly healthy and well-adjusted. But none of us came through the gauntlet of those prenatal, neonatal, and early childhood stages of life without some insecurity – not one of us.
It was this universal human anxiety that motivated our attachment: first to mother and other caregivers, then to pacifiers and favorite toys; later to friends, romantic interests, material possessions and titles of social influence.
These attachments served to calm us down by giving us something to cling to, and we identified with them so closely that they became part of who we are. As we grew older, we simply ‘traded up’ from infantile attachments to juvenile attachments to adolescent attachments to adult attachments, but their value as anchors of security and extensions of our identity remained functionally unchanged.
The process of ego development, then, is deeply entangled with this dynamic of insecurity pacified by attachment, and the gradual construction of identity through our identification with whatever helps us feel better about ourselves. The self-esteem movement arose at a time when cultural change and uncertainty compelled many parents, teachers, coaches, and therapists to pacify us with whatever toys, accommodations, trophies, or pharmaceuticals we needed. We were the center of their attention, the consumer of all their best efforts.
We didn’t mind at all having these treasures laid at our feet, and it wasn’t long before we came to feel that we deserved it – and more!
As I said, attachment is inherent to the process of identity-formation. All of us have some insecurity over whether reality is sufficient to our needs. Is there enough of this? Will there be enough of that? Am I good enough to be loved? Will you leave me if I’m not enough for you? What if this new partner isn’t a perfect match, the next prize is less satisfying, or your promise to me doesn’t come true?
Our obsession with security, self-esteem, and looking for happiness in something, someone, or somewhere else, has us trapped in the rocks of our own altar. Each stone in our altar is an attachment we feel we can’t live without. Without it we wouldn’t be who we are. Worse yet, without this or that attachment in the construct of our identity we would succumb to meaninglessness and anxiety.
Because identity is the product of identifying with something or someone else, and because the ego looking out from this unique composition of attachments is so idolized in society and popular religion, we are entombed inside the altar of self-esteem.
Ego is everything. Or at least it’s the only thing that really matters.
Breaking free is a matter of getting over ourselves, finally realizing that our identity is nothing more than a confabulation of attachments and the outlook on reality we have from here. Everything is reduced to the frame of our convictions, filtered according to the prejudices and ambitions that define us. Once we see that, the moment when our disillusionment really sets in, is the breaking of a spell, the apocalyptic end of our world as we knew it.
Inevitably we find ourselves on the near edge of a depression, a deep hole that threatens to pull us in. If we should struggle to throw the covers back over our head and return to the trance of who we were, we likely will fall into profound anhedonia – the inability to find any pleasure, happiness, or meaning in life. We are hopeless, and helpless to do anything about it.
Wait! Maybe ______ can save me. I deserve to be saved, don’t I?
The spiritual wisdom teachings across higher cultures invite us to take a second look at this dreaded depression, whereupon we will notice that it is actually filled with water. We don’t have to fall helplessly to the bottom of a hole, for this water will bear us up and deliver us to the far shore. All we need to do is let go of who we think we are, release all attachments, and simply trust the process – or as we say, go with the flow.
In that instant we will be on the farther shore, now the starting point of a new beginning – apocalypse, resurrection, and genesis all in one.
Finally free of attachments, our relationships can become healthy; or maybe we accept the fact that we need to leave some of them behind. We take creative authority and start making choices with a much bigger picture in mind. We become more fully human as we relax into being. The deeper truth of what we are comes through, and we live it out with honesty, courage, and loving-kindness.
“The glory of God,” wrote Irenaeus, “is a human being, fully alive.”