The Values Essays

The Value of Self Esteem

Thursday, June 18, 2009


On a sweltering hot July day in Evansville, IN, 1954, all the children of welfare families were loaded on to buses and taken to Yabrody Park.  Yabrody Park was a pitiful excuse for an amusement park but for welfare children in 1954 it was everything Disney World is for our kids today.  My brother, Bill was nine; I was seven.  Before we got off the bus we were told everything in the park was free today.  We could ride the rides as often as we liked, play the games; anything we wanted to do.

Bill and I darted off to have some fun.  We were having a great time and soon got very thirsty.  We headed to a little wooden shack that was a concession stand.  Bill ordered two cokes.  The lady handed them to us, I took a sip of mine and then she said "That will be fifty cents."  Bill and I looked at each other dismayed. He found his voice first and said "We don't have any money.  We were told everything in the park is free for us today."  The lady looked at us with disgust and said" Oh, go ahead and keep them.  Your sister has already drunk out of hers. You welfare kids are all alike. You think everything ought to be given to you!"

The shame, humiliation and degradation that I felt at that moment was so strong, I can feel it today as I retell the story even though I am an accomplished, financially secure adult.

That is an example of the kind of message that builds or destroys our self esteem.  What are your messages from childhood?  If anything in your present brings you unreasonable pleasure or pain you can bet that it is a clue to a negative or positive message from your past.
What is self esteem? It is not ego, self confidence, narcissism. It is self respect, self worth and self acceptance. When my self esteem is in tact, I have lost the need to justify my self to the outside world.  I can disclose who I am to others.
Think of the word intimacy as in to me see! The official definition of the California Task Force to Promote Self Esteem and Personal and Social Responsibility (1990),  "Appreciating my own worth and importance and having the character to be accountable for myself and to act responsibly toward others."

California Assemblyman John Vasconcellos stated  "self esteem is a social vaccine" and the key to productivity, community and to balancing the budget.

This task force asked, "Is low self esteem the root cause of: crime and violence, alcohol abuse, drug abuse, teenage pregnancy, child and spousal abuse, chronic welfare dependency, and failure to achieve in school? Their findings revealed that low self esteem had been documented as "a primary causal factor" in each of the seven areas of targeted social problems.

Low self esteem correlates with both prejudice and violence. People who have a negative view of themselves also tend to view other people and the world negatively.

Most of our growing up years, men were valued by what they did, women by how they looked and then by what their husbands did.  External measures of who you are. And good people were made to feel UNgood by an economic class system imposed from above.

Way back in the eighties, Gloria Steinam wrote in Revolution From Within: A Book of Self Esteem, "Many of the people I have been brought up to envy and see as powerful ---mostly men---actually had the other half of the same self esteem problem I was experiencing.  I had been raised to assume all power was outside myself, but they had been raised to place power almost nowhere but within themselves. Often, they were suffering, too."

The bottom line—self esteem isn't everything, it's just that without it there is nothing. It is through the practice of self esteem that people grow. You hurt when you value judge yourself and others.  The pain manifests itself in your body.  My body language changes when I even say the word pain aloud.  My body turns in on itself, to protect itself. By contrast, the more relaxed you are, the more you get out of anything---including life itself. When you are able to open yourself up because you no longer feel the need to defend, you let others in --- in-to-me-see.  You are more capable of intimacy.

Self esteem plays as much a part in the destiny of nations as it does in the lives of individuals. Self-hatred leads to the need either to dominate or to be dominated. Citizens who refuse to obey anything but their own consciences can transform their countries. Think about any liberating revolution that you know of---the civil rights revolution, the women's revolution---every revolution is started by people who will not listen to anything except their own conscience.  In short, self esteem is the basis of any real democracy.  The strength of small people isn't in guns, it is in intellect; it is in culture and traditions and in self-belief.    

Where did I get positive messages that were antidotes for the Yabrody Park concession lady?

Many of them came from teachers.  I'm not sure when the message first came to me but somehow early on I got the message that my ticket out of poverty and on to a sense of self worth was through education.  

It was a dark car parked on a lonely road. I was sixteen years old and in love, I thought, for the first time.  After a few innocent kisses, (I promise they were just innocent kisses.) my boyfriend placed a plastic wrapped condom in my hand and said "Let's go all the way".  That's what we called it in those days.  I bolted upright in that car and said, "Are you kidding. I'm going to college!"  He died laughing. He didn't see what one had to do with the other. But in my mind, the two were very correlated.  Poor girls who got pregnant remained poor and remained uneducated. I had gotten the message that education was my ticket out of poverty and to a sense of self -worth.

Remember the movie, "An Officer and a Gentleman" with Richard Gere and Debra Winger? The girls in the lower class area near the naval training base were given a strong message that their ticket out of the area was to find a young naval officer to marry.  More often the reality of messages like that is that those young women ended up pregnant, continued to live in poverty and oftentimes alone rather than being carried off by Richard Gere.

What is your ticket to healthy self esteem? Start by examing childhood messages about your personhood. Why do some learners absorb information better by hearing it than seeing it? Why does one sibling remember stories and ideas while another remembers names and numbers?  Why are some people gifted at languages, and still others drawn to anything mechanical? Why do some have perfect pitch and others have "green thumbs"?  Why are some of us alert in the morning and others hopeless until noon; some gregarious and other shy; some sexually attracted to the same gender, some to the opposite gender, and some to the individual regardless of gender? No one knows.  But we do know that like children, adults whose innermost feelings and preferences are ignored, ridiculed, punished, or repressed come to believe that there is something profoundly, innately "wrong" with them.  And conversely, those who are able to honor these inner promptings know what it is to feel at home with themselves---to esteem themselves.

Children who are encouraged to follow their own interests actually learn more, internalize and retain that learning better, become more creative, and have healthier and more durable self esteem than those who are motivated by reward, punishment or competition with other children.

A unique and true self resides in each one of us.

The good news about self esteem is: you have come here to find what you already have. Or as Plato said, "The soul knows who we are from the beginning."

updated: 8 years ago