Your Yearning For Self-esteem

( Originally Published 1950 )

YOU MAY ATTAIN adequate social acceptance and still suffer thirst. You may achieve a satisfactory love life and still hunger. For accompanying these intense desires is a craving for satisfaction of your ego impulses. Whether you like it or not, you are consumed with a desire to be somebody! You may recall that Abraham Lincoln was aware of the desire when in his first speech to the voters of Sagamon County he said, "I have no other ambition so great as that of being truly esteemed by my fellow men.

Another who recognized this third intense desire of mankind was Sir Francis Bacon, who said, "When a man falls in love with himself, it is the beginning of a lifelong romance." This being the case, it is well to recognize that the desire to be somebody can be undermined by feelings of inferiority and self-consciousness and that the one best way to establish a confident sense of self-esteem is through positive practices.

109 Napoleon used armies to advance his feelings of personal worth. Emil Ludwig informs us that one of the last things the Little Corporal said on St. Helena, his isle of exile, was, "I should very much like to know whether Herr Bauer ever learned how I made good." There you have Napoleon on his very deathbed consumed with a yearning for esteem that would have been allayed by assurance that an obscure teacher of mathematics knew of his world-wide fame. The teacher at the Brinne Military Academy had been contemptuous of young Napoleon's ability, and Bonaparte had never forgotten the slighting of his ego.

The great and the near great have no copyright on desire for adequate self-esteem though they, no doubt, are more positive in their fight to acquire it. The yearning for a feeling of dignity burns feebly or roars into flames in the lives of all of us. It is a craving in everyone, no matter how humble or how elevated his status in life. The child brags about his big house or maintains that his father is stronger or richer than some other father—trying to build up self-esteem. His father may drive a larger car than he can afford and go to no end of trouble to get a low number on his license plate in order to enhance his own feeling of worth. His wife may well try to outshine her neighbor in matters of small consequence.

Even the ever shy and unduly modest are bolstering their love of self by feeling superior because they won't condescend to do the flashy things others may do "just to feel big." But underneath the petty and the great steps taken in this direction is the obvious fact that individuals and nations wouldn't amount to much without the desire to "be somebody." The desire, however, is impotent unless fulfilled through decision and direct action.

Those who endeavor to live humble and unselfish lives are often frustrated by the very negative elements involved, despite the worthiness of their motive. An example that clarifies this point is given by Oren Arnold, distinguished writer and counselor:

"I was visiting a friend one afternoon. His fifteen-yearold daughter Judy breezed in from high school and announced that she had just been elected to an important office by her sophomore class.

" 'How did it happen?' " her father asked.

'Happened it,' Judy had an impish smile. 'I had seven opponents. And Daddy—when they spoke, they were drips! They overdid their acts.'

"She went her way, whistling. Judy will get along in life. I sensed that her experience might hold a lesson, and it did. That night I called on the school principal. I learned that Judy had gotten more votes than all her seven opponents combined. And what were the 'acts' which had been overdone?

" 'They showed too much modesty, real or false,' the principal answered for me. 'Judy is no better equipped for that office than any of the other girls or boys, except for one priceless thing—enthusiasm. With that, she stooped to no self-effacement, no show of indifference. She wanted that office and said so. She spoke eagerly, but tactfully, of what she could do for her class if elected. In short, she quite overwhelmed her nice opponents, who self-consciously did almost nothing at all.. Before they realized it she had skillfully moved into the spotlight.' "

There we have eight young egos at work making a bid for self-esteem. The one with the positive approach overwhelms the seven negatives.

Judy was the positive one who knew what she wanted, asked for it, and took positive steps and made positive promises of positive action. She was one in her group of eight. The noted anthropologist, Earnest A. Hooton, estimates that approximately one in four average men is self-conscious and given to brooding about himself; that one in five is shy and inhibited; that only one in four is naturally sociable and full of self-confidence.

Because of the very intimacy of the feelings involved the percentages of various studies vary, but through them all it is revealed that the boy or girl, man or woman who has developed the positive attitude of life is the one who wins the richest rewards.

Professor Harry W. Hepner, after years of research and study, reported that an analysis of five hundred men and five hundred women college students revealed that one in every five had difficulty in controlling feelings of inferiority.

Dr. Smiley Blanton, after careful surveys of large numbers of students in various colleges, reported that three-fourths of them had feelings of inadequacy, insecurity, or inferiority.

Only 10 per cent of 2,342 students answering questionnaires issued by Anne F. Fenlason and Helen Ruth Hertz of the University of Minnesota felt that their personalities were so well balanced as not to be a handicap to their future success. Of these students 902 expressed dissatisfaction with their personalities in terms of feelings of inferiority.

How does that fifth column of inferiority infiltrate our personalities? Here are some of the findings of Miss Fenlason and Miss Hertz as reported in Mental Hygiene:

Do you have an older brother or sister? You are more likely to feel inferior if you have an older brother or brothers. But you are more likely to feel superior if you have older sisters.

Are you the youngest in the family? If so you are more likely to feel inferior. "Oldest" children have relatively low percentages of inferiority feelings.

Do you come from a large town or city? The big town students are more likely to feel inferior than the small town boys and girls. Students from towns under 10,000 population had a smaller percentage of inferiority feelings than those from larger centers.

What is your father's occupation? The lower its social and economic status, the greater the feeling of inferiority.

Although this study is based entirely on college-student subjects, they represented a broad cross section of social backgrounds. Incidentally, the students who felt inferior spent more money for recreation than those who didn't and devoted fewer hours per week to recreation. Also, the students who made few new acquaintances usually felt inferior, but those who made twenty-five or more friends in college didn't brood over their troubles or suffer from embarrassment.

The scientists, the psychologists, the psychiatrists assure us that we come into this world all positive and naked and bare of any feelings of inferiority. How then do we "get that way"? For that's the first step toward "unlearning" the pattern. That's an easy one to answer on the authority of the specialists. Those quaking feelings are beaten into us, usually early in life, by parents and others in the family; by ourselves as the results of the experiences we go through; and by teachers and by preachers.

Indication of influences at work in and through some of our teachers and preachers is found in the work of Mrs. Maria Brick, staff psychologist for the Riverside Church of New York, who participated in giving the Rorschach personality test to the student bodies of two theological seminaries. Mrs. Brick reported that "most all of the theological students gave evidence of difficulties in social relationships." It was brought out that the prevailing pattern in most cases showed "lack of or uncontrolled emotional life," a "strong tendency to be compulsive," a "fear of authority and feeling of inadequacy," and "a considerable amount of free-floating anxiety."

When the tests were given to groups of teachers, they showed the same prevailing pattern. Groups of chemists, pharmacists, and engineers did not show the desire for authority that was apparent in the clergymen and the teachers.

Most communities have their balanced, intelligent, and greatly valued clergymen and educators, so no leaps to sweeping conclusions should be made on the basis of such reports. But many communities have teachers and preachers who are highly emotional personality failures and who brook no question of their words or motives, obviously seeking to prop their failing nerve by a show of authority vested in their positions. Thus they may very well warp the lives of those with whom they come in contact.

Parents and others in a family beat the youngsters down with negative commands and scathing remarks. Don't do this and don't do that and unthinking criticisms shave little egos down to splinters when not adequately interspersed with praise and recognition and positive direction.

I conducted a survey of children aged six to ten that included the question, answered in secret, "What are some of the things you wish your father wouldn't do?" Broken promises, cheating, loud talking, and other traits were laid bare. The child who protested, "Popsy always says I'm dumb," is being emotionally crippled unless the mother and others can offset the father's unthinking brutality. What chance has a child like that competing with the one who reports, "I like everything my daddy does, and anyhow he calls me 'his Big Guy' "?

Dr. Ira S. Wile, former lecturer on Disorders of Conduct and Personality at Columbia University, reported a striking but not by any means isolated case of an entire family in the process of making a negative little inferiority-ridden wreck out of six-year-old Clarence. Members of the family took Clarence to Dr. Wile because they thought his mentality was retarded. The lad had four older brothers and sisters who instead of making him a spoiled baby made him the butt of their gibes and taunts and ridicule because he couldn't read or write, and the poor little rascal was beginning to believe his brothers and sisters were correct.

Let Dr. Wile tell the story in brief. When he first saw Clarence, the boy "stood with head cast down and eyes averted, unresponsive, self-contained, without any change of expression or any exhibition of curiosity in new surroundings.

"In Clarence's presence his mother gave the information that he was stupid, did not play with other children and rarely spoke at home. When she tried to force the boy to approach me he held back with determined resolution. When, however, she was told to leave him alone and allow him to come of his own accord, he slowly and. suspiciously approached until finally he could be helped. onto my lap.

"After many gentle methods had been tried, he admitted that he liked dogs, and a book about them was promised him. A gleam of almost friendly doubt appeared in his eyes for a moment, and then died out. But it came again a moment later when his mother was told that he was a fine little fellow, and within two weeks he emerged as a talker, playful and happy."

Tests revealed that Clarence had superior intelligence instead of being the dumbbell his brothers called him. The boy was all right, but the family needed the psychiatrist's attention. Within two weeks Clarence was a normal and happy child.

Psychologist Donald A. Laird maintains that there are instances when schoolteachers or schoolwork need treatment instead of the young folk who are becoming enmeshed in feelings of inferiority. He cites the following example:

"Paul was a sixteen-year-old boy of normal brain power, but he was doing poorly in his school work; lied on the least provocation, and was decidedly unhappy. He had been adopted by a wealthy family who had given him every material advantage and who were genuinely fond of the boy. But they wanted him to take classical courses at high school, while Paul was interested chiefly in the shop and practical courses. So long as he was taking work that did not interest him he did poorly, and his feelings of inferiority grew inward.

"Psychiatrists wrought a miracle in his feelings of inferiority by the simple procedure of having his foster parents let him take the shop courses which were of great interest to him, and in which he excelled, and he was soon able to gain the confidence which comes from being able to support oneself.

"Feelings of inferiority start in just such simple ways as those. When they are caught in an early stage of development they are as easily cured. More difficult to cure are the majority of instances where they have been long established and the original cause is buried in the limbo of years before."

An interesting example of the discovery of a long-buried cause of feelings of inferiority that resulted in the cure of a full-fledged neurosis is given by Dr. Louis E. Bisch. Although this case required psychoanalysis by a professional, Dr. Bisch maintains that, in most cases, self-consciousness can be conquered by the victims themselves. He gives us the story of Mary W.:

"Mary was a girl of twenty-three who possessed everything in life one could wish for—health, intelligence, beauty, wealth, social position, grace, artistic accomplishments and the ability to wear clothes well. But she lacked the one quality essential to complete happiness and the one without which all the others seemed to her as nonexistent—social poise. She was about the most miserable girl I have ever met.

" 'When I'm invited out,' she exclaimed almost hysterically, 'I get stage fright at the very thought of finding myself in a social gathering. Long before the dreaded day arrives my throat becomes dry and often pains just to think about it. I've got so now that I decline every invitation. The torture of meeting strangers is more than I can bear. Lately I've been observing my eyes. They look queer. Do you think, Doctor, that I'm going insane?'

"At this last confession of fear, Mary broke down and sobbed like a child. What had occurred in her case, as in so many others, was that self-consciousness had been allowed to progress and develop into other symptoms. The young lady was now suffering from a full-fledged neurosis. Had self-consciousness been routed in time, years of suffering would have been avoided.

"Although the symptoms were more pronounced than the average, Mary's case was otherwise typical. First to be noted is the fact that what she thought was the reason for her self-consciousness was not the fundamental cause at all. Secondly, that in this instance, as in all others, self-consciousness was based on the unconscious suspicion that others knew what she was trying to hide.

"Miss Mary thought that her self-consciousness came into being because her mother, from childhood up, was too critical of her dress, deportment, use of slang, girl and boy associates, and so on. The mother would say, `Don't you want to grow up and be a lady?' or 'Watch your step, my child. Don't give the wrong impression.'

"That these were factors in the development of this patient's self-consciousness cannot be denied. On the other hand, they were only contributory. If little Mary had not been ready for self-consciousness, so to speak. her mother's admonitions would have rolled off, like water off a duck's back, as the saying goes, leaving no impression. But the favorable soil for the sprouting of the symptom had already been laid down. This, Mary had done herself.

"We know what we tell children—what we try to teach them—but we do not know how they elaborate the information in their own minds.

"Specifically, what Mary had done—innocently and like a child, of course—was to worry about certain sex thoughts and practices that she did not realize were normal. This created a feeling of shame.

" 'Even if mother and father have not discovered my sin,' she would think, 'I know I can't fool God.'

"And she would look in the mirror to see if any telltale evidence could be discovered in her features, especially her eyes. If ever people discovered the truth, she believed, she would be shunned and gradually become a social outcast.

"Mary forgot all these childhood trials and tribulations as the years passed. By seventeen she went in for sports and her secret sex practice was conquered.

"But the shame element still persisted. She had successfully repressed it from her conscious mind into her unconscious. She forgot all about it. At any rate, she never suspected that her reaction to that childhood practice was the root cause of her self-consciousness because, after all, the habit had been overcome years before. Indeed, her conscious mind, in making her forget her shame of childhood, tried to keep the shame still residing in the deeper, unconscious mind, from reappearing.

"On the other hand, the unconscious wanted to rid itself of the shame element, and so it produced the symptom of self-consciousness. The symptom itself really was an attempt on the part of the unconscious mind to gain aid for itself—a mental `S.O.S.'

"When Mary realized what was behind all her difficulties her self-consciousness readily was overcome. She had by now learned that secret sex thoughts and habits are a perfectly normal development in a child. In the light of her adult intelligence she realized how foolish it was to wonder what kind of an impression she might make upon others. This cured her completely and she soon became a well-poised happy woman who danced, sang and played like the best of them. In another year she was engaged to be married."

Dr. Bisch believes that, while not all cases of self-consciousness are based as Mary's was, it is probable that most of them are—at least in one variant or another. He advises that self-conscious folk search for this or other or deeper reasons for self-conscious disability. He urges that the mental searching into childhood be done fearlessly, when sooner or later the searcher will find something which has gradually built up the self-conscious bugaboo.

Once the source of the trouble is revealed, the cure is a comparatively simple process in most cases. And the reward for the effort is most gratifying. "All genuine superiority grows out of a sense of inferiority," says Dr. Henry C. Link, one of our most renowned psychologists. "The person who admits his inferiority, and then does something about it, develops superiority." And Dr. Bisch, who assures us that the blight of inferiority feelings can be overcome, also gives the encouragement that self-consciousness is really a compliment to one's finer nature and that only the best people, the highly sensitized, develop it.

Pause for a moment to watch a truly imposing parade pass by, a procession of those who have on occasion been almost paralyzed by their deep-seated feelings of shyness, self-consciousness, and inferiority. Look. There we see Helen Hayes, Katharine Cornell, Tallulah Bankhead, and Cornelia Otis Skinner, Raymond Massey, Al Jolson, Fred Allen, and other celebrities of the stage. There is a regal division that includes King George of England and the shades of Queen Victoria and the Grand Duchess Marie. Wall Street is represented in this shyness parade by Henry Morgenthau, Jr., and the Presidency of the United States by Calvin Coolidge. The procession is almost endless, but look at that white-whiskered chap! Surely George Bernard Shaw, one of the brassiest individuals of the ages, is up to another prank. What business does he have in this intimate procession of ours? Let him tell us in his own words about calling on friends on the banks of the Thames in London:

"I suffered such agonies of shyness that I sometimes walked up and down the Embankment for twenty minutes or more before venturing to knock at the door. Indeed, I should have given it up altogether and hurried home asking myself what was the use of torturing myself when it was so easy to run away, if I had not been instinctively aware that I must never let myself off in this manner if I ever meant to do anything in the world. Few men have suffered more than I did in my youth from simple cowardice or have been more horribly ashamed of it."

There we have the negative attitude in a tug of war with the positive—the negative urge to retreat the easy way into a life of defeat and the positive pull toward freedom of spirit. It was a hard struggle, but finally G. B. S. discovered what Dale Carnegie declares is "the best and quickest and surest way ever devised to conquer timidity and fear. He learned to speak in public. He joined a debating society.

"The first few times he arose to speak, his knees shook, his face twitched and his throat became dry. He was so nervous that he couldn't read the notes he held in his trembling hands; and without notes he couldn't remember what he intended to say. He frequently sat down in confusion and humiliation, positive that he had made a fool of himself; but so fierce was his determination to conquer his shyness and self-consciousness that he attended every meeting in London where there was to be a public discussion and always arose and took part in the debate."

It was not until he was twenty-six years of age that Shaw's positive tactics won him the confidence that made him one of the most brilliant speakers of the century and one of the most audaciously self-confident individuals of all time—certainly a man brimming over with a genuine feeling of self-esteem.

You can never attain a true sense of self-esteem while you are being slowly eaten from within by those negative little termites of self-doubt, lack of confidence, shyness, suspicion of inferiority, and the like. Specialists offer many positive tips that will help you to defeat your inner enemies and at the same time work toward satisfaction of your ego impulses. It would not be advisable to try to put all these suggestions to work at once. Select ways that are reasonably within your immediate control, work out your own special plan of attack, and go to work on it today.

1. Search fearlessly in your memory for childhood incidents of fear and shame and frustration that may be at the base of your difficulty today. This is not something that can be done in five minutes. It is no sugar-coated capsule panacea. Set aside a few minutes daily for this search. Start with your earliest recollections, and one little scene or conflict or contact may prompt a flood of memories. Perhaps you would like to take a tablet and pencil and try writing suggestive notes for your secret biography.

2. Join a discussion group or debating society. If none is available, organize one among your friends and acquaintances.

3. Analyze yourself and your activities carefully to determine what you do best, and then take steps to do it even better until you become a specialist in that one accomplishment; or select some activity that you believe you could learn to master best, and then proceed to master it. By being able to do one thing better than the average, you will gain a feeling of mastery and confidence and self-esteem.

4. Look around to determine the weaknesses of others, and you will find so many flaws and cracks and blights that may be so much more serious than your own you will rise in your own estimation. Then give more thought to your own strong points and ways of making them stronger.

5. Reexamine your sense of values. A common cause of inferiority feelings is too great an ambition instilled by doting parents who expected you to become President of the country, general of the armies, or luminary of stage or other career. Perhaps you have dreamed of being bigger than you or anyone else could possibly be.

6. If your problem seems so big you can't possibly see a solution, stop contemplating the mountain and pay more attention to the foothills. Break the big problem down into smaller pieces that you are capable of handling. Don't just stare at the problem itself; gaze at the possible solutions and do something about them.

7. If you are nagged by a number of little faults, make your plan to do something about them and then follow the plan. If your schooling is meager, go to the library and also look around for night and mail courses that will begin to fill in the gaps. If your circle of friends is empty or meager, kick your fears out of the window and do something to spread your acquaintance. It's up to you.

8. Have you accepted yourself as an inferior sort of person? Why? Haven't your friends or acquaintances any faults? Do their faults floor them? Remember there is a great deal of difference between feeling inferior and actually being inferior. Everyone has faults, but everyone doesn't magnify those faults. Why slug yourself on the chin? You have faults? So what? So have we all.

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