Jeffrey has always experienced ‘low self-esteem’. A nagging sense that he was somehow not enough. Not necessarily not good enough, just insufficient. He worked hard and (he knew that he worked hard) to feel like he is keeping up, but always feeling that he was falling behind. Somehow. His friends and his siblings (particularly Enoch) were particularly envious of him. Of how his life seemed to sail from one successful encounter to another.
Jeffrey had graduated at the top of his class and had won several scholarships. He was a national swimmer and had various sporting accolades. He was also the conductor of the popular chamber ensemble in his home town. He is now a high-flyer lawyer and the youngest partner in a large law firm. He was popular amongst everyone.
Yet, Jeffrey knew just how hard he worked, not necessarily to prove himself to anyone, but to keep the nagging sense of insufficiency at bay. Eventually, his constant drive to keep up and stop the floods of insufficiency eroded his immunity and Jeffrey became sick. As he failed to keep up his successful and punishing lifestyle owing to his frequent illnesses, Jeffrey started to experience strong bouts of anxiety. Somehow, at the back of his mind, he was knew that a day like that was bound to come. It was here now.
With the façade of success stripped off him by his body’s failures, Jeffrey came face to face with the sense of insufficiency. No more working himself to the ground to avoid what was at the back of his mind. As he lay in bed (again) with his nasal passages saturated with Nasonex and antibiotics worming their way through his system, he turned his attention inwards to exploring this nagging sense of insufficiency.
Where had this message of insufficiency come from? Why is it always there? When had it started to appear in my life?
As he wondered curiously, he realized that the insufficiency feelings felt like there was someone constantly looming over him telling him that he needed to do more or that he would fall behind and have a miserable life.
He almost laughed out loud when his mind made the automatic associations to the owners of this message. His mother was constantly fretting and worrying about “how can people survive in a society like this. Look at those poor folks who have fallen through the gaps.”
His teachers’ voices have somehow also added to the mix of things with more overt messages such as “if you don’t work hard enough, you’d amount to nothing” or more crudely “you’d end up washing toilets!”
Somehow realizing the origins of this internalized insufficiency made Jeffrey breathe a little more easily and he felt it ease off a bit. As he quite literarily lay with his emotions, and attempting to understand them deeply, the sense of insufficiency started to shift, allowing more space to see that he was indeed successful and it was OK for him to slow down.
There are many reasons why anyone of us might experience low self-esteem. This may be because we experienced failures in our lives and came to the conclusion that we are not competent or quite good enough. Often though, like Jeffrey, we may have absorbed the message from people around us or from society that we have to meet certain standards to be considered OK or that we are simply not good enough, period. Often the delivery of these messages is subtle and surreptitious. Unfortunately, human beings are sponges for information and we learn without meaning to learn and soon internalize these messages to become part of our psyche. So even when the actual vehicles or occasions for these messages have passed, the message now lingers on inside of us, ending with us replaying these messages to ourselves over and over again – thereby fulfilling the cliché that we are our worse enemies.