Self–esteem isn’t asserting my right to do whatever I want whenever I want it—it is instead reminding me that I am okay no matter what experience may be occurring in my life at any time!
Like many other women I was raised to be nice, polite and want people to like me. By the time I was old enough to realize that those “other people” didn’t always have my best interests at heart, it was too late. That habit of seeing my self worth reflected by other people was deeply entrenched in how I thought and often how I behaved. And although I’ve made lots of progress during the last 25+ years or so—the truth is I still often take the opinions of others far too personally, and I frequently care too much what others think of me—especially when it has to do with something I hold dear to heart. That’s why when I recently came across a discussion by Deepak Chropra explaining the difference between self-esteem and self-image, I discovered there was a difference. More importantly, knowing that difference matters quite a bit.
For anyone who has never heard of Deepak Chopra, he is the author of 65 books, a doctor of internal medicine and endocrinology, and a worldwide speaker on a diverse range of topics dealing with health, philosophy, science, spirituality and all things connecting mind, body and spirit. I have long appreciated his work and writing and happened across a short video where he was talking about his relationship with his wife of 40 years. Chopra said of his wife Rita, “She is one of the most amazing people in that she has the highest self-esteem. She has such self-esteem that she is never insecure and I have learned that from her.” Wow! For Deepak Chopra to have learned about self-esteem from his wife is saying something. While I have often admired his work, I’ve always considered him extremely detached and self-confident. If he learned that awareness from his wife, then she had something I wanted to know more about.
So what is the difference? Chopra says, “ There is a difference between self-esteem and self-image. The reason people have all this plastic surgery is because they have actually forgotten themselves and are identifying themselves with their self-image. The real Self within you is beneath no one. It’s immune to criticism and it’s fearless. Do not confuse your image with your Self—your self-image is what other people think of you, and your Self (esteem) is what you think of you.” Apparently, according to Chopra, when we focus our confidence or esteem on external or changing circumstances, experiences or people, each are impermanent and inevitably change. Those external changes lead to a shifting or diminishing confidence and sense of self. Instead, when we focus on the internal, timeless and the greater reality of our true being, then that Self is beneath no one, is fearless, and is immune to caring what others think of us.
Of course, Deepak Chopra isn’t the only one who thinks this about self-esteem. Author and speaker Eckhart Tolle says, “True self-esteem goes much deeper. It’s finding the source of power and aliveness deep inside. Realizing that within the depth of your being, there is that continuous source of intense aliveness and power, which is the stillness out of which everything comes.” Don Miguel Ruiz, author of The Four Agreements says, “When you are immune to the opinions and actions of others, you won’t be the victim of needless suffering.” Marianne Williamson suggests that rather than looking to things and people outside ourselves to confirm our worth, we achieve self-esteem through self-awareness and cultivation of a relationship with God. Dr. Wayne Dyer says, “My self-esteem comes from myself. As a child of God, my worthiness is a given.” Regardless of how you view God or a Greater Reality, your connection to something bigger than yourself defines you, and that definition translates to your self-esteem.
After giving that explanation some thought I realized that any time I am overly concerned about what other people think, whether they like me or not, how they see me, and how they are acting or reacting to me—I am stuck in self-image. Unfortunately, focusing on self-image as I’m describing it presents six big problems:
- Trying to control or predict with any certainty what others think about me is completely impossible. Yet, if I’m determined to try to win other people’s approval or admiration, I am certain to experience frustration and unhappiness. Not only do trends and perceptions change, but so do each and every one of us. Obviously our bodies are not the same as when we were 20 (no matter how much we try to cut and paste them), and hopefully neither are our minds, our intelligence or our consciousness.
- Self-image is a focus on the superficial and impermanent. Money, status and possessions are all material and shallow ways to judge and relate to the human experience. Do I, or you, really want to surround ourselves with other people who believe that those surface level and transient elements are vitally important to living a quality life?
- Obsession with self-image leads to a life of constant comparison. As I’ve written about before, there will always be someone richer, thinner, more intelligent, more spiritual, more etc. A life of constant comparison is a competition we can never win over the long run.
- If all we care about is our self-image then we are extremely susceptible to being manipulated by others and the media. If we end up chasing after things that others tell us is important, (i.e. pure white teeth, a wrinkle-free face, or the latest big-screen TV) then we will never arrive because there will always be something else that we need to make us happy.
- A focus on the external world of self-image is a sure guarantee that we will experience dissatisfaction with who we are and what we have over and over again. It’s been proven repeatedly that hedonistic pleasures have limited staying power.
- Self-image is related to needs that are based on fear. Whenever we seek outward approval, attempt to control, or strive toward external power we are acting in fear. That fear can be based on the idea that we aren’t good enough or that the world is a scary place that needs to be controlled and or dominated. Whatever the basis of the fear—if it is unresolved and externally focused it will never go away.
So does knowing that a focus on self-image creates such a wide set of problems lead me to chuck it all and not care what anyone ever thinks of me ever again? If only it were that easy! Besides, as social creatures, most of us realize that it’s wise to compromise sometimes in order to live in harmony and peace with other beings. That’s why the idea of self-esteem carries so much power for me. Self–esteem isn’t asserting my right to do whatever I want whenever I want it—it is instead reminding me that I am okay (actually far more than merely okay) no matter what experience may be occurring in my life at any time!
In other words, when I live my life with a high degree of self-esteem, then I am deeply connected to my deepest internal Being. I don’t need approval from you or anyone else for anything, because I’ve already received the ultimate confirmation from myself. When that awareness becomes unquestionably real to me, then it won’t matter whether anyone likes me or judges me for my actions. Even if what you believe in your heart of hearts is radically different from mine—that difference won’t ultimately affect me in any way.
So how do I, or any of us, get to the point where we completely, 100% accept and know that deep and True part of ourselves? Deepak Chropra says the way to do it is to meditate on it every single day. That makes sense to me because I know that as I continue to meditate daily, my true nature becomes more and more real and alive to me. I also know that the more time, energy and resources I spend discovering the core of my Being and it’s relationship to the spiritual and material world, my life becomes more happy, peaceful and content. Surely I am not better than anyone else. Instead, I am connected and at One with all that Is—and that makes for a very healthy self-esteem.
Chances are good that if I had been taught this version of self-esteem when I was young I would have be less susceptible to the opinions of others. Chropra actually recommends this. There is also evidence from several popular physiologists like Dr. Martin Seligman who agree that an overemphasis on building up a child’s self-image can backfire. While Seligman says that a high self-image can make children feel good about themselves for a while—unfortunately, it doesn’t teach them to be independent, autonomous and responsible as they grow. In fact, too much emphasis on pseudo self-image based upon no tangible reality such as a talent, success or achievement ultimately feels false to the child and can lead to narcissism and/or depression. On the other hand, teaching a young person about the true Nature of their Being can connect them to a Source that will empower them for a lifetime.
I now know that whenever I am overly concerned about what others think of me or am wondering whether or not others “like” me or approve of me, I am identifying with my self-image and looking to the material world outside myself. Instead, by remembering that my self-esteem is one with the changeless nature of my Self, and by connecting to my core Being, I know that I am beneath no one, I am fearless, and I am immune to criticism. Thank you Rita Chopra!