Self-esteem is a complicated and fascinating subject. I came to realise this when my first novel was published some years ago. It got good reviews and I was delighted, but I was also surprised to find myself dashing into health food shops and buying bottles of Rescue Remedy. It was wonderful that a precious dream had come true and I felt fulfilled and thrilled but I did not feel more confident. In fact I felt I had been in the school athletics team and had somehow wandered into the Olympics. It wasn’t funny ha, ha so much as funny peculiar. I had written the book because I love writing and that particular story had just poured out of me.
And now I was an “author”, but I felt like a fake.
This was because I knew that a “real” author would love being interviewed and have wise things to say about everything from futons to international diplomacy. She would have got her emotional baggage down to one smart suitcase with wheels and a pull-out handle. What’s more, she would at least bear a passing resemblance to the woman in her “author’s photograph”. Frankly, the woman in the photograph was pretty glamorous and who knows, maybe she even got up at 5 a.m. to do Astanga yoga, drink wheatgrass and make international calls. I wouldn’t have put it beyond her.
An extremely talented make-up artist had virtually painted a new face onto her and a brilliant photographer had captured the image with the help of filters and special lighting and heaven knows what else. In a Cambridge bookshop I even had to show the assistant my NUJ card to prove that the woman and I were actually the same person. “Good anecdote, bad reality” as Carrie Fisher once remarked.
Sometimes I felt it was the woman in the photo who had written the book, not me, and I was her shabby second cousin. I kept the whole thing to myself so I didn’t get a chance to find out that feeling a fake is amazingly common. A lot of people don’t think about it much. It is just an atmosphere, a background feeling, that informs many of their experiences. They often care deeply about others. In fact it is easy for them to believe that other people’s dreams and needs and expectations are far more valid than their own.
Of course there are lots of people who routinely feel good about themselves who may find all this daft. Even so, many commentators believe low self-esteem is one of the most pervasive psychological problems in Western society. It is definitely one of the most talked about and some now fear the nebulous term is becoming so popular it may become the new catch-all name for a variety of different angsts. Well-known clinical psychologist Oliver James’s key concern about the phrase is that it is “not properly distinguished from the word depression”. He adds that studies suggest women are twice as likely to suffer from low self-esteem and depression as men, though the causes for this are not yet really understood.
Some believe genetics plays a part in this, but Oliver James says there is more evidence that life experiences are a crucial factor. “From a young age women are more compliant and more concerned about gaining approval from others,” he states. “There are innumerable ways in which women’s life experiences are different to men’s that could make them more prone to depression and low self-esteem.” A quick chat on the phone with Oliver James seemed to suggest that I am more prone to low self-esteem in certain areas of my life and the problem may be caused by “a destructive comparison of the self to others”. Apparently the feelings of fraudulence may come from the gap between the more assured and the scared parts of myself. “So the part of you that fears judgment may, as a defence, distance yourself from the whole activity,” he says.
He defines self-esteem as “how you perceive yourself in relation to others, and also how much you are concerned about their valuation”… As for advice about how to raise one’s self-esteem, he says, “The key problem of life is that people are comparing themselves with a lot of others obsessively and enviously. My advice to people is to be satisfied with what they’ve got, or at least to recognise the value of what they’ve got.”
In Tibet, they are in the happy position of not even having a term for “self-esteem”, probably because their culture fosters different values. And in more affluent societies it wouldn’t be such an issue if it weren’t so often actively encouraged. Canny advertisers know they can exploit our insecurities because there is one simple message that always hits its target. That message is that we are not good enough as we are.
Oliver James says he could weep for all the teenagers who feel like failures because they got four straight As in their exams and one B. We are expected to expect more from ourselves than ever before. The payoff for all this is tantalising and wonderfully seductive. We know that worldly achievement and riches will make us feel more valuable and good about ourselves. They will get to the parts even beer can’t reach.
But as the song says, this “ain’t necessarily so”. Money is great, but it can’t buy you love. And though achievement can be wonderful it won’t automatically quieten that voice inside that says “Phew! Fooled them that time!”. If self-esteem is something the world can give you, it can also take it away. Meeting challenges, growing, learning, making a contribution to society, all these things can boost one’s sense of worth, but only if one keeps them in perspective.
Prof Cary Cooper, one of the world’s leading experts on stress, points out, “People who become obsessed about being victors may become victims. If they feel they have to win they’ll become terrified of failure, and that is a deadly poison. Being successful involves having a healthy and somewhat philosophical attitude towards success itself. And if it is not an essential part of our identity or sense of self worth we are much more likely to enjoy it.”
I did eventually learn how to look a bit more like the woman in the photograph, though it involved lots of make-up and a diagram and was a bit like painting by numbers. The launch of my first book took place and friends and family were very supportive. It was all rather jolly. What eventually helped was not trying to conform to some ideal but asking myself where these harsh expectations – these judgments and strictures – had come from. People with low self-esteem all have a highly developed inner critic, so they have to develop other voices to negotiate with it. To stand up for them. And the inner critic is often only nasty because it’s frightened. They need to show it and the rest of them some compassion.
The funny thing is I knew all this already, but somehow I’d forgotten it. Because one of the reasons I write fiction is to explore the secret parts of people . . . the parts they think no one, anywhere, will ever understand, let alone love and accept. The beautiful, exasperating vulnerabilities that make them human. My own words could have reminded me that life is a mixture of things: shadows and light, fear and courage, doubt and conviction. If I could accept these qualities in the characters I created, shouldn’t I accept them in myself? I’ve grown more used to being an author. It’s great to do something I love, even if it is sometimes a bit scary. My mixed grill CV includes temporary jobs in canteens, gumming down envelopes and wrestling with hanging files, so I know when I should be grateful. One of the greatest rewards is when someone says a book has made them laugh or has been of comfort. I love how sometimes, when you are really involved in creating a story, you can reside in a place unencumbered by hope or fear. Like many forms of happiness, it is a glorious self-forgetfulness.
And as for self-esteem . . . there must be thousands of theories. But the one I like most says it’s about learning something and then remembering not to forget it. We will sometimes forget it because every day we will hear and see messages that totally contradict it. The message is that we’re all valuable whatever we do or don’t do, or however things turn out.