Like everyone else, I’ve had difficult times in my life. I’ve had bad breakups, I’ve made mistakes, and I’ve been hurt. In these difficult moments, a lot of people have cheerfully diagnosed me with “low self-esteem.”
I never quite agreed. I like myself a lot. I’m proud of my accomplishments and I’ve done enough counselling by now to feel secure about my choices. Myself and I are best buds for life, and cultivating that relationship has been the most rewarding and longest-lasting work I’ve ever done. And yet! Bad things still happen to me sometimes.
In fact, I’m reasonably sure I was able to go through with all those breakups precisely because I have pretty good self-esteem: knowing that I’d rather be alone than in a bad relationship takes courage in a culture that tells women their value is based on who they are with: women are girlfriends, wives, or mothers, not people in our own right.
We are living in a particularly individualistic era. We have put a premium on the qualities of freedom and choice, and the rise of psychology and other technologies has shown us the many ways in which we can improve our own moods and take control of our lives and relationships. Self-esteem has come through as one of the guiding lights of personal growth. Loving yourself is such a fundamental piece that we are actually told we must love ourselves before it’s even remotely possible to love someone else.
Nevertheless, people who have never taken a yoga class or read a self-help book are loved. People that hate themselves are often quite capable of loving someone else. In darker news, nearly 60 percent of women have experienced abuse in a relationship, and around a quarter will have experienced some form of sexual assault in their lifetimes. Could all these women have low self-esteem? Are they just letting people mistreat them because they haven’t learned to love themselves? Could that be why this keeps happening?
I’ve started to understand that “low self-esteem” is, in some quarters at least, the latest in a long line of euphemisms telling women it’s their fault. It shifts the focus away from the systemic reasons why these abuses exist in our culture and places the blame and the focus on women as victims. If we consider the perpetrators of this violence at all, who are usually men, we see them as monsters, shocking cultural anomalies, and beyond rehabilitation.
What about those men’s self-esteem? What about growing up male in a culture that does not want men to show any vulnerability or to have any tools for communicating feelings other than expressing violence? What about the ways in which we all participate in a culture where this sort of thing is so common? These questions are incredibly uncomfortable. Much easier to tell women they hate themselves and that it’s their fault. Much easier to keep women hating themselves so they don’t pause to question this nonsensical line of reasoning.
Working on our self-esteem is important and unquestionably makes us happier. When we know how to take care of our own bodies and hearts, life is richer, healthier, more fun, and of course it can improve our relationships. But part of cultivating self-love means understanding that, yes, we make mistakes and should take responsibility for that, but we are also a part of a culture and community that’s much bigger than our individual choices. There are plenty of things in this life we can’t control and our self-esteem can help us understand: that’s ok.