The relationship we have with ourselves is the most important relationship we’ll ever have. Period. At the risk of sounding grandiose, let me state it more concretely: our thoughts and feelings about ourselves determine our life trajectory. Without realizing it, we download ‘scripts’ from society and our circles of influence that tell us how to view ourselves and others. These scripts serve as our success blueprint and teach us how to live our lives. The past year I’ve been re-evaluating the scripts. All of them. I’m asking myself: Are these true? Are these kind? Do these still serve me?
It’s a humbling exercise. We don’t realize how much culture and ‘others’ permeate our psyche until we actually have to distinguish their impact. It becomes an effort in mental gymnastics; in suspending beliefs, radical detachment, and being open to ‘ah-ha’ moments that literally change the way we see everything.
I about fell off my metaphorical chair when I started examining the self-esteem script handed down to me from the demanding warden we call culture.
The self-esteem movement arose in the 1980s and has dominated childrearing, schooling, and the workplace ever since. If you grew up in the 80s or 90s, chances are this mindset is embedded deep in your operating system. It’s core tenet is this: if you improve a person’s self-concept, and tell them repeatedly that they are worthy, wonderful, and full of potential, this individual will become a productive and fulfilled member of society. In essence — self-esteem leads to success.
The self-esteem culture brought us may things: participation trophies, schools focused on children's inherent specialness, positive reinforcement in the workplace. It also brought an implied guilt (albeit subconscious) that if you weren’t successful, it was because you didn’t believe in yourself. If you could just love yourself more, your life would be better, dammit.
Here’s the problem.
While the self-esteem culture has good intentions, it misses the mark. Gloriously. It addresses the *what* but not the *how* — it tells people to “be” a certain way without giving them the tools to get there. It’s a destination with no map. A fireplace with no fuel. All hype and no substance. It’s time we talk about what it actually takes for people to love themselves.
Here’s problem #2.
Deep down we know the answer already. We just don’t admit it because it’s so… unsexy. It requires us to acknowledge the link between love and hard work. The answer is self-control.
The building blocks of a healthy self-concept start with individuals who can manage and adhere to their own expectations, boundaries, limits, and goals. A person who makes a promise to themselves and actually keeps it. A person who can control their limiting & self-destructive impulses. A person with a ripped self-control muscle.
When we say we’re going to go to the gym 3 times a week, and instead, do thumb exercises…with the remote…on the couch…flipping through Netflix specials, we erode our self-control, and as a result, our self-esteem. When we say we’re going on a diet and then proceed to eat unhealthily, we erode our self-control, and subsequently, our self-esteem. When we say we’re going to get serious about our love life, and then don’t approach attractive people in public, we subconsciously respect ourselves less because our actions don’t align with what we said was important to us. Think about a time in your life when you felt really good about yourself. I mean, really good. Chances are you decided to focus on yourself and actually did it. You made a promise to yourself and actually fulfilled it. You had to do something really challenging and you showed the f*ck up to life.
Most people erroneously think that you have to be a giant of self-confidence to accomplish stunning feats. Incorrect. You do the hard thing, then you get the confidence. That’s how it works. Not the other way around.
Take the story of David and Goliath: a young man who slayed a giant with nothing but a slingshot. What most people don’t know is what led up to that mountaintop moment. David was born the eighth and youngest son. Literally the runt of the litter. Not exactly the prototype of strapping, self-confidence. At a young age he tended his father’s sheep, a job usually reserved for servants. Day in and day out he did dirty and rather demeaning work. He could have succumbed to the whims of pleasure and ego, but instead he was faithful to his post. He exercised self-control. This regular routine of doing the hard thing, the unglamorous, is what created his confidence and prepared him for his WWE match with Goliath. He developed his self-control, then had the mountaintop moment. That’s how it happens. Every time.
How Self-Control Gives Birth To Self-Respect
It’s also critically important to realize that self-control leads to self-respect. When we stay true to our word it engenders self-respect. We look on ourselves in a positive light because we did the thing we set out to do. Another pernicious lie associated with the self-esteem movement is that focusing on *liking* ourselves will get us where we need to go in life.
Brutal truth: If we just focus on *liking* ourselves, we never will. If we focus on respecting ourselves, liking ourselves is a natural bi-product.
What would you think of a person who repeatedly lets you down? You’d probably think very little of them. You’d probably think twice about becoming their friend, dating them, or trusting them with anything important. Now turn the scenario around. It’s you that’s letting you down. You say you’re going to do something and then you don’t do it. It’s no surprise you think very little of yourself; no one respects a person who can’t stay true to their word. We do it to ourselves through our lack of self-control.
Self-control and self-respect set our altitude for living. Not our car, our paycheck, or our partner. None of these determine the quality of our well-being. We will only truly love ourselves when we respect ourselves, and we can only get self-respect through self-control.
Think about anyone you love. I mean, really love. At the root of your love is respect. This is what separates ‘like’ from ‘love’: respect.
Self-esteem ≠Success. It’s missing part of the equation. Instead, it’s:
Self-Control → Self-Respect → Self-Esteem = Success
How Self-Respect Impacts Our Relationship With Others
Lest you think this is purely an act of gratuitous mirror-gazing, think again. Our degree of self-control and self-respect have a direct correlation on the health of our relationships. Said with less gravitas: We put up with sh*t in our relationships because we put up with it first in ourselves.
I often look at couples who treat each other like garbage and wonder why they are still together. Why doesn’t one of them leave? The answer: they don’t respect themselves enough to do so. They’ve made so many compromises in the self-control department that their self-respect is eroded, and they truly believe they deserve no better.
We cannot think for a moment that we will enjoy the fulfilling, life-giving relationships we desire without doing the hard work of self-control. It’s not because we don’t deserve incredible relationships. It’s because the process of developing our self-control and self-respect make us emotionally fit to receive such relationships. They are the training ground for the beautiful. The foundation for the house. The callouses that allow us to walk on the flames of glory without getting burnt.
Friends, let’s steer the ship in the right direction. Let’s calibrate our compass to self-control and pursue that as our destination. We’ll be pleased to discover that our journey hones our self-respect and self-esteem along the way. When we do arrive, the destination looks a lot more like *success* than self-control. And guess what? There are incredible people there who have also made the grueling journey. We’ll swap sea stories and develop an instant bond — not because we’ve experienced the same things but because we share the same spirit, the same tenacity for doing the hard work of getting there.
And here, my friends, we cast our anchor. ❤
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