Working as a counsellor I often encountered what we called ‘self-esteem’ problems. And the answer, ready to hand, was to prescribe a course of ‘self-affirmations.’ This I did – though I often had my fingers crossed behind my back. It took me some years to work out why I was uneasy about this treatment of the problem.
The reason is that, while the self-affirmations sounded lovely, they came with no guarantees. There was no-one to say that they were, in fact, the truth. My clients could stand in front of the mirror and tell themselves how wonderful and lovely they were till the cows got lost – but why should they believe themselves?
The whole idea of self-affirmations comes out of a world-view that individual existence is the only certainty in the universe – Descartes’ cogito: “I think, therefore I am.” This sort of works for philosophy, but it’s just lousy for real people. Real people need other real people who treat them with love and respect in order to feel loved and respected. The problem is hardly ever one of low self-esteem, but low other-esteem! And it begins with babies and never stops.
Whenever my counselling practice was assessed, the most consistent feedback from clients about what was most helpful to them was not that I gave them good information, or that I gave them useful techniques and skills – though I did do that. When I did my job well, the best thing they got was that they felt cared for. Nothing else was so important.
Building up self-esteem with self-affirmations is like trying to lift ourselves up by our bootstraps. We all need someone else, who has their feet on the ground, to give us that boost.
Am I feeling low and unhappy? I need friends, not empty words.
Do I want to make a difference in the world? Then I can do it – simply by being a friend.