On low self esteem

by The Editor

SERIES: The Thing About is a weekly Business Day column designed to discuss democratic ideas, ideals, values and principles from a liberal perspective. What are the effects of low self esteem? It is a permanent force in our lives. Unrestrained its impact on our approach to control can be dramatic. On the one hand, driving a desire for power and respect; on the other, it is able to reduce someone to a victim, unable to act and inhibited by self doubt.

On low self esteem

By: Gareth van Onselen

14 May 2012

Few things are more pernicious than low self esteem. Undiagnosed, it is a disease that eats away at confidence and, as a result, manipulates choice and decision-making.

Its effects can range dramatically. It is capable of rendering someone a victim just as easily as it is able to transform them into an autocrat. And so, when it comes to control, its symptoms are either a martyr-like starvation or some insatiable hunger. Any response to it, whether meek surrender or power lust, is fueled at its heart by a deep set insecurity.

With regards to the former: the notion that one’s dire circumstance are in some way well deserved – the world’s rightful response to one’s own inadequacy. When this happens, agency is rendered redundant for, it is argued, every other force that works against it is simply too strong to bother resisting. And so it engenders victimhood.

With regards to the latter: the belief that authority is an appropriate substitute for respect and that, the more one imposes it on the world, the more admiration is oestensibly earned (and that impulse to self doubt temporarily quelled). The result is that agency becomes all about the exercise of power, as opposed to a choice about how and when it should be used.

The very act of asserting one’s control, as opposed to what one influences, is where the real satisfaction lies. But that is a thirst that can never be fully quenched and so it lends itself to dictatorial behaviour. In turn, disdain, rather than respect, inevitably follows – the perfect vicious circle.

In societies where low self esteem is pervasive, victims and dictators live side by side: the one desperately seeking the affirmation of the other, the other contemptuous of but unwilling to challenge their oppressor. It is a mutually destructive relationship, a cycle broken only when self belief is restored.

An abbreviated version of this column first appeared in the Business Day.

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