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Where Self-Esteem Comes From

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When one of my favorite radio hosts, Shelagh Rodgers (pronounced ‘Sheila’), announced on air that she was leaving her morning show to take some time off, her way of explaining why left a lasting impression on me.

She said that for years, a colleague of hers (Peter Gzowski?) insisted on making frequent trips to a remote cabin up North, where he spent the time chopping wood, reading books and walking with his dogs. When she asked him why this ritual was so important to him, he said, “Well… I guess I really like who I am when I’m up there.”

Rodgers explained her departure by saying that the morning show had made the reverse true for her: the job required her to wake up at 3:30am, shuttle herself to the studio, and force herself into professional-mode hours before the sun came up, and she didn’t like who she was when she was doing that.

When I heard her say that, I was sitting in my office at work, and realized I that definitely didn’t like who I was when I was in there. I didn’t like who I was when I was on the phone with clients, or out talking to contractors, or sitting at pre-construction meetings. Without any better ideas at the time, I imagined that eventually I would need to build a cabin up north and escape regularly to chop wood and read books by a fire.

That thought — Do I like who I am while I’m doing this? — has visited me a few times a year ever since, and I’m finally seeing how crucial a question it is. We ought to ask it about everything we do regularly in our lives. If the answer is “No,” then it makes sense to ask how we ended up making it a regular part of our lifestyle, and whether it’s necessary or worthwhile.

You might think we’d naturally gravitate towards whatever activities do give us this self-affirming sense, but we seem to be driven more by expectations, gratification and momentum. Between watching a bad movie for the third time, and calling up a friend, we’re often inclined to go with the former, not because it promises a better day or a better life, but because we’re usually operating from more immediate incentives: predictability, ease, freedom from risk. The idea of doing something because we like the person it makes us probably doesn’t enter the picture at all. 

The question of “Do I like who I am when I’m doing this?” is a different question from “Do I like doing this?” You might find some gratification in arguing online, or overeating, or staying home Saturday nights, but that doesn’t mean that you feel great about who you are when you’re doing them. We’re all very complex, and certain activities reward the avoidant or argumentative drives in us, while other activities reward our compassionate, wise and helpful sides.

We can easily fall into habits of doing any of these activities, so long as there’s some kind of reward for them. Years can pass before you notice something’s wrong; you’ve followed the wrong trail of breadcrumbs, and you don’t feel good about where it’s led you.

For example, over the last few months, I’ve noticed a dramatic difference in how it feels to be me, and I think it has a lot to do with how my habits changed when the cold weather arrived.

Every other day in the summer and fall, I went running in my neighborhood, and riding my bike almost every evening. I felt active, disciplined, and close to my community and city. I was more mindful, I walked everywhere, and I was preoccupied by thought less often. Essentially, I liked who I was while I was doing almost every activity that made up an ordinary day.

When winter arrived, the activities that made up my day changed. I stopped running when the sidewalks got icy. I started driving more and walking less. I stayed in more often during the evenings. I spent more time surfing the internet, developing an (in hindsight unhealthy) interest in global politics and the inevitable debates it inspires. My mental dialogue grew more pervasive and I developed a greater resistance to mindfulness.

As it got less hospitable outside, my activities began to supply greater amounts of gratification and comfort, and relatively little self-esteem. When it’s 4pm and you haven’t been outside yet, it’s hard to feel like you’re embodying your best qualities. This deficit only intensifies the need for comfort and gratification, and you gravitate towards more of it, when what you really need is more of the alternative.

We all have those moments where we feel like we’ve gotten away from our best selves. We might not know what’s gone wrong, but it’s clear something’s gone off, and we know we have to step back and reassess what’s important.

Often we respond to these lapses with a freshly written list of familiar “shoulds”, which many people compile perennially, just before January 1st — I should be exercising more, I should be reaching out more, I should be working on my book, I should be helping my community more. But these unfulfilled shoulds only deplete our self-esteem even further, until we’re either happily achieving them, or we realize that they’re not the problem. Self-esteem seems inextricably linked to the specific feelings of identity we get from the activities that make up our days.

Asking yourself, “What am I doing when I like who I am?” seems to me to be a more direct way to figure out what you need more of (and what you need less of) in life, regardless of what you think you should need. Often, the healthy, fulfilling things we’ve drifted away from are things whose significance probably wouldn’t occur to us, until we start doing them again and see how much they contributed to our well-being. You might not have even noticed that you really like the person you are when you’re with a certain friend, but you don’t see that friend much anymore. Perhaps your schedules have changed, and the personal routines that kept you in touch (poker night, or the book club) are no longer habits.

Combine this with a few other unplanned changes in circumstances — you got away from the gym over the holidays, you were given a new responsibility at work, you find yourself binge-watching the Sopranos again, oil paints have become too expensive for you to justify — and one day you notice something feels conspicuously off about your life, because how you spend your days no longer makes you feel like someone you’re proud to be.

I can see now (but only after thinking about it in this way) what’s so different about last summer and this winter for me:

I like who I am when I spend time outside in my neighborhood. I don’t like who I am when I argue about politics on the internet. I like who I am when I get up from meditation. I don’t like who I am when I’m staying in all weekend. I like who I am when I’m visiting my friends. I don’t like who I am when I’m quitting work early.

They’re all interconnected, and in this case the weather clearly is a catalyst. I haven’t gone off the rails, or lost a step, I’ve just responded to the cold unconsciously, in ways that have led me away from who I like to be.

Note that I may like, on some level, doing all of these things, but I don’t like who I feel like I am while I’m doing half of them. In the same way, there may be things I find difficult or strenuous, but which are rewarding in that I like who I am when I’m doing them. Chinups come to mind.

And there are many more truths of this kind to be known. You can apply that question to anything you do, or don’t do any more — do I like who I am when I’m doing that?

It’s clear to me now that this is an improved litmus test for identifying what’s truly important in our lives. It makes clear what’s likely to get you back into top form, if you feel like something has slipped. Compared to admonishing yourself to smarten up or try harder, this is like navigating life with a map and compass, rather than simply moving toward whatever terrain looks most inviting from where you are.

You don’t have to understand quite why certain things hit the spot in this sense and others don’t. You just have to ask the question while you’re out living your life, and the vital pieces start to reveal themselves.


 Photo by Joe del Tufo

Jan January 18, 2015 at 10:48 pm

Thank you so much for this post. I applied it to a question that was facing me immediately and found that it resolved the matter nicely.

Craig January 19, 2015 at 3:02 am

Stumbled across your writing recently and find it very thought provoking/challenging.

A related read by moxie for those with career decisions ahead that shares some similar themes: http://www.thoughtcrime.org/blog/career-advice/

Thanks David

Garrett January 19, 2015 at 10:17 pm

Thanks for posting that, Craig. As evidenced by a comment I made to Bozena and David before reading the article you posted, I’ve spent time thinking about something Moxie touched upon. Moxie wrote, “This all presupposes we’re starting from a point where considering these questions is a real possibility. Sure, pure objectivity is impossible; after all, society itself also defines the context of our thoughts, and by now it’s way too late to effectively remove ourselves from that.”

Not only does society define “the context of our thoughts,” we’re swayed to like or dislike things from birth onward. We’re so heavily conditioned (by media and celebrities, by those who came before us, by family and friends, etc.), it’s hard to know our true selves. But what does “true self” even mean? As Moxie says, “pure objectivity is impossible” (even the first few members of our species would have been influenced by their predecessors and environment–and we’re a long ways from being among the first few humans).

Another fair question, I think, is “Does it matter?” Does it matter if what we claim to like has been largely determined by other people, by other living things, by history? Perhaps it only matters if what we’ve been conditioned to like (or dislike) conflicts with our values, which seems relevant to the questions David is suggesting we ask ourselves. A person’s values, I’d think, help determine if they like who they are when doing such-and-such. Of course, values aren’t necessarily positive/beneficial/esteem-boosting–a sociopath has values.

Now, one might argue that we’re also conditioned to have certain values, but I’m following the school of thought that says values (as opposed to morals) are inborn.

Anyway, the criteria I wish to consider (in regard to seeking employment or just how I spend my time/life in general) are as follows: does it give me joy, does it utilize my strengths, is it compatible with my personality type and is it in sync with my values. Thinking about what sorts of things I’m doing when I like myself should help me determine if something will meet at least some of my criteria.

Garrett January 19, 2015 at 11:00 pm

The more I think about it, the more I have to consider the strong possibility that even values aren’t entirely inborn. Both nurture and nature may contribute. And it’s for the best that nurture sometimes trumps nature.

Ton Bil January 19, 2015 at 3:10 am

I’m currently writing an e-book on “connectedness” with life and love, where self-esteem is an important topic, if not challenge. Your deep thoughts on this, David, could come at no better moment. Is it OK when I hyperlink in the e-book to this blogpost? Thanks a lot anyway for your great work!

David Cain January 19, 2015 at 8:56 am

That’s fine with me Ton!

Naylo January 19, 2015 at 3:16 am

Asking myself the question: ‘Do I like who I am when I do x,y & z?’ Is a fabulous way to avoid unhealthy behaviours that seem gratifying in the moment. Often, it is difficult to try to find a positive in giving up such rewarding behaviours (e.g. Chain-smoking an entire TV series). However, when you frame it in this way, it seems a little easier to let these habits go in the best interest of yourself. Thanks for the tip!

David Cain January 20, 2015 at 8:35 am

“Chain-smoking a TV series” … I like that way of putting it. I do it sometimes, and part of my justification is that I know there is a finite number of episodes. So the more I chain-smoke, the sooner I’m no longer in the grips of it. Cigarettes are worse because there are always more.

Bozena January 19, 2015 at 4:37 am

Hi David,

I’ve been reading your posts for months or even years, but this is the first time I disagree with you :-) Or I should say – I do agree but if certain conditions are met. The main one is good contact with oneself. If I apply your advice, I would be working at top jobs in biggest corporations (jobs I hate) because I am good at it and being good at something and receiving praises for that makes me like me. Also, I would force myself into sport activities I don’t like because being active is what makes me like me. I used to eat very little because being very slim made me like me. This is difficult to tell if I like myself because this is who I am and what I do fulfills me, or I like myself because I learned from my childhood experience that doing certain things cause me to feel appreciated, noticed, loved, and believe me, feeling it makes me like me, even if deep down it has nothing to do with who I really am.
These days sitting and doing nothing seems like a best idea for me, and I have such troubles accepting this because I learned not to like me being tired and sleepy, even if my body feels that way. I was forcing myself doing activities that made me like me, despite the fact that they had nothing to do with what my body really needed. So your advice is valid but for people that know themselves well enough to tell what do they like themselves for, being them while doing something or being what they appear to be, what matches person’s expectations about oneself and unfortunately, this is not common now to tell the difference between these two.

English is not my native language so I hope I explained myself, I’d be happy to try again if you’re interested.

David Cain January 19, 2015 at 9:10 am

I think it’s important to differentiate between the kinds of gratification we get from the approval of others, and activities that actually make you feel good about who you are and how you live. I don’t see how starving yourself or forcing yourself to work a job you hate really could create the kind of lasting self-respect I’m talking about here.

I suppose the idea of “liking oneself” might to some people represent what I would describe of as a kind of gratification — doing something that creates a good feeling about oneself without any regard for how healthy or sustainable it is. Maybe I should have clarified this point. By liking oneself I’m referring to the feeling of knowing that this pursuit is good for you, not just a feeling of validation or approval.

Garrett January 19, 2015 at 10:36 am

“Who am I?” is, I think, a tricky question. We’re so heavily conditioned (by media, by others) that determining who one truly is may be much more difficult than one realizes.

Susan January 19, 2015 at 6:05 am

Thank you for this insight. For the past two years I’ve been transitioning – personally and professionally – and many times find myself way too inside my head for my own good. I’ve been self employed as a graphic designer, writer and editor for over 20 years. It’s been fairly rewarding, comfortable, secure. But moving to a new location and ending a 23-year marriage, I am finding I like the person I am much more when I’m working directly with people than when I’m sitting at home at the computer. My next step has to be back out into the world! Thank you for helping make that clear to me!

David Cain January 19, 2015 at 9:13 am

I have noticed the same thing, and sometimes when you change one thing to get closer to what’s right for you, it throws something else out of balance. I found a kind of work that feels like it’s right for me, but I do it at home and so it’s led to less socializing, which is another activity that I know I need. So I’m working on habits that create more human interaction now. It’s not always something we can do overnight but at least we know where to go next.

Garrett January 19, 2015 at 10:42 am

As long as you’re not letting others, or the dominant culture, tell you that you’re inside your head too much. For many, that’s a perfectly acceptable place to be. I highly recommend reading Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain.

Sarah January 19, 2015 at 6:18 am

This is a wonderful article, thank you. I would love to ask myself these questions, and I have already done it quietly, in the back of my mind. But I have to be careful not to let them occupy my mind too much. If an individual is going through an intense phase at the moment, which requires a huge amount of perseverance, answering these questions could have negative effects on the personal as well as the professional front. I keep delaying asking myself these questions in more detail because I have no idea whether what comes after will awaken passion and motivation and happiness for that task.

David Cain January 19, 2015 at 9:17 am

Yeah, I don’t think we should be always in a state of self-evaluation. This is most helpful for those times when you feel like something’s gone off, and you need to take a step back. But it sure helps to recognize whether what we’re doing is the kind of thing that feels right for our lives, or not. In any case, it’s probably best to look at one thing at a time.

Chris January 19, 2015 at 7:05 am

That’s a very interesting distinction between (dis-)liking what I do and who I am when doing it. I’ll have to explore that further in my own life. Some fodder for thought, thanks!

OT: I don’t usually comment here, but I really love your blog and read every new article you publish asap. And, because I’m sort of anal about language, I sometimes notice the odd mistake in your texts. Do you care to have those pointed out to you for correction?

David Cain January 19, 2015 at 9:17 am

Yes, I appreciate typo reports. Someone already reported an extra “it” somewhere and it should be fixed now.

Sudhir January 19, 2015 at 8:59 am

Thank you for your articles – I find them really thought-provoking.

I will try asking this question in real life situations. However, from a theoretical perspective, I think asking the question after the activity is over would be more useful than, asking it during the activity. ‘While doing do; do not review, think, refine while doing’ from one of your previous article.

The other thought is that – liking who I am while doing one activity is quite different from liking who I am for the whole day or, days. In the example at the beginning of your article, the person says that ‘ I like who I am, when I am up there’; not when he is doing a particular activity like – wood chopping or, reading. So, I think it be better to ask this question at the end of a set of activities or, end of the day.

David Cain January 19, 2015 at 9:23 am

These are good points. I don’t think we should be constantly be asking ourselves explicitly “Do I like who I am while I’m doing this” as much as just developing an awareness between how you feel about your life and the activities that make up your life. This can be done as a reflection afterwards too.

Steve Adcock January 19, 2015 at 9:08 am

Self esteem is a curious thing. I don’t know if asking yourself if you truly like who you are when you do X, Y and Z is an accurate determinant of self esteem or not, but that is definitely a worthy question to ask. The fact is people have much more control over their own lives than they care to admit.

The fact is people don’t HAVE to live in cold climates, or warm climates, or busy cities, etc, if they don’t want to. Excuses like a “job”, or family, or whatever often prevents people from doing what they believe is best because, well, it’s just easier to keep doing what you’ve always done. People don’t ask themselves this question, or if they do, they plainly ignore the answer.

Self esteem is akin to self worth in my view. Self esteem is the confidence that people have in themselves in virtually anything that they do in life. The more self esteem that someone has, the more confident they are in their ability to succeed in life, to build a successful existence in this world. It often gives people the fuel to step outside of their comfort zones to try new things, or quit their dead-end jobs, or move across the country on the spur of the moment.

The more self esteem one has, the less likely they are to get stuck in one of life’s ruts, mindlessly meandering through life seemingly unaware of their own surroundings, hoping that nothing out there will force them into a change that they know they don’t want to handle.

David Cain January 19, 2015 at 9:27 am

I’m using the term self-esteem here mostly as a measure of how assured you are that you’re spending your days well. When you look at your regular activities and reflect on their effect on your self-esteem, you can get a pretty good idea of whether you ought find ways to do more of it, or less of it, or let it be like it is.

Garrett January 19, 2015 at 10:49 am

At the same time, simply quitting one’s job or moving is often much easier said than done. And I think it’s important to acknowledge that. Children, elderly parents, the need for shelter and food, and numerous other factors can make major changes more than just a bit challenging.

Mark Husson January 19, 2015 at 9:33 am

I love your articles, typos and all (which I neither notice or look for). Thank you!

David Cain January 20, 2015 at 8:36 am

Yeah this was a bad one for typos, sorry. Should be fixed now.

Free to Pursue January 19, 2015 at 10:05 am

That is exactly why I left my day job. When I went back to school I discovered that I liked myself a whole lot more away from work than at work. That very different feeling has stayed with me ever since (that was 3 years ago) and it often guides my behaviour. Thanks for framing it the way you have in this post because I think that, as a result of reading the above, I’ll be applying this criterion it to an increasing number of my activities. It’s definitely something worthwhile to chew on for a bit.

David Cain January 20, 2015 at 8:38 am

Leaving an ill-suited day job makes this crystal clear. I often think about my old job, and almost none of the 80 things I did there made me feel like the person I wanted to be.

Cait Flanders January 19, 2015 at 10:23 am

Great post, friend. I couldn’t help but think while reading it that this is the reason I stopped drinking alcohol. I wasn’t necessarily at rock bottom or the absolute worst version of myself… I just didn’t like who I was when I drank. Fortunately, I finally woke up one morning and realized that life was too short to keep being that person – and I think that’s given me the power, or strength, or whatever you want to call it, to make me ask that of myself in many situations now. Although I still watch too much TV, which is why I put myself on a total ban this month, haha. But that’s the coolest thing about being here and getting to live this life: you’re in control of who you are, what you do and how you feel. :)

David Cain January 20, 2015 at 8:41 am

Hey Cait. Alcohol can really make this clear too. There’s something about drinking human beings tend to like, but after a certain point it’s hard to be someone you like… especially when you wake up and remember who you ‘were’ last night. *shudder*

Melissa Wilson January 19, 2015 at 10:44 am

It’s interesting to think of self-esteem as being affected by the things we choose. I’ve always looked at it the other way around, where the things we choose to do (or not do) are the result of our self-esteem and our confidence in our abilities. I really like the question, “Do I like who I am when I’m doing this?” I think this is a great question for anyone to ask themselves, especially when they feel like what they’re doing doesn’t match up with what they believe or really want to be doing. I also like the idea of asking yourself what you’re doing when you like who you are. If we question ourselves in both of these ways then I think it will ultimately help us to be happier and lead to higher self-esteem. Anyway, thanks for a great thought-provoking post.

David Cain January 20, 2015 at 8:43 am

I think it’s both, to some degree. Our self-esteem is affected by what we choose to do, and those choices are influenced by our current levels of self-esteem. That’s the interesting thing about behavior cycles: you can alter them from any point on the circle, and those changes reinforce themselves.

Bikal January 19, 2015 at 11:07 am

This is incredible…a no-nonsense way for improving your self-esteem and yourself in general! Thanks a lot…

Judith January 19, 2015 at 11:23 am

This question is very appropriate in regards to bullying and being bullied. I am going to share it with young people that are both. Do you like who you are when you are bullying??? do you really think it will gain you respect or friends??? Do you like who you are when you are responding emotionally to the bully??? Do you like who you are when you give them the keys to your emotional well being???

David Cain January 20, 2015 at 8:45 am

Good idea. I would be interested to hear their responses.

francis January 19, 2015 at 4:20 pm

Great job David. Your insight into this simplifies a complex concept and offers a way for the reader to experiment, to see if it works for them. In my experience it is practice, not doctrine that leads to significant change. As another commenter stated, I rarely post anything, but i always read your blog with enthusiasm. Cheers.

David Cain January 20, 2015 at 8:50 am

I watched a fascinating speech by Alain de Botton yesterday, talking about what religion provides that secular lifestyles don’t, and one important aspect was repetition. We tend to forget insights we read (because we only read them once) but we don’t forget practices we perform repeatedly. So if there is a useful insight here it will only stick if it becomes a practice.

jalie January 19, 2015 at 4:50 pm

Great life lesson for kids starting out … I love the question, David. Thanks always for your thoughtful, insightful, beautifully written posts!

Dan January 19, 2015 at 5:48 pm

Great Post!

Challenges me to ask myself,

I am still following the right trail of breadcrumbs?

AffirmingSpirit January 20, 2015 at 1:45 am

How we FEEL is incredibly important. It is actually the *indicator* of where we are vibrationally, and therefore, also a predictor of where we are headed. Just asking the question, “How do I FEEL when I am doing this?” can create amazing awareness, and help you make much better decisions for your NOW that also benefits your future.

Thank you for sharing these important questions!

Many blessings,

Anya January 20, 2015 at 6:33 am

Wonderfully accurate!

Jefferson January 20, 2015 at 6:56 am

Great post, David.

Interesting that you bring up the climate angle, and how you liked where/who you were in the summertime much more than who you are in the winter. My wife and I have been discussing this same thing quite a bit. Being outside, visiting with neighbors, going for hikes, swimming with the kids– all of these things represent happiness, and we get so little of it all winter.

Have you ever considered moving to a warmer climate, just so that you could be the person that you like on a more regular basis? That is the point we are rapidly approaching…

David Cain January 20, 2015 at 8:53 am

Hah…. I consider moving to a warmer climate every time I scrape frost off my windshield.

At some point I would really like to. I would love to move to a place where more people are active year-round, and that has a lot to do with climate. Part of the problem of course, is the tradeoff of being away from friends and family. The compromise I’m aiming at, from here, is to set up things so that I can do my traveling during the coldest months here.

Naylo January 23, 2015 at 5:53 am

Come to Australia guys!!!

JessieAnne January 21, 2015 at 3:28 am

This was an excellent article. I just wanted to say thanks!

ثبت شرکت January 21, 2015 at 9:49 am

great post thank you

Thanks January 21, 2015 at 1:26 pm

Very interesting article, thanks!

deepak January 22, 2015 at 4:34 am

according to my experience it comes inside us from the environment in which we live and some from DNA :)

soto January 22, 2015 at 11:10 pm

help you make much better decisions for your NOW that also benefits your future.

oops February 11, 2015 at 3:30 am

better understanding gives us peace

caty February 12, 2015 at 1:33 am

The compromise I’m aiming at, from here, is to set up things so that I can do my traveling during the coldest months here.

Faivish Pewzner February 17, 2015 at 10:48 pm

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Pedro Luz February 18, 2015 at 8:28 pm

This is by far one of the best articles I’ve read in my life. It speaks directly to a moment we all go several times in life – the a-ha moment, where you somehow get a clear sense of who you are and what you’re doing with yourself. Your words have reached out to me in a time in my life where I needed someone to give shape to my confuse train of though about myself. Thanks for shining new light on a evergreen topic: human experience of self worth.

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