I don’t think I immediately realized the can of worms I was opening for myself in my last post, On Appreciation, including the conversation with Joe McCarthy in the comments. I love Joe’s perspectives and challenges. In this case, however, the real trouble began as question after question came forward for me internally. How is self-appreciation different from self-esteem? Does the concept of self-appreciation help us overcome the age-old debate over whether someone can have too much of a good thing, floating away as a result into mere egotism? How is self-appreciation different from reflective thinking? Or self-appraisal? As I reviewed what’s available on the net, it was clear that these fields all relating to the self-esteem literature have been well tilled — yet it also seemed like nothing much was actually growing there. On one hand, self-esteem is thought to bridge into some form of New Age mysticism, apparently attractive to people who lack confidence, and on another hand is also about sociopaths whose problem is that they have too much self-regard. I also learned that the idea of overweening pride as a compensation for lack of self-esteem doesn’t explain egotism (because there are too many cases where, as with the sociopaths, that just isn’t so). All these questions were rattling around in me, even before getting to the larger cultural issues, such as the topic of self-promotion and gender that Joe and I found ourselves discussing. Perhaps writing out some ideas here will help my own process of clarification.
First, going back to a point I made the last post’s comment thread, self-appreciation is a process, not a quantity. Self-esteem is often expressed as a quantity, and this by itself creates a problem because then feelings of self-worth are addressed globally as a commodity, a thing that can be bought, sold, and accumulated, most often in the form of books and seminars that purport to teach us how to get it.
I could say that self-appreciation is a method for gaining self-esteem, but given the questions about self-esteem as a construct, what I’d really like to do is throw the construct out altogether, and go back to ground zero, also known as Beginner’s Mind.
Then, here is where I want to go. Appreciation is the key word. Appreciation refers to a sensitive understanding of the value of something. If the term is self-appreciation, that means that I sensitively understand the value of who and what I am and what I do. This is so different from the notion of what fills a bucket. If I am searching only for good feelings or feelings of worthiness in order to hold onto them, as if they were things, essentially possessions or a form of psychological money, my process is flawed for sure.
Bird and Crumbs
By contrast, self-appreciation leads me to recognize and value self from a broader standpoint, spiritual, social, and perhaps even aesthetic in nature. Self-appreciation is about sensitivity to what is. To what is real, good or bad. It may be that self-appreciation reflects an awareness that I have never given some parts of who I am enough credit, but it just as certainly will reflect the parts I have given too much credit. I may see the value of the hard challenges I’ve faced, and also the selfishness of some of my choices. And yet, for all that, it is not simply reflective thinking, which may be abstracted from the true grit of who I am nor is it only self-appraisal, which too often has a moral tone to it and leads to fixed views of oneself. I believe we get closer by including terms like “meeting oneself” and even “confronting oneself.” Self-appreciation — in line with the whole purpose of this weblog — is about self-knowledge, appreciating that knowledge and understanding, and ultimately acting upon it. If I were to contrast self-appreciation with anything, it would be contrasted to ignorance or emptiness. A highly egocentric person may have little self-appreciation because he or she does not yet recognize or value the negative realities of his or her impact on others. An overly submissive person may also have little self-appreciation because he or she does not yet see the positive possibilities for personal influence. Each of these situations is about understanding the value, the importance or preciousness, of self-knowledge.
Self-Appreciation and Defensiveness
In my work as a coach, I often find, for example, that a person may actually have some self-knowledge of a personal strength or weakness but have no idea how to gauge the value of that self-knowledge. He/She may see the trait, but not understand what it is doing or what it’s impact is. That comes through a process of attention and observation. A perfect example of this is around defensive behavior. Suppose, for example, I see myself as someone who is not especially good at writing (or “strategic planning” or “being in touch with others’ potentials”) or some other area that I judge to be a weakness. If someone gives me negative feedback about this area, it may be momentarily painful, but if I judge the comments to be accurate, I am probably able to hear them fairly well. I may even ask for advice on how to improve. But suppose the opposite is true — I believe I’m especially good at these areas. Then, if I receive feedback, I am much more likely to become defensive and to exhibit negative, maybe even retaliatory behaviors.
How dare you criticize my writing! How dare you! After all, without my strengths, what am I?
The role of self-appreciation is to attend to this dynamic and to offer a compassionate understanding of self and how vulnerable I am around that strength that experienced the criticism. Perhaps, indeed my writing is an important gift and I can appreciate why the criticism hurt, but maybe there is something to learn. So, self-appreciation supports me, soothes me, and I can slow down, listen, perhaps even be bemused for a moment but also connect and self-correct. Without self-appreciation, I may try to rebuild myself around my writing too quickly, and in the very effort to do so, attempting (unsuccessfully) to tell myself and others why in fact I’m good at this, I act defensively. Have you seen any of the episodes of American Idol? Sometimes the contestants receive feedback about their singing quite graciously, but sometimes, especially in the early try-out phase, people become enraged. And that’s because when our strengths are under attack we have an especially long way to fall, but such events have nothing to do with our capacity for self-appreciation. Those who only attend to good stuff about themselves or only attend to bad stuff are limiting the span of their attention, the result of which is arrogant or compulsively critical self-absorption.
What I like about the notion of self-appreciation is real release from this absorption and all the confusion and complexity and drama around the notion of self-esteem, the focus on its definitions, rules and exceptions. I like the idea of throwing open all the windows and doors to see the whole messy reality of the self, and appreciating that, along with the ability to explore without fear the territory of what it means to be in this world. We are given signals everyday, from outside and from inside, and it is our job to notice them and see what they mean, as if we are in fact listening to the passages of a powerful piece of music, full of patterns, emotions, mysteries, dark moments, and light-filled discoveries. That sense of wonder is so much closer to the notion of self-appreciation.
And the next day I may be the theme from Peter and the Wolf: