On the Meaning of Self-Appreciation

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?

A fraud.

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.

One day I may be a fierce passage from Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring:

Play Rite of Spring Passage

And the next day I may be the theme from Peter and the Wolf:

Play Peter and the Wolf Passage

Technorati Tags: and Reflective Leadership. Link to blog posting. Link to Oestreich Associates website.


  • Oh my oh my, what a fun romp this can be as we say Aloha to February, the month of love gone wild… ask forgiveness not permission of the love affair (we smile…)

    Your explorations are such gems Dan; they are wise. You ask fertile questions, and as serious as this discussion can be (and needs to be, in a time where the “disposable worker” we’ve been speaking of must recognize self-worth to persevere) as I think on this more, and I will, I’ve got to simply say for now, how much I thoroughly enjoy ‘watching’ your mental gymnastics.

    Self-appreciation is a process, not a quantity — yes! wholeheartedly agree.

    Beginner’s Mind + bread crumbs — intriguing.

    I stopped by to visit you as I finished up a very late lunch, and you nourished me better than my meal. Mahalo.

  • I’m glad to serve you something good for lunch, Rosa! Yes, this topic is worth some careful consideration. There are plenty of places to get sidetracked. At one level I simply hope that we don’t lose sight of how important it is to appreciate our balance of strengths and flaws; the moments of real wakefulness and the moments of unconsciousness. The balance makes us who we are, and whatever awareness of them we gain is also a gift and a subtle transformation….

    The bird by the way, and some friends, came by our balcony every morning for a hand-out last time we were on the Big Island.

  • Always a pleasure to read your notes, Dan!

  • Dan: I’m trying to find a balance in grappling with issues of appreciation and attention here and on my own blog. At the risk of going off the deep end [again(!)], your post brought up a number of issues for me … but I’ll try to keep my comments somewhat brief.

    First and foremost, I kept thinking about a deep truth I first encountered years ago: when you are what you do, when you don’t you’re not. I struggle with differentiating who I am (a noun, or a quantity) from what I do (a verb, or a process). If I am [more of] a process rather than a quantity – and I’m not sure if this is your view (but I detect a bias of self-appreciation over self-esteem) – than I really am [more] what I do than who I am (or who I think/thought I am/was).

    But I’ll leave aside my ongoing personal dilemma about [valuing] being vs. doing, and instead offer a few other items I’ve encountered recently that I believe are related to issues you are raising here.

    One was a reference to John Hagel’s post on “Defining the The Big Shift” in Venessa Miemis’ post on The Importance of Managing Your Online Reputation, in which she notes three of John’s ideas relating to process:

    We’re nodes in a network. We all have strengths and skills, but they go to waste if we don’t know how to connect them with and through the right people. There’s a movement taking place that’s pushing us towards a model that’s more relational and contextual, or as John Hagel puts it – the Big Shift – “from knowledge stocks to knowledge flows” (break down silos dividing talent and information), “from transactions to relationships” (build trust to encourage value exchange), and “from institutions driven by scalable efficiency to institutions driven by scalable peer learning” (increased competition and economic pressures will demand a collaborative workforce for success).

    Another is an article in PetHacker about Meet the Helpsters, in which the author invokes some relevant wisdom from Jane Jacobs, author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities, which, translated into the current context, speaks to a balance between self-appreciation and self-esteem (which I have not yet found … or embraced … but maybe that’s all part of the [life-long] process):

    In her book, Jacobs makes the analogy of biological feedback. A healthy cell will cease to create a substance when it detects enough of that product outside of its membrane. A faulty cell will go on making, clogging its environment with monocultural goo.

    Finally, in an attempt to [en]lighten up a bit, I wanted to mention a lighthearted informational graphic I encountered on the Information is Beautiful blog on The Hierarchy of Digital Distractions, as it differentiates between a higher level of

    Deep Contact.
    Deep Appreciation.

    and a lower [shallower?] level of

    Being Wanted.

    I’ll have more to say on this hierarchy soon … but will take it back home to my own blog.

  • hello dan,

    very late to the conversation…and i have some thoughts….one is the place of narcissim and self-appreciation, a softenened flavor of grandiosity…but narcissism nevertheless…a place where confusion lies

    another is self-appreciation is also about about appreciating our dark side, our flaws, our weaknesses for what they teach us…if we listen…

    finally, who is it who is doing the appreciating?…in eastern traditions the one question that is important to ask early and often is “who am I?”…continually asking and exploring the question will lead to not only an appreciation of the often-confusing and frustrating practice but of one’s self, and the discernment of the “self” and the “Self”…that’s a biggie

  • Hi Peter
    You highlight some key points all leading to the “discernment of the ‘self’ and of the ‘Self.'” Indeed, that is the biggie. I do sense that the listening to the dark side flaws does not really happen until there is appreciation. That is, appreciation comes first, then the listening. Before that, we may be too busy resisting the presence of the gold.

  • Dan – it helps, as you say, to define self-appreciation as a process, rather than as a quantity. As a process, self-appreciation calls for me to be in the present. It is only in the here and now that I can appreciate who I am in the moment, warts and all. And frankly we are not taught to appreciate our warts. So, for me, a lot of resistance can get stirred up when I fail to accept what is in the moment. Your post has given me much to reflect on!

  • Thank you, Deb. As I continue to reflect, it seems almost core to me to appreciate not only the warts but the fact that I am always at least partly unconscious of some of myself, my behaviors and impacts. It seems to me that it is often the unconsciousness that throws us. We are not supposed to be unconscious. Kind of the ultimate control issue perhaps. But if I can appreciate and come to love what I yet do not see or know, a self-invitation is sent and a door can open in the wall.

  • Daniel Keeling wrote:

    Wow, Dan. I came across this blog because I was researching the meaning of appreciate. I’m a singer and I recently told someone–an agent–that “It is my sincere hope that [he] will one day witness and appreciate the effectiveness of my talent!” I then regretted using the word appreciate, because I didn’t want to come across as arrogant–give the impression that I wanted him bowing down to me in gratefulness. I used it because I would sincerely like him to become aware of it. (I digressed a bit but on to my point)

    Lately, I’m becoming fully aware of the importance of self-appreciation! It means paying attention to the process of life, seeing it as it is, and being aware of it as it’s happening. As an striving artist, it seems to be the key that unlocks the deadbolt-lock on that door to having a viable career.



  • Daniel

    Like you, I was surprised at the power of the word, “appreciate.” But as you saw, asking another person to appreciate you is not the same as engaging in a practice of self-appreciation. I would say that as you deeply explore this practice, your presence more than your words will do the talking in a way that others will be invited to listen and wonder what you’ve got! Wouldn’t that be a fantastic discovery. Best of luck to you in your life and career.

  • This is a valuable post and I agree with Daniel that self-appreciation is so important. When you work on your self-esteem and carry it with you, people see and feel it.

  • I really like what this passage means and i really felt the same in me. thanks for helping me out for my assembly performance at school whoever the writer is.

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