Do you have any advice for people with low self-esteem and who always think that they are not good enough?

One student asked me this question:

Do you have any advice for people with low self-esteem and who always think that they are not good enough?

Let me share with you a fun Zen story riddle (would have been more fun if I could do this in person). Let’s imagine that we have a large glass bottle. The opening of the bottle is big enough to fit a baby duckling inside the glass bottle. Imagine that we raise the duckling in the bottle for many years until it has grown very large. By now, it’s too big to get out of the glass bottle. So here’s the question:

How do you get the duck out without breaking the glass bottle? (Answer below, don’t peek!)

The answer is: AAAAAAAAARRRRRGGGGGGHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!! (Would have been more thrilling and fun if I could shout and bang the table right before your eyes)

You probably went, “WHAT THE HELL!?” But in that moment where you went WTH, you stopped thinking of the duck as trapped in the glass bottle. The duck is free.

A lot of life problems are like that. We are prisoners of our minds. And our minds are very powerful in generating self-made problems and suffering for ourselves. I need to be clear here: I’m not saying your problems are imaginary. How you feel about yourself is very real and very valid. And I acknowledge that, and in many ways, I feel you, because I used to suffer from low self-esteem too.

Over the years, I’ve come to realise that how we think and feel about ourselves are often inaccurate reflections of who we are. Why? Because we are the worst judge of ourselves. Everything we do is always pathetic in our eyes. And no matter how great and wonderful we may be, we will always find something to fault ourselves over.

Of course, it’s very easy to say, “ Don’t think about it.” That doesn’t work at all. Our minds are strange things. We are our minds, yet sometimes our minds have a life of its own, generating thoughts that we sometimes cannot control. That’s why it’s difficult to stop thinking about it.

If you noticed, from the start I’ve been saying that this is a problem of how we perceive ourselves in our minds. Because once we recognise the problem as such, we will then recognise that nothing outside of us can make us improve our self-esteem: relationships won’t solve the problem; good grades won’t solve the problem; money or even power won’t solve the problem. You can possess all these things but still suffer from a low self-esteem. So we must stop kidding ourselves that using these external things as measures or indicators of how good we are. Once you attain one of those things, e.g. high CAP or even a loving partner, you’ll soon discover some other thing to make you feel shit about yourself.

Having said all these, I won’t tell you how to get over one’s self-esteem issues. I’ll just share some of the realisations I had growing up, and how it helped me, and I hope it gives you new insights as well.

The first insight I acquired was when I discovered that abstract ideals are dangerous to one’s esteem. When we compare ourselves to the abstract ideals of good, clever, hardworking, smart, etc., they will always be perfect in our minds and anything in this concrete real world – ourselves especially – will always fall short from the perfection. The question, “Am I happy?”, is enough to make you miserable, because when you think about happiness in the abstract, your current state of happiness will always be not-happy-enough. Likewise for any other abstract ideal. So I have since stopped using such abstract notions to evaluate how good I am.

The second insight is that every single individual is sui generis. It’s a term used in Law and Philosophy to mean, “a class of its own.” Everyone’s unique in their own special way, with their own different strengths. I used to be miserable comparing myself with my peers. Now I stopped comparing, because I’ve since resigned myself to the fact that I don’t have to be perfect or excellent in everything. I just want to be excellent in the things I want to be excellent in. That’s all that matters. People can do better than me in so many ways, but I don’t care. I’m not them, and they’re not me. I’m a class of its own, and I’ll just do my own thing. It makes me more gracious too. I’m very happy for other people when I see them doing better than me. And I love it especially when I see my students or TAs surpass me in their own ways (always a proud moment).

My third insight is realising that it doesn’t matter whether I think or feel that I’m not good enough. What good does the knowledge do other than make you miserable? It’s more productive to think about the tasks at hand and how to solve it. People tend to conflate “not knowing how to solve a problem” with “being not good enough.” That’s not true. You can’t solve it because you don’t know enough. It’s not that you are not good enough. And so what if you have the awareness that you’re not good enough? It’s not going to solve the problem. If anything, it just makes it worse for you as you lose confidence in it. So my point here really is that my realisation is to not frame any situation as being “not good enough,” since it’s not productive to go down that path. It’s so much better to just focus on how to solve the problem.

Have you ever been so engrossed with an activity, so focused, that you forget yourself? It’s called being in the flow. And I like being in that state. It’s very meditative, almost like you’re in a trance. The more you think about yourself, the more you think about how you’re not good enough for it, the less you work. So if we just throw ourselves into the work and get into the mood and flow of things, then we’ll forget about ourselves and how we perceive ourselves. There is only the task at hand. And when you stop thinking about yourself and focus more on the work, you tend to have less performance anxieties, and generally do a better job. And at the end of the day, you get better at doing things and you’ll grow more confident and sure of yourself.

If you think about the insights that I’ve shared, they’re all very similar to the Zen solution of getting the duck out of the glass bottle – distract yourself and the duck is out. Turn the attention of your mind away from comparing against perfect abstract ideals or other people. Turn the attention of your mind to your work or hobbies. And just like that you’ll be out of your own glass bottle of low self-esteem. As you stop thinking in terms of being good/not-good enough, you’ll start to do work well, or even better than before. And that will eventually win you praises and recognition, that will eventually make you appreciate your own abilities. And hopefully as time passes, you yourself will grow more confident of the perception of who you are. And over time, your self-esteem will improve.