I recently read a book called Life’s Too Short by Dr. Abraham Twerski in which he defines guilt as “I made a mistake” and shame as “I am a mistake”, and I thought that was an interesting way to look at it. For myself I can relate a lot of my self-esteem (my absence of it) to this definition of shame. But the thing about shame is, it really has no utility. Guilt serves a purpose in the sense that if you made a mistake, you should learn from the unpleasant feeling of guilt and not repeat it, and in certain instances correct your wrongs on an interpersonal level. But a pervasive belief that I am a mistake isn’t going to rectify anything; in fact it will probably embolden my feelings of guilt and dissuade me from taking action, resigning myself to a life riddled with mistakes, because in my head, attempting to improve the worthless would be a futile endeavour.

Low self-esteem is sometimes warranted, and if it is that is a good thing. If my lack of self-esteem is actually rooted in fact, and based on my poor behaviour, then the solution is quite simple. Change my behaviour; operate in a manner that is antithetical to the negative feelings about myself. If I’m a chronic liar, thief, active drug addict or alcoholic, resentful, mean, or vindictive, then of course I’m going to have low self-esteem. And the remedy is quite simple, stop the behaviour that is perpetuating my negative self-image and slowly I will start to feel better about myself. The goal shouldn’t be to acquire self-esteem; the goal should be to operate in a way that is conducive to naturally gaining self-esteem. This method works well if the problem is justified guilt. If the problem is shame, that I am the mistake and not merely my actions, the solution is different, but thankfully it is also combatable.

I used to think I was worthless, that I was a mistake. I had a disdain for life itself, and despised essentially every aspect of myself. Even after I dealt with my guilt, I was still left with a persistent feeling of worthlessness and chronic inadequacy. Luckily the way out of that mindset was quite simple, being open to the possibility that my self-condemnation was erroneous, and acceptance that human life has intrinsic value. For example, I thought I was ugly. It was something that bothered me constantly and I wasn’t even sure why. I avoided looking in mirrors because I honestly couldn’t stand to see what I thought was a hideous face. Today I don’t think I’m attractive, instead I’ve come to understand that my worth is independent of my assets. If two people were murdered, and one was highly intelligent, good looking, and financially successful, and the other was ugly, unintelligent, and poor, no rational person would be okay with sentencing the second murderer to less time in prison because his victim was less desirable. Everyone would agree that the status or attributes of the victim are irrelevant, because a human life is a human life, regardless.

If I can apply this logic to myself, then I need not worry about my own worth. My worth is equal to that of the worth I can see in others. This won’t give me healthy self-esteem, the only route to that is through action. But no amount of good action will combat the issue of an unwarranted negative self-image, because that is an attempt to fight irrational perception with rational action. Rational cannot combat irrational, in order for my self-esteem to improve, I had to dismantle my irrational and erroneous perception of myself, see my intrinsic value, and then work towards objective benevolence. Once I was able to see that I wasn’t inherently worthless, I was able to forge self-esteem through good action. Before that, I was so convinced I was innately flawed, no amount of good action could have possibly resolved my lack of self-worth.

  • Jack A. Bingham

Author of Obsessive-Compulsive Dramatic: My Fight Against OCD, Borderline Personality Disorder, and Addiction