2 - The Meaning of Self-Esteem

Self-esteem has two interrelated components. One is a sense of basic confidence in the face of life’s challenges: self-efficacy. The other is a sense of being worthy of happiness: self-respect.

Self-efficacy means confidence in the functioning of my mind, in my ability to think, understand, learn, choose, and make decisions; confidence in my ability to understand the facts of reality that fall within the sphere of my interests and needs; self-trust; self-reliance.

Self-respect means assurance of my value; an affirmative attitude toward my right to live and to be happy; comfort in appropriately asserting my thoughts, wants, and needs; the feeling that joy and fulfillment are my natural birthright.

The experience of self-efficacy generates the sense of control over one’s life that we associate with psychological well-being, the sense of being at the vital center of one’s existence—as contrasted with being a passive spectator and a victim of events.

The experience of self-respect makes possible a benevolent, non-neurotic sense of community with other individuals, the fellowship of independence and mutual regard—as contrasted with either alienated estrangement from the human race, on the one hand, or mindless submergence into the tribe, on the other.

To sum up in a formal definition: Self-esteem is the disposition to experience oneself as competent to cope with the basic challenges of life and as worthy of happiness.

We are unlikely to hit a target we cannot see.

To have high self-esteem, then, is to feel confidently appropriate to life.

To have average self-esteem is to fluctuate between feeling appropriate and inappropriate, right and wrong as a person; and to manifest these inconsistencies in behavior, sometimes acting wisely, sometimes acting foolishly—thereby reinforcing the uncertainty about who one is at one’s core.

The Root of Our Need for Self-Esteem

The question of the efficacy of their consciousness or the worthiness of their beings does not exist for lower animals. But human beings wonder: Can I trust my mind? Am I competent to think? Am I adequate? Am I enough? Am I a good person? Do I have integrity, that is, is there congruence between my ideals and my practice? Am I worthy of respect, love, success, happiness?

we depend for our survival and our successful mastery of the environment on the appropriate use of our consciousness; our life and well-being depend on our ability to think.

the right use of our consciousness is not automatic, is not “wired in” by nature. In the regulating of its activity, there is a crucial element of choice—therefore, of personal responsibility.

Like every other species capable of awareness, we depend for our survival and well-being on the guidance of our distinctive form of consciousness, the form uniquely human, our conceptual faculty—the faculty of abstraction, generalization, and integration: our mind.

Our human essence is our ability to reason, which means to grasp relationships. It is on this ability—ultimately—that our life depends.
All that is the product of mind.

Mind includes the subconscious, the intuitive, the symbolic, all that which sometimes is associated with the “right brain.” Mind is all that by means of which we reach out to and apprehend the world.

The problem and the challenge is that, although thinking is a necessity of successful existence, we are not programmed to think automatically. We have a choice.

We are not responsible for controlling the activities of our heart, lungs, liver, or kidneys; they are all part of the body’s self-regulating system (although we are beginning to learn that some measure of control of these activities may be possible).
Nature has designed the organs and systems of our bodies to function automatically in the service of our life without our volitional intervention.
But our minds operate differently.

Our minds do not pump knowledge as our hearts pump blood, when and as needed. Our minds do not automatically guide us to act on our best, most rational and informed understanding, even when such understanding would clearly be beneficial.

Nature has given us an extraordinary responsibility: the option of turning the searchlight of consciousness brighter or dimmer.

This is the option of seeking awareness or not bothering to seek it or actively avoiding it. The option of thinking or not thinking. This is the root of our freedom and our responsibility.

We are the one species that can formulate a vision of what values are worth pursuing—and then pursue the opposite.

We are able to monitor our behavior and ask if it is consistent with our knowledge, convictions, and ideals—and we are also able to evade asking that question. The option of thinking or not thinking.

Our free will pertains to the choice we make about the operation of our consciousness in any given situation—to focus it with the aim of expanding awareness or unfocus it with the aim of avoiding awareness.
The choices we make concerning the operations of our consciousness have enormous ramifications for our life in general and our self-esteem in particular.

If one wishes to understand what self-esteem depends on, this list is a good place to begin:

The point is not that our self-esteem “should” be affected by the choices we make but rather that by our natures it must be affected. If we develop habit patterns that cripple or incapacitate us for effective functioning and that cause us to distrust ourselves, it would be irrational to suggest that we “should” go on feeling just as efficacious and worthy as we would feel if our choices had been better.

There is great joy in self-esteem, and often joy in the process of building or strengthening it, but this should not obscure the fact that more is required than blowing oneself a kiss in the mirror (or numerous other strategies that have been proposed, of equal profundity).

The level of our self-esteem is not set once and for all in childhood. It can grow as we mature, or it can deteriorate.
There are people whose self-esteem was higher at the age of ten than at the age of sixty, and the reverse is also true. Self-esteem can rise and fall and rise again over the course of a lifetime. Mine certainly has.

Any time we have to act, to face a challenge, to make a moral decision, we affect our feelings about ourselves for good or bad.

Competence

Self-efficacy is not the conviction that we can never make an error. It is the conviction that we are able to think, to judge, to know—and to correct our errors. It is trust in our mental processes and abilities.

Self-efficacy is not the certainty that we will be able to master any and every challenge that life presents. It is the conviction that we are capable in principle of learning what we need to learn and that we are committed to doing our rational and conscientious best to master the tasks and challenges entailed by our values.

Again, trust in our processes—and, as a consequence, a disposition to expect success for our efforts.

The distinction between trust in our processes and trust in some particular area of knowledge is of the highest importance in virtually every sphere of endeavor. In a world in which the total of human knowledge is doubling about every ten years, our security can rest only on our ability to learn.

Alternatively, if he does experience healthy self-efficacy, his security lies less in what he knows than in his confidence in his ability to learn. The consequence is that he is likely to master the new context and perform well, and his feelings of self-efficacy will be confirmed and reinforced.

Such questions helped her isolate the basic inner sources of her past success as differentiated from particular skills. They focus on process rather than content. They distinguish fundamental efficacy from any of its particular manifestations.

I want to stress again that no one can expect to be equally competent in all areas—and no one needs to be. Our interests, values, and circumstances determine the areas in which we are likely to concentrate.

Worthiness

Just as self-efficacy entails the expectation of success as natural, so self-respect entails the expectation of friendship, love, and happiness as natural, as a result of who we are and what we do.

Self-respect is the conviction of our own value. It is not the delusion that we are “perfect” or superior to everyone else. It is not comparative or competitive at all. It is the conviction that our life and well-being are worth acting to support, protect, and nurture; that we are good and worthwhile and deserving of the respect of others; and that our happiness and personal fulfillment are important enough to work for.

Not uncommonly we meet a person who is far more sure of his or her competence, than of the right to be happy.
For such persons, vacations are often more a source of stress than of pleasure. They are limited in their ability even to enjoy their families, much as they may feel they love them. They do not feel entitled. They feel they must continually prove and justify their worth through achievement. They are not devoid of self-esteem, but it is tragically flawed.

To appreciate why our need for self-respect is so urgent, consider the following: To live successfully, we need to pursue and achieve values. To act appropriately, we need to value the beneficiary of our actions. We need to consider ourselves worthy of the rewards of our actions. Absent this conviction, we will not know how to take care of ourselves, protect our legitimate interests, satisfy our needs, or enjoy our own achievements.

Three basic observations: (1) If we respect ourselves, we tend to act in ways that confirm and reinforce this respect, such as requiring others to deal with us appropriately. (2) If we do not respect ourselves, we tend to act in ways that lower our sense of our own value even further, such as accepting or sanctioning inappropriate behavior toward us by others, thereby confirming and reinforcing our negativity. (3) If we wish to raise the level of our self-respect, we need to act in ways that will cause it to rise—and this begins with a commitment to the value of our own person, which is then expressed through congruent behavior.

The need to see ourselves as good is the need to experience self-respect. It emerges very early. As we develop from childhood, we progressively become aware of the power to choose our actions.
We become aware of our responsibility for the choices we make. We acquire our sense of being a person. We experience a need to feel that we are right—right as a person—right in our characteristic way of functioning. This is the need to feel that we are good.

we cannot exempt ourselves from the realm of values and value judgments.

At some level, their value significance irresistibly registers in the psyche, leaving positive feelings about the self in their wake or negative ones.

Whether the values by which we explicitly or implicitly judge ourselves are conscious or subconscious, rational or irrational, life serving or life threatening, everyone judges himself or herself by some standard.

For the optimal realization of our possibilities, we need to trust ourselves and we need to admire ourselves, and the trust and admiration need to be grounded in reality, not generated out of fantasy and self-delusion.

Pride

If self-esteem pertains to the experience of our fundamental competence and value, pride pertains to the more explicitly conscious pleasure we take in ourselves because of our actions and achievements.

Authentic pride has nothing in common with bragging, boasting, or arrogance. It comes from an opposite root.
It is not out to “prove” but to enjoy.

Pride is the emotional reward of achievement. It is not a vice to be overcome but a value to be attained.
as moral ambitiousness, the dedication to achieving one’s highest potential in one’s character and in one’s life.

“I have accomplished so much. Why don’t I feel more proud of myself?”
Who chose your goals?
Neither pride nor self-esteem can be supported by the pursuit of secondhand values that do not reflect who we really are.

But does anything take more courage—is anything more challenging and sometimes frightening—than to live by our own mind, judgment, and values?
Is not self-esteem a summons to the hero within us?


3. The Face of Self-Esteem

Self-esteem expresses it itself in a face, manner, and way of talking and moving that projects the pleasure one takes in being alive.

It expresses itself in the comfort one experiences in giving and receiving compliments, expressions of affection, appreciation, and the like.

It expresses itself in an openness to criticism and a comfort about acknowledging mistakes, because one’s self-esteem is not tied to an image of “being perfect.”

It expresses itself when one’s words and movements tend to have a quality of ease and spontaneity, reflecting the fact that one is not at war with oneself.

It expresses itself in the harmony between what one says and does and how one looks, sounds, and moves.

It expresses itself in an attitude of openness to and curiosity about new ideas, new experiences, new possibilities of life.

It expresses itself in an ability to enjoy the humorous aspects of life, in oneself and others.

It expresses itself in one’s flexibility in responding to situations and challenges

It expresses itself in one’s comfort with assertive behavior in oneself and others.

It expresses itself in an ability to preserve a quality of harmony and dignity under conditions of stress.

We see eyes that are alert, bright, and lively; a face that is relaxed and tends to exhibit natural color and good skin vibrancy; a chin that is held naturally and in alignment with one’s body; and a relaxed jaw.

We see shoulders relaxed yet erect; hands that tend to be relaxed and graceful; arms that tend to hang in an easy, natural way; a posture that tends to be unstrained, erect, well-balanced; a walk that tends to be purposeful

We hear a voice that tends to be modulated with an intensity appropriate to the situation and with clear pronunciation.

Relaxation implies that we are not hiding from ourselves and are not at war with who we are.

Self-Esteem in Action

Realism

In this context the term simply means a respect for facts, a recognition that what is, is, and what is not, is not.
No one can feel competent to cope with the challenges of life who does not treat seriously the distinction between the real and the unreal;

High self-esteem is intrinsically reality oriented.

In tests, low-self-esteem individuals tend to underestimate or overestimate their abilities; high-self-esteem individuals tend to assess their abilities realistically.

Intuitiveness

high-level business executives sometimes credit intuition for many of their achievements. A mind that has learned to trust itself is more likely to rely on this process.

Early in this century Carl Jung stressed the importance of this respect for internal signals to creativity. More recently Carl Rogers linked it to self-acceptance, authenticity, and psychological health.

Creativity

Creative persons listen to and trust their inner signals more than the average.
Their minds are less subservient to the belief systems of others, at least in the area of their creativity.
they value their own thoughts and insights more than the average person does.

Studies tell us that creative people are far more likely to record interesting ideas in a notebook; spend time nursing and cultivating them; put energy into exploring where they might lead. They value the productions of their mind.

Persons of low self-esteem tend to discount the productions of their mind. It is not that they never get worthwhile ideas. But they do not value them, do not treat them as potentially important, often do not even remember them very long—rarely follow through with them.

Independence

A practice of thinking for oneself is a natural corollary—both a cause and a consequence—of healthy self-esteem.

So is the practice of taking full responsibility for one’s own existence—for the attainment of one’s goals and the achievement of one’s happiness.

Flexibility

To be flexible is to be able to respond to change without inappropriate attachments binding one to the past.

A clinging to the past in the face of new and changing circumstances is itself a product of insecurity, a lack of self-trust.
Rigidity is what animals sometimes manifest when they are frightened: they freeze.

It is also what companies sometimes manifest when faced with superior competition. They do not ask, “What can we learn from our competitors?” They cling blindly to what they have always done, in defiance of evidence that it is no longer working.

Rigidity is often the response of a mind that does not trust itself to cope with the new or master the unfamiliar—or that has simply become complacent or even slovenly.

Flexibility, in contrast, is the natural consequence of self-esteem. A mind that trusts itself is light on its feet, unemcumbered by irrelevant attachments, able to respond quickly to novelty because it is open to seeing.

Able to manage change

Self-esteem flows with reality; self-doubt fights it.
Self-esteem speeds up reaction time; self-doubt retards it.

Willingness to admit (and correct) mistakes

Facts are a higher priority than beliefs.
Truth is a higher value than having been right.

Consciousness is perceived as more desirable than self-protective unconsciousness.

Benevolence and cooperativeness

There is no need to fear others, no need to protect myself behind a fortress of hostility.

Empathy and compassion are far more likely to be found among persons of high self-esteem than among low.

my relationship to others tends to mirror and reflect my relationship to myself.


4. The Illusion of Self-Esteem

When self-esteem is low, We live more to avoid pain than to experience joy.

Not that the level of our self-esteem determines our thinking.
What self-esteem affects is our emotional incentives.

Our feelings tend to encourage or discourage thinking, to draw us toward facts, truth, and reality, or away from them—toward efficacy or away from it.

That is why the first steps of building self-esteem can be difficult: We are challenged to raise the level of our consciousness in the face of emotional resistance. We need to challenge the belief that our interests are best served by blindness. What makes the project often difficult is our feeling that it is only our unconsciousness that makes life bearable. Until we can dispute this idea, we cannot begin to grow in self-esteem.

The danger is that we will become the prisoners of our negative self-image. We allow it to dictate our actions. We define ourselves as mediocre or weak or cowardly or ineffectual and our performance reflects this definition.

We tell ourselves we are powerless. We are rewarded for doing so, in that we do not have to take risks or awaken from our passivity.

Poor self-esteem not only inhibits thought, it tends to distort it. If we have a bad reputation with ourselves, and attempt to identify the motivation of some behavior, we can react anxiously and defensively and twist our brains not to see what is obvious.

Only self-condemnation feels appropriate.

The base and motor of poor self-esteem is not confidence but fear.
Not to live, but to escape the terror of life, is the fundamental goal.
Not creativity, but safety, is the ruling desire.
And what is sought from others is not the chance to experience real contact but an escape from moral values, a promise to be forgiven, to be accepted, on some level to be taken care of.

If low self-esteem dreads the unknown and unfamiliar, high self-esteem seeks new frontiers.
If low self-esteem avoids challenges, high self-esteem desires and needs them.
If low self-esteem looks for a chance to be absolved, high self-esteem looks for an opportunity to admire.

We can say that an individual is healthy to the extent that the basic principle of motivation is that of motivation by confidence (love of self, love of life); the degree of motivation by fear is the measure of underdeveloped self-esteem.

Pseudo Self-Esteem

one thinks something is wrong with me or I am lacking something essential.
because it is painful, we are often motivated to evade it, to deny our fears, rationalize our behavior, and create the appearance of a self-esteem we do not possess. We may develop what I have termed pseudo self-esteem.

Pseudo self-esteem is the illusion of self-efficacy and self-respect without the reality.

Nothing is more common than to pursue self-esteem by means that will not and cannot work.
Instead of seeking self-esteem through consciousness, responsibility, and integrity, we may seek it through popularity, material acquisitions, or sexual exploits.

The possibilities for self-deception are almost endless—all the blind alleys down which we can lose ourselves, not realizing that what we desire cannot be purchased with counterfeit currency.

Self-esteem is an intimate experience; it resides in the core of one’s being.
It is what I think and feel about myself.

I can be loved by my family, my mate, and my friends, and yet not love myself.
I can be admired by my associates and yet regard myself as worthless.
I can project an image of assurance and poise that fools almost everyone and yet secretly tremble with a sense of my inadequacy.
I can fulfill the expectations of others and yet fail my own;
I can win every honor and yet feel I have accomplished nothing;
I can be adored by millions and yet wake up each morning with a sickening sense of fraudulence and emptiness.

The acclaim of others does not create our self-esteem. Neither does erudition, material possessions, marriage, parenthood, philanthropic endeavors, sexual conquests, or face-lifts.
These things can sometimes make us feel better about ourselves temporarily or more comfortable in particular situations. But comfort is not self-esteem.

The tragedy of many people’s lives is that they look for self-esteem in every direction except within, and so they fail in their search.

if self-esteem is self-affirming consciousness, a mind that trusts itself—no one can generate and sustain this experience except myself.

The ultimate source of self-esteem is and can only be internal—in what we do, not what others do. When we seek it in externals, in the actions and responses of others, we invite tragedy.

Having worked for many years with persons who are unhappily preoccupied with the opinions of others, I am persuaded that the most effective means of liberation is by raising the level of consciousness one brings to one’s own experience: The more one turns up the volume on one’s inner signals, the more external signals tend to recede into proper balance.
this entails learning to listen to the body, learning to listen to the emotions, learning to think for oneself.

Independence

Innovators and creators are persons who can to a higher degree than average accept the condition of aloneness—that is, the absence of supportive feedback from their social environment.
They are more willing to follow their vision, even when it takes them far from the mainland of the human community.
Unexplored spaces do not frighten them—or not, at any rate, as much as they frighten those around them.

Is not the hallmark of entrepreneurship, the ability to see a possibility that no one else sees—and to actualize it?

That which we call “genius” has a great deal to do with independence, courage, and daring—a great deal to do with nerve.
This is one reason we admire it. In the literal sense, such “nerve” cannot be taught;

If human happiness, well-being, and progress are our goals, it is a trait we must strive to nurture—in our child-rearing practices, in our schools, in our organizations, and first of all in ourselves.


PART II - Internal Sources of Self-Esteem


5. The Focus on Action

What must an individual do to generate and sustain self-esteem?
What must a child learn to do if he or she is to enjoy self-esteem?
What is the desirable path of childhood development? And also, What practices should caring parents and teachers seek to evoke, stimulate, and support in children?

self-trust, and autonomy are to be valued.
We recognize that families in which reality is often denied and consciousness often punished place devastating obstacles to self-esteem; they create a nightmare world in which the child may feel that thinking is not only futile but dangerous.

why do we put our focus on practices, that is, on actions?
every value pertaining to life requires action to be achieved, sustained, or enjoyed.

The organs and systems within our body support our existence by continuous action.

We pursue and maintain our values in the world through action.

it is a person’s actions that are decisive.
What determines the level of self-esteem is what the individual does, within the context of his or her knowledge and values.
And since action in the world is a reflection of action within the mind of the individual, it is the internal processes that are crucial.

the practices indispensable to the health of the mind are all operations of consciousness.
All involve choices. They are choices that confront us every hour of our existence.

A “practice” implies a discipline of acting in a certain way over and over again—consistently.
it is a way of operating day by day, in big issues and small, a way of behaving that is also a way of being.

Volition and Its Limits

Free will does not mean omnipotence. Volition is a powerful force in our lives, but it is not the only force.

Focused thinking may come more easily to some individuals.
we may come into this world with certain inherent differences that may make it easier or harder to attain healthy self-esteem—differences pertaining to energy, resilience, disposition to enjoy life, and the like.
we may come into this world with significant differences in our predisposition to experience anxiety or depression.

Many individuals suffer so much damage in the early years, before the self is fully formed, that it is all but impossible for healthy self-esteem to emerge later without intense psychotherapy.

Parenting and Its Limits

one of the best ways to have good self-esteem is to have parents who have good self-esteem and who model it.

There are people who appear to have been raised superbly by the standards indicated above and yet are insecure, self-doubting adults. And there are people who have emerged from appalling backgrounds, raised by adults who did everything wrong, and yet they do well in school, form stable and satisfying relationships, have a powerful sense of their value and dignity, and as adults satisfy any rational criterion of good self-esteem.

they find water where others see only a desert.

Inner Blocks

Consciousness is a continuum;
my self-esteem will be affected by whether I try to bring consciousness to my problem.

What We Do Know

an honest commitment to understanding inspires self-trust.

people who live mindfully feel more competent than those who live mindlessly.

integrity engenders self-respect and that hypocrisy does not.

We “know” all this implicitly, although it is astonishing how rarely such matters are discussed.

What can I do today to raise the level of my self-esteem?
most of us can do a great deal.

As an aside to parents, teachers, psychotherapists, and managers who may be reading this book to gain insight on how to support the self-esteem of others, I want to say that the place to begin is still with oneself.

If one does not understand how the dynamics of self-esteem work internally—if one does not know by direct experience what lowers or raises one’s own self-esteem—one will not have that intimate understanding of the subject necessary to make an optimal contribution to others.

Also, the unresolved issues within oneself set the limits of one’s effectiveness in helping others.
It may be tempting, but it is self-deceiving to believe that what one says can communicate more powerfully than what one manifests in one’s person.

We must become what we wish to teach.

Sentence-Completion Work

The essence of the method is that the client (or subject) is given a sentence stem, an incomplete sentence, and asked to repeat the stem over and over again, each time providing a different ending.
Then another stem is given, and then another, allowing one to explore a particular area at deeper and deeper levels. This work may be done verbally or in writing.

Sentence-completion work plays a vital role in determining what things people do that raise or lower self-esteem.

The Six Practices

Since self-esteem is a consequence, a product of internally generated practices, we cannot work on self-esteem directly
We must address ourselves to the source.

What then, in briefest essence, does healthy self-esteem depend on?
I have found no others of comparable fundamentality.

Once we understand these practices, we have the power to choose them, to work on integrating them into our way of life.
The power to do so is the power to raise the level of our self-esteem, from whatever point we may be starting.

I have often witnessed the most extraordinary changes in people’s lives as a result of relatively small improvements in these practices.
In fact, I encourage clients to think in terms of small steps rather than big ones because big ones can intimidate (and paralyze), while small ones seem more attainable, and one small step leads to another.


6. The Practice of Living Consciously

most human beings are sleepwalking through their own existence.
Enlightenment is identified with waking up.
Evolution and progress are identified with an expansion of consciousness.

We perceive consciousness as the highest manifestation of life.
The higher the form of consciousness, the more advanced the form of life.

Moving up the evolutionary ladder from the time, consciousness first emerges on the planet, each life-form has a more advanced form of consciousness than that of the life-form on the rung below.

Among our own species, we carry this same principle further: We identify increasing maturity with wider vision, greater awareness, higher consciousness.

Why is consciousness so important? Because for all species that possess it, consciousness is the basic tool of survival—the ability to be aware of the environment in some form, at some level, and to guide action accordingly.

As we have discussed, we are beings for whom consciousness (at the conceptual level) is volitional. This means that the design of our nature contains an extraordinary option—that of seeking awareness or not bothering (or actively avoiding it), seeking truth or not bothering (or actively avoiding it), focusing our mind or not bothering (or choosing to drop to a lower level of consciousness).

In other words, we have the option of exercising our powers or of subverting our means of survival and well-being. This capacity for self-management is our glory and, at times, our burden.

If we do not bring an appropriate level of consciousness to our activities, if we do not live mindfully, the inevitable penalty is a diminished sense of self-efficacy and self-respect.

We cannot feel competent and worthy while conducting our lives in a mental fog.

Our mind is our basic tool of survival. Betray it and self-esteem suffers. The simplest form of this betrayal is the evasion of discomfiting facts.

Through the thousands of choices we make between thinking and nonthinking, being responsible toward reality or evading it, we establish a sense of the kind of person we are. Consciously, we rarely remember these choices. But deep in our psyche they are added up, and the sum is that experience we call “self-esteem.”

Self-esteem is the reputation we acquire with ourselves.

The principle of living consciously is unaffected by degrees of intelligence.
To live consciously means to seek to be aware of everything that bears on our actions, purposes, values, and goals—to the best of our ability, whatever that ability may be—and to behave in accordance with that which we see and know.

The Betrayal of Consciousness

Consciousness that is not translated into appropriate action is a betrayal of consciousness;

Living consciously means more than seeing and knowing; it means acting on what one sees and knows.

I can recognize that I have been unfair and hurtful to my child (or my spouse or my friend) and need to make amends. But I don’t want to admit I made a mistake, so I procrastinate, claiming that I am still “thinking” about the situation. This is the opposite of living consciously.
avoidance of the meaning of what I am doing; avoidance of my motives; avoidance of my continuing cruelty.

Possible Misunderstandings

Subconscious

It is in the nature of human learning that we automate new knowledge and skills, such as speaking a language or driving an automobile, so that they do not continue to require of us the level of explicit awareness that was necessary during the learning stage.

As mastery is attained, they drop into the accumulated repertoire of the subconscious—thus freeing the conscious mind for the new and unfamiliar.
Living consciously does not mean that we retain in explicit awareness everything we ever learned, which would be neither possible nor desirable.

Actions

To be operating consciously—to be in appropriate mental focus—does not mean that we must be engaged in some task of problem solving every moment of our waking existence.

We may choose to meditate, for example, emptying our mind of all thought to make ourselves available to new possibilities of relaxation, rejuvenation, creativity, insight, or some form of transcendence.

This can be an entirely appropriate mental activity—in fact, in some contexts, a highly desirable one.
And, of course, there are still other alternatives to problem solving, such as creative daydreaming or abandonment to physical playfulness or erotic sensation.

In matters of mental functioning, context determines appropriateness.
To operate consciously does not mean always to be in the same mental state but rather to be in the state appropriate to what I am doing.
If, for example, I am tumbling on the floor with a child, my mental state will obviously be very different from what it is when I am working on a book.
But no matter how playfully silly I may become, part of my mind is monitoring the situation to see that the child remains physically safe.

Selection

Given the countless number of things in our world of which it is theoretically possible to be conscious, awareness clearly involves a process of selection.

In choosing to attend here, I implicitly choose not to attend elsewhere—at least in this moment. Sitting at my computer and writing this book, I am relatively oblivious to the rest of my environment. If I shift my focus, I become aware of the sound of passing automobiles, the sound of a child shouting and a dog barking. In another instant all that will be lost to conscious awareness and my mind will be absorbed by the words on my computer screen and the words forming in my mind. My purpose and values dictate the standard of selection.

When I am writing, I am often in a state of such concentration as to be trancelike; a ruthless process of selection is at work, but within that context I would say I am operating at a high level of consciousness.

Only context can determine what mind-state is appropriate.

Being Responsible Toward Reality

Living consciously is living responsibly toward reality.

Thus, when we live consciously we do not confuse the subjective with the objective.

The Specifics of Living Consciously

A mind that is active rather than passive.

I do not indulge in the fantasy that someone else can spare me the necessity of thought or make my decisions for me.

An intelligence that takes joy in its own function.

The child’s primary business is learning. It is also the primary entertainment.

To retain that orientation into adulthood, so that consciousness is not a burden but a joy, is the mark of a successfully developed human being.
we cannot choose to feel pleasure in the assertion of consciousness if for one reason or another we associate it with fear, pain, or exhausting effort.

But anyone who has persevered, overcome such barriers, and learned to live more consciously will say that such learning becomes an increasingly greater source of satisfaction.

Being “in the moment,” without losing the wider context.

being present to what one is doing.
If I am listening to the complaint of a customer, being present to the experience.
If I am playing with my child, being present to the activity.
If I am working with a psychotherapy client, being with the client and not somewhere else.
Doing what I am doing while I am doing it.

This does not mean that my awareness is reduced only to immediate sensory experience.
I wish to be in the moment but not trapped in the moment. This is the balance that allows me to be in the most resourceful state.

Reaching out toward relevant facts rather than withdrawing from them.

Do I stay alert to and curious about any information that might cause me to modify my course or correct my assumptions, or do I proceed on the premise that there is nothing new for me to learn?

Do I continually seek out new data actively that might be helpful, or do I close my eyes to it even when it is presented?

Being concerned to distinguish among facts, interpretations, and emotions.

I see you frowning; I interpret this to mean you are angry with me;
I tend to treat my feelings as the voice of reality, which can lead me to disaster.

Noticing and confronting my impulses to avoid or deny painful or threatening realities.

we may have to override avoidance impulses. But this requires that we be aware of such impulses.
Part of living consciously is being on guard against the sometimes seductive pull of unconsciousness;

Fear and pain should be treated as signals not to close our eyes but to open them wider, not to look away but to look more attentively.
This is far from an easy or effortless task. It is unrealistic to imagine that we will always execute it perfectly.

Self-esteem asks not for flawless success but for the earnest intention to be conscious.

Being concerned to know “where I am” relative to my various (personal and professional) goals and projects, and whether I am succeeding or failing.

what is the present state of my marriage? Do I know? Would my partner and I answer the same way? Are my partner and I happy with each other? Are there frustrations and unresolved issues? If so, what am I doing about them? Do I have an action plan, or am I merely hoping that “somehow” things will improve?

If one of my aspirations is one day to have my own business, what am I doing about it? Am I closer to that goal than I was a month ago or a year ago? Am I on track or off?

If one of my ambitions is to be a professional writer, where am I at present relative to the fulfillment of that ambition? What am I doing to actualize it? Will I be closer to fulfillment next year than this year? If so, why? Am I bringing as much consciousness to my projects as I need to?

Being concerned to know if my actions are in alignment with my purposes.

Sometimes there was great lack of congruence between what we say our goals or purposes are and how we invest our time and energy.

So living consciously entails monitoring my actions relative to my goals.

If there is misalignment, either my actions or my goals need to be rethought.

Searching for feedback from the environment so as to adjust or correct my course when necessary.

The potential always exists that new information will require an adjustment of our plans and intentions.

A business leader who operates at a high level of consciousness plans for tomorrow’s market; a leader operating at a more modest level thinks in terms of today’s; a leader operating at a low level may not realize that he is still thinking in terms of yesterday’s.

do I operate mechanically or consciously?

Persevering in the attempt to understand in spite of difficulties.

to persevere or give up.

if we give up, withdraw, fall into passivity, or go through the motions of trying without meaning it, we shrink the level of our consciousness—to escape the pain and frustration that accompanied our efforts.

The world belongs to those who persevere. I am reminded of a story told about Winston Churchill: “Never-never-never-never-never-never-never give up!”

Being receptive to new knowledge and willing to reexamine old assumptions.

improvements in our understanding are always possible.

Being willing to see and correct mistakes.

All of us are wrong some of the time, all of us make mistakes, but if we have tied our self-esteem to being above error, or if we have become overattached to our own positions, we are obliged to shrink consciousness in misguided self-protection.

To find it humiliating to admit an error is a certain sign of flawed self-esteem.

Seeking always to expand awareness—a commitment to learning—therefore, a commitment to growth as a way of life.

“Everything of importance that can be invented has been invented.”
for the hundreds of thousands of years that Homo sapiens has existed on this planet, people saw existence as essentially unchanging. They believed that the knowledge possible to humans was already known.

The idea of human life as a process of advancing from knowledge to new knowledge, from discovery to discovery is only a couple of seconds old, measured in evolutionary time.

we are living in an age when the total of human knowledge doubles about every ten years.

A concern to understand the world around me.

To be oblivious to such forces, to imagine that we operate in a vacuum, is truly to live as a sleepwalker. Living consciously entails a desire to understand our full context.

it is our intention and its expression in action that is of primary importance.

A concern to know not only external reality but also internal reality, the reality of my needs, feelings, aspirations, and motives, so that I am not a stranger or a mystery to myself.

about Saturn to the teachings of Zen Buddhism—and yet who are blind to the operations of the private universe within.

They deny and disown their needs, rationalize their emotions, intellectualize their behavior

These are the kind of questions that intelligent self-examination entails.

“the art of noticing.” Noticing the feelings in my body. Noticing my emotions during an encounter with someone. Noticing patterns in my behavior that may not be serving me. Noticing what excites me and what drains me. Noticing whether the voice inside my head is truly my own or belongs to someone else—perhaps my mother.

To notice, I have to be interested. I have to think the practice worthwhile. I have to believe there is value in knowing myself. I may have to be willing to look at troublesome facts. I have to be convinced that, longterm, I have more to gain from consciousness than unconsciousness.

A concern to be aware of the values that move and guide me, as well as their roots, so that I am not ruled by values I have irrationally adopted or uncritically accepted from others.

A man may be socialized to identify personal worth with income; a woman may be socialized to identify personal worth with the status of the man she marries.
Such values subvert healthy self-esteem, and almost inevitably lead to self-alienation and to tragic life decisions.

Living consciously, therefore, entails reflecting on and weighing in the light of reason and personal experience the values that set our goals and purposes.

A Note on Addictions

When we become addicted to alcohol or drugs or destructive relationships, the implicit intention is invariably to ameliorate anxiety and pain—to escape awareness of one’s core feelings of powerlessness and suffering.

Anxiety and pain are not extinguished, they are merely rendered less conscious. Since they inevitably resurface with still greater intensity, larger and larger doses of poison are needed to keep consciousness at bay.

To the addict, consciousness is the enemy.
If I have reason to know that alcohol is dangerous to me and I nonetheless take a drink, I must first turn down the light of awareness.
If I know that cocaine has cost me my last three jobs and I nonetheless choose to take a snort, I must first blank out my knowledge.
If I recognize that I am in a relationship that is destructive to my dignity, ruinous for my self-esteem, and dangerous to my physical well-being, and if I nonetheless choose to remain in it, I must first drown out the voice of reason, fog my brain, and make myself functionally stupid.

Self-destruction is an act best performed in the dark.

A Personal Example

“If only I had thought more!” “If only I hadn’t been so impulsive!” “If only I had checked the facts more carefully!” “If only I had looked ahead a bit!”

“If you were to bring a higher level of consciousness to your relationship with Barbara, and to do so steadily, day after day, what do you suppose might happen?”
To a mind that is receptive, so simple yet provocative a question can have astonishing potency.

If for two weeks I had sat at my desk each morning and wrote the following incomplete sentence in my notebook:
“If I bring a higher level of consciousness to my relationship with Barbara — ”

and then wrote six to ten endings as rapidly as I could, without rehearsing, censoring, planning, or “thinking,” I would have found myself making more and more conscious, explicit, and inescapable all the deep reservations I had about this relationship as well as my process of avoidance and denial.

Consciousness and the Body

when feelings and emotions are blocked and repressed, the process of implementation is physical: Breathing is restricted and muscles are contracted.
When body therapists work to release the breathing and open areas of tight muscular contraction, the person feels more and is more aware. Body work can liberate blocked consciousness.

“Clients who bring a lot of consciousness to the work do better than clients who are more passive, who just show up and expect the therapist to do everything.”

if one’s goal is to operate at a high level of consciousness, a body armored against feeling is a serious impediment.

Sentence Completions to Facilitate the Art of Living Consciously

Sentence-completion work is a deceptively simple yet uniquely powerful tool for raising self-understanding, self-esteem, and personal effectiveness.

It rests on the premise that all of us have more knowledge than we normally are aware of—more wisdom than we use, more potentials than typically show up in our behavior.

Sentence completion is a tool for accessing and activating these “hidden resources.”

We want a minimum of six endings.
We should work as rapidly as possible—no pauses to “think,” inventing if we get stuck, without worrying if any particular ending is true, reasonable, or significant. Any ending is fine, just keep going.


First thing in the morning, before proceeding to the day’s business, sit down and write the following stem:

Living consciously to me means —

Then, go on to the next stem:

If I bring 5 percent more awareness to my activities today —

Then:

If I pay more attention to how I deal with people today —

Then:

If I bring 5 percent more awareness to my most important relationships —

Then:

If I bring 5 percent more awareness to (fill in a particular problem you are concerned about—for example, your relationship with someone, or a barrier you’ve hit at work, or your feelings of anxiety or depression) —


At the end of the day, as your last task before dinner, do six to ten endings each for the following stems:

When I reflect on how I would feel if I lived more consciously —

When I reflect what happens when I bring 5 percent more awareness to my activities —

When I reflect on what happens when I bring 5 percent more awareness to my most important relationships —

When I reflect on what happens when I bring 5 percent more awareness to (whatever you’ve filled in) —

Do this exercise every day, Monday through Friday for the first week.

Do not read what you wrote the day before. Naturally there will be many repetitions. But also, new endings will inevitably occur. You are energizing all of your psyche to work for you.


each weekend, reread what you have written for the week, and then write a minimum of six endings for this stem:

If any of what I wrote this week is true, it would be helpful if I —


In doing this work, the ideal is to empty your mind of any expectations concerning what will happen or what is “supposed” to happen.

Do not impose any demands on the situation. Try to empty your mind of expectations. Do the exercise, go about your day’s activities, and merely notice any differences in how you feel or how you operate.

You will discover that you have set in motion forces that make it virtually impossible for you to avoid operating more consciously.

An average session should not take longer than ten minutes. If it takes much longer, you are “thinking” (rehearsing, calculating) too much.

Notice that the second set of stems of the day relate to the morning’s work. I call this the “bookend” approach to sentence completion. The knowledge that those stems are waiting to be completed later in the day energizes the motivation to be more conscious throughout the day.

The technique can be thought of as a procedure for learning to manage our attention—more broadly, to manage the mind’s “spontaneous” activities. There is a discipline to maintaining good self-esteem. And the foundation is the discipline of consciousness itself. This is what the technique aims to assist and support.


After you have worked with the above stems for, say, two weeks, you acquire a sense of how the procedure works. Then you can begin to use other stems to help raise your awareness with regard to particular issues of concern. For example:

If I bring 5 percent more awareness to when I am mentally active and when I am mentally passive, I might see that —

Evening stem: When I notice what happens when I… etc.

A few career-oriented stems:

A few stems to explore “resistance”:

I trust this is sufficient to make clear that the possibilities are almost inexhaustible. In each of the above examples, the corresponding evening stem is obvious.

No one has ever done this particular “consciousness exercise” for a month or two without reporting (and showing signs of) operating at a higher level of awareness in the conduct of daily life. The exercise is adrenaline shot into the psyche.

A Challenge

Living consciously is both a practice and a mind-set, an orientation toward life. Clearly it exists on a continuum. No one lives entirely unconsciously. No one is incapable of expanding his or her consciousness.

If we reflect on this issue, we will notice that we tend to be more conscious in some areas of our life than in others.

We observe where we feel least effective. If we are willing to be honest, this is not a difficult task.

Some of us may need to bring more awareness to the territory of our basic material needs. Others need more focus on relationships. Others need more focus on intellectual development. Others need to examine unexplored possibilities of creativity and achievement. Others need more concern with spiritual growth. Which need requires priority is a function of where we are in our overall evolution, and also of our objective circumstances. Context determines appropriateness.


Let us suppose that, meditating on the material in this chapter, you identify the areas in your life where you are at your most conscious and also the areas where you are at your least conscious. The next step is to reflect on what seems to be difficult about staying in high-level mental focus in the troublesome areas. Sentence-completion work can help. For example:

The hard thing about staying fully conscious here is—

Write six to ten endings as quickly as you can. Then try:

The good thing about not being fully conscious here is—

Then try:

If I were to stay more conscious here—

Then:

If I were to experiment with raising my consciousness 5 percent in this area—

Right now, before checking what sentence-completion work can accomplish, you might find it stimulating to consider the following questions:

The practice of living consciously is the first pillar of self-esteem.