Low Self-Efficacy and Low Self Esteem

Low self esteem often accompanies anxiety issues, particularly social anxiety disorder. To what should you attach your self-esteem?

According to Epictetus, not to externals, that is, not to body, property, reputation, office, or anything else which is beyond our control. By attaching self-esteem to externals, you leave yourself open to the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,” as Shakespeare said. When something bad does happen, you may begin to wonder “What did I do to deserve this?”, thereby misattributing the catastrophe to your own past actions.

Attaching your self-esteem to the opinions of others also leaves you vulnerable. Such opinions may be completely inaccurate, or worse, they may mix up the truth with falsehoods so completely that the two become impossible to disentangle. Similarly, do not attach your self-esteem to how others treat you. Their treatment depends on their beliefs, their mood, the events of their day, and may have no foundation in any truth about you.

Consider the following parable: Two men are walking toward each other on the sidewalk. The first man whistles as he walks. He feels the warmth of the sun on his hat and the coolness of the breeze on his face. Today is his day. The second man is miserable. He has a chip on his shoulder. He blames the universe and humanity for his problems. As they close the gap between them, the second man sees the first man smiling. Ever resentful of tranquility in anyone, the second man clenches his fists and whispers, “I’m going to put some pain in this guy’s day.” As they pass, the second man makes a blatantly obscene gesture. How should the first man react? Should he be angry? No, becoming angry would only give significance to the second man’s behavior. Should the first man scrutinize his own actions for mistakes? No, he should remain confident in his own appraisal of himself and the situation. So the first man just keeps walking, his equanimity undisturbed. The second man looks on, stunned. “He didn’t give me any power at all.”

Insults cannot bother you where your self-esteem is based only upon what you control. Instead, judge yourself in terms of your devotion to the improvement of your own character and identity. Cultivate virtuous opinions, motivations, desires, aversions, intentions, and actions. Cultivate balance and improvement in your life roles. Be the best parent, the best spouse, and the best at your career, and find a practical balance between them.

Inappropriate Judgments of the Self

Since we do not control externals, we should focus on what we do control, namely the internals of opinion, motivation, desire, aversion, and action or behavior. Virtue ethics grows naturally out of the dichotomy of control, because it asks us to improve ourselves. Whereas contemporary ethics is focused on duty, on right and wrong, virtue ethics asks us to practice that which improves our character.

To better illustrate the concept of virtue ethics, the Stoics developed the metaphor of the archer. Strong and blessed with perfect sight, an archer draws his bow and takes aim upon his target. He controls the condition of the bow, his selection of arrows, his aim, and the precise moment the arrow is let loose. But after the arrow is released, he controls nothing. Any number of random events could influence the arrow’s trajectory. A strong gust of wind could deflect the arrow, or the target could change course. Even if the archer performs perfectly, his control ends the moment arrow leaves his hand. As such, the archer cannot judge his skill in terms of the outcome, because outcomes are determined by externals. The archer can only judge his skill in terms of his devotion to the guiding principles of his art.

Excessive Attachments

Because externals are, at best, only partially under your control, you know that things will go wrong. Maybe you can sometimes anticipate and plan for such contingencies, but you won’t always succeed.

As such, it becomes important to cultivate an attitude of detachment. By cultivating detachment before things go wrong, acceptance becomes easier. Only with acceptance does the mind return to a state of tranquility. Like the archer, control what you can control, exercise due diligence and restraint, accept whatever happens, and let random or improbable events be no judgment upon you.