The Surprising Paradox of Self-Esteem

“You’re gonna like the way you look. I guarantee it.”

Everyone reading this probably recognized that opening sentence. It’s the snappy little catch phrase thrown in at the end of every Men’s Warehouse commercial.

These types of ostensibly encouraging messages are a staple in the world of fashion and beauty product advertising (You can be beautiful too!). They’re ubiquitous, everywhere. So ubiquitous, in fact, that many of us hardly notice them.

Yet, we still absorb these messages, if only on a subconscious level, and we rarely stop to consider the subtext of this type of language.


If you’re “gonna” like the way you look, the implication is that you don’t like the way you look right now. The implication is also that your looks should be a priority, that self-esteem results from pre-meditating your appearance, and that buying a product is the path to personal and social contentment.

A friend of mine recently wrote a great critique of this type of faux empowerment, specifically with regards to women’s beauty products, if you’d like to read more on the topic.

For my purposes, this introduction is suitable. I wanted to provide this brief meta-analysis of manipulative advertising to set up a contrast of sorts.

People Are Deceiving You

You see, self-esteem is big business. These types of messages are everywhere because they work. Corporations make billions of dollars by exploiting our insecurities, by falsely claiming that if we care more about how we appear, we’ll feel good about ourselves.

This emphasis on exterior flaw-finding bleeds over into internal aspects of our self-image as well. What begins as an exaggerated focus on how I look turns into an overactive tendency to analyze every aspect of who am, to find faults in who I perceive myself to be.

We’re conditioned to ask ourselves, “How’s my hair look?” and “Does this make me look fat?”, and pretty soon we’re thinking, “Am I a boring/stupid/lame person?” and “What can I say to make myself sound impressive?”

I Used to Think This Way

As I’ve suggested, we’re encouraged to think about ourselves incessantly in our modern mass cultures. We’re lead to believe that doing so will make us more self-accepting, happier, better people (more like better consumers).

In my life, I lived this way for a long time. In high school, I was insecure about who I was; I thought I was weird, unattractive, etc. My self-esteem was shaky (not quite as low as Congress’ approval rating.)

I tried to dress like the “popular” kids. I tried to “act cool”. I became hyper self-aware and often picked apart my identity, looking for the “right things” to say and the side of my personality that would be accepted.

I willingly partook in the hormonal teen soap opera that is high school for so many unfortunate young people, and I still feel the residual effects. To this day, I can be overly self-critical. And do you think my constant self-analysis and attempts to “look the part” resulted in me becoming a more self-contented person?

Umm, hell no.

An Unexpected Inverse Relationship

In retrospect, however, that period of my life did end up teaching me a lot about what it means to be okay with who I am. I think some people have this idea that people with high self-esteem are regularly thinking, “Man, I am the shit. I am so sexy and everyone likes me. This is the life. Go me. Me all day.”

This is not high self-esteem. This is narcissism, and people who think this way are perhaps among the most fragile personalities. They’ve erected a pedestal for themselves, but the pedestal is about as sturdy as a late-game Jenga tower. Events that suggest something contrary to their carefully groomed self-worship result in frustration or full-blown narcissistic rage.

One of the most helpful things that I’ve come to understand about self-esteem (at least in my life) can be described in a single sentence:

There is an inverse relationship between self-esteem and thoughts of self.

If anyone is puzzling over the definition of inverse relationship, it simply means that as one goes up, the other goes down. As self-esteem increases, thoughts of self decrease. Seems like a bit of a paradox, right?

Now, I’m not exactly sure what the causation is here. By this I mean that I can’t say whether increased self-esteem causes thoughts of self to decrease or whether thoughts of self decreasing causes self-esteem to increase. I think perhaps it can work both ways, but I don’t know. It may differ among all of us.

Regardless, there is a correlation here that I’ve come to view as important. I’ve realized that I am the most self-accepting when I’m not thinking about how I look or who I am or what I should be doing.

I embrace myself most when I’m simply saying and doing whatever arises spontaneously and naturally in the moment. I appreciate myself most when I’m looking outward more often, inward less frequently.

This has lead me to make a habit of focusing less on myself in any given situation. I’ve come to believe that the majority of the time, thinking about myself is stagnating and even counterproductive.

Disclaimer + Specifics

That’s not to say that there’s never a time or place for introspection and self-analysis. These things are intermittently necessary for growth, for self-knowledge, and for revising our ideas about what we’d like to do in life. A few examples of things that we should consider about ourselves:

1. What we value and whether our lives are reflecting those values or not.
2. How we treat people and what, if any, pain we’re causing to others.
3. What excites us and how we can spend more time doing those things.
4. What habits of action and thought are causing us unnecessary suffering, and how we can reduce that suffering.

These items, I think, are worthwhile for us to consider. It’s just that when most of us think about ourselves, I don’t think we’re usually reflecting on such things.

I’m guessing about 80% of the time I’ve spent analyzing myself in my life has been worthless and even hurtful because I was analyzing the wrong types of things.

It’s essential to become aware of what types of thoughts of self lead us nowhere. A few examples:

1. Obsessing over one specific event in our lives.
2. Trying to plan out exactly what our futures will look like.
3. Speculating about what other people think of us and how to please them.
4. Critiquing our appearance.
5. Constantly degrading or praising ourselves.
6. Endlessly replaying the past in our minds.

If we can become aware of the frivolity of spending time thinking in these ways, we can learn to actively steer our minds away from such ideas when they crop up. We can make a habit of directing our focus elsewhere. If we do this, we’ll end up taking ourselves less seriously and finding it easier to be cool with who we are.

How Can You Learn to Focus on Other Things?

First and foremost, what you think about regularly is largely based on habit. To change your thought patterns, you have to be proactive in finding new things to think about. This takes practice, but over time, you can spend significantly less time on self-defeating trains of thought.

In addition to simply being aware of your thoughts and trying to direct them away from useless thoughts of self, here are a few ideas of other ways to focus less on you:

1. Be a Better Listener

I’ve been working on this lately because I can be the worst listener in the world. Consider for a minute: when you’re in conversation with someone, how often are you thinking about the next thing you’re going to say, rather than what the person is saying to you? I think most of us do this, but if we can give our full attention to someone else, we’ll make the person feel respected and take the emphasis off of ourselves.

2. Mindfulness

If you’re a usual around here, you’ve probably heard me mention mindfulness. Mindfulness simply means directing your focus to the sensations of the present moment. Truly, mindfulness is an invaluable tool for gaining control over what we think about on a daily basis. (Meditation and conscious breathing are closely related exercises that are also worth mentioning here.)

3. Flow

I wrote a lengthy article on flow a while back. Flow is a positive psychology concept that refers to a state of mind in which a person is completely immersed in an activity, like how I’m completely immersed in the crafting of this article right now.

Finding activities in your life that allow you to enter the “flow zone” is an exceptional way to learn to forget yourself. For me, these types of activities include writing, reading, freestyle rapping, longboarding, and playing guitar, off the top of my head.

4. Reduce Judgment

I used to be terrible about judging other people, and I admit I still slip into my old habit from time to time. Here’s the thing, though — when we judge someone else as inferior to us, we’re automatically telling ourselves (if only subconsciously) that we’re better than that person.

We do this to compensate for our own insecurities. It’s a way of trying to convince ourselves that we’re the flawless humans we want to be. It’s a secretive way of thinking about ourselves. It’s a waste of thought. Instead of doing this, we should try to unearth the reasons for our insecurities and focus on letting them go.

5. Compassion

Simply caring more about the lives and well-being of other people is a fail-safe method of focusing less upon ourselves. Some of the best ways to cultivate compassion are: volunteering to help others, reading literary fiction (this awesome recent study showed that relating to fictional characters’ personal lives leads to greater empathy, social perception, and emotional intelligence), actively imagining yourself in the place of someone else, and realizing everyone is experiencing the same complex struggle as you.

6. Develop In-Depth Interests

You don’t have to have a PhD to learn a great deal about a subject. Learning a lot about something — history, physics, philosophy, sociology, economics, linguistics, or what have you — will fill your mind with ideas that have nothing to do with you. If you find something that seriously fascinates you, congratulations! — you’ve discovered a topic you can spend a good chunk of your life pondering that isn’t what you should wear to the bar mitzvah.

Is That All There is to Self-Esteem?

In short, no.

I wrote this article to elaborate on one particular insight: self-esteem increases as thoughts of self decrease. 

This has been a crucial realization for me in my ongoing efforts to find satisfaction in my life. For the record, I believe thinking less about ourselves does a lot more than just boost our self-esteem. I think it’s fundamental to feeling useful, grateful, and fulfilled.

But there’s more to self-esteem than simply turning a blind eye to oneself. In particular, I would argue that forgiving ourselves, acting in accordance with our values, and treating people with kindness are other imperative ingredients.

So I leave you with this: have a go at it. Try to spend less time in me-me-me-mode in the coming weeks and see how you get along. Worst case scenario: you forget to shave. Best case scenario: you attain enlightenment.

Okay, maybe not quite. Best wishes, everyone.

P.S. If this post jived with your sensibilities, why not check out the ways to get free updates?

Photo Credit: Bala Sivakumar

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About Jordan Bates

Jordan Bates is a Lover of God, healer, mentor of leaders, writer, and music maker. The best way to keep up with his work is to join nearly 7,000 people who read his Substack newsletter.

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10 years ago

This was a very interesting reading. For the first time I can feel some empathy with my feelings and most important, how to deal with them. I felt there a lot of how to drive manuals but no hints on how to deal with yourself. Thank you from Spain.

Jordan Bates
10 years ago
Reply to  cibar


Man, thanks for the comment. It’s really meaningful to me to hear that you found ideas you can relate to in this post. Especially regarding how to deal with your feelings. That’s what I aim for, so I’m super grateful for the feedback. You’re welcome, and thanks for letting me know you’re in Spain. I studied abroad in Spain for a month 2 summers ago, and I loved it there. Definitely hoping to go back sometime within the next few years. Take care.

10 years ago

I found your blog through tiny buddha and I really liked this post. I think I’ll read it a couple of times as it contains so many important things. 🙂 I can really relate to your history of self analysis. My whole life I felt constantly judged by other people and it left me becoming very self conscious all the time (I like the term spotlight-effect which makes you overthink and watch your every move and everything you say). I didn’t realize what I was doing and when somebody called me self-centered, at first I was extremely insulted since I… Read more »

Jordan Bates
10 years ago
Reply to  Hannah

Hannah, Wow, your English is exceptional for being your second language! So glad you could relate to this post and to my experiences with self-consciousness over the years. It’s wonderful to hear that you’ve realized that focusing exclusively on how to act to please others is really no way to live. I wish you the best in figuring out who you are and what you like to do. It’s a never-ending process, and you’re allowed to change! Glad my list of things to focus on could be of service. You’re very welcome and take care! Hope you’ll continue to stop… Read more »

10 years ago

Very true. I believe thinking about oneself too much leads to insecurity, and hence, low self-esteem. It makes us think that there’s something to worry about.

Jordan Bates
10 years ago
Reply to  Maddie

Definitely. I am prone to excessive introspection, and it can truly become completely counterproductive. Thanks for the comment, Maddie. 🙂

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