I, like probably most people in creative fields, have struggled with self-esteem issues at times. Perhaps the most potentially dangerous attitude I’ve adopted along these lines is one that I think started when I was a teenager: that having low self-esteem is the only preferable alternative to becoming an arrogant egomaniac.
I’m not certain how common this specific mindset is, but I have a hunch that I’m not the only one who’s gone through it. Being a pretty typically angsty teenager, I had a fair amount of disdain for people that exuded false confidence, that talked themselves up or lied about how much they knew or just had an overwhelming sense of pride. So I told myself I would never become one of those people, for better or worse. I took that idea so far that when those periods of self-doubt and low self-esteem took hold, I would tell myself, “No, this is okay; this is good; at least you’re not an arrogant jerk.”
As you might imagine, this made a lot of activities pretty difficult, particularly in music. Although I would allow myself to believe in myself at times (and my family and friends and other supporters certainly helped), I’d frequently try to put myself in my place, telling myself that I wasn’t allowed to try something for which I wasn’t entirely prepared (like preparing an audition for Western’s music program as a freshman (as you’re, essentially, supposed to do), or even applying to other schools, or trying to make friends and act like a normal human being), or I didn’t deserve to be proud of myself when I accomplished something. This tendency lasted years, well into my time at university.
Last year I began meditating regularly, and this month I’ve been doing a series of meditations on self-esteem as part of Headspace (…I swear that’s less hippy-dippy than it might sound). During one of their podcasts on the topic, founder Andy Puddicombe mentioned something that I hadn’t realized before: low self-esteem and inflated sense of pride are both just forms of self-talk. With both, we’re focusing all our energy inwards and artificially creating a false environment. Neither attitudes are particularly sustainable, healthy, or helpful to ourselves or to others. The good news is, we don’t have to choose one or the other. We can catch ourselves getting caught up in this chatter in our heads, note it, and simply let it go and return to whatever we’re doing.
I wonder now what I could have accomplished had I realized this earlier; maybe I would have applied myself in high school a little bit more, rather than wallowing in self-hate? Maybe I would have applied for more scholarships and wouldn’t have had to take out an ungodly sum of loans and ? Maybe I would be a hot-shot AAA game composer already, totally comfortable talking to people? Really, none of that matters, because I’m here now, I’m working on getting better, and I’m content with that.
Moments of both low self-esteem and egotism happen with most people, and that’s okay; it’s part of being human. But we can notice these moments and not just let ourselves get caught up in them. Self-esteem isn’t simply a one-dimensional line; we can step away and back from the line of self-talk and watch the chatter come and go without letting it affect what we do. We don’t have to worry about a false spectrum between self-hatred and self-inflation. We can just be us, do our work, and watch what happens.