As far as I can tell, all human behavior serves one of two purposes: meeting your needs or protecting yourself. I know intelligent, attractive, highly successful people with low self-esteem. I’ve also met a few scumbags with very high self-esteem. So I must conclude that self-esteem has very little basis in objective reality.
We could all benefit from not judging ourselves as bad, wrong, or dysfunctional and instead ask the question, How is this belief or behavior serving me?
Even the word dysfunctional itself is a misnomer. I assure you that the behavior you’re using that word to describe is definitely serving a function.
Needs For Optimum Health And Wellbeing
It’s astonishing how few people even know what their needs are. Most folks can come up with stuff like food, water, warmth, and air. But unless you’re a fucking houseplant, that’s not gonna cut it.
Humans are complicated, social creatures with various physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual needs. Here is a basic list that could surely be expanded:
- Physical Wellbeing
- Safety and Security
- Connection and Belonging
- Acceptance and Validation
- Attention, Affection, and Appreciation
- Freedom, Autonomy, and Agency
- Space and Privacy
- Peace and Solitude
- Self-Love and Self-Care
- Purpose and Progress
- Honesty and Authenticity
- Play and Joyfulness
When any of these needs go unattended for long, you definitely feel it. In fact, that’s the whole reason feelings exist. They are vital biofeedback about the quality of your self-care, and ultimately, your survival. When your needs are satisfied, you feel fantastic. Living with unmet needs, you’re likely to experience anxiety, depression, resentment, or just be a cranky shithead in general.
But let’s investigate how low self-esteem can contribute to getting these needs met.
Low Self-Esteem For The Win!
If you regard yourself as highly as a wet gym sock with a hole in it, other people tend to take notice. Maybe you’re shy, insecure, anxious, unconfident, self-doubting, self-pitying, self-deprecating, self-sabotaging, or self-loathing. When you put out doodoo vibes, at least some of the people in your life are likely to respond positively.
Oh, don’t say that about yourself. You can do this. You’re totally capable. I feel that way sometimes too. We can do it together if you want. Here, let me help.
Connection, belonging, acceptance, validation, attention, affection, safety, security — in the bag! And let’s not overlook the love and care of another that we can use as synthetic substitutes for self-love and self-care. Man, who knew that feeling bad could feel so good?
More Than A Feeling
It’s kind of like the kid who is completely invisible to his parents and siblings unless he’s sick, in which case, he gets all of his needs met. This child may learn to play up his injuries and illnesses, and in some cases, may literally become chronically ill in an attempt to be seen, heard, loved, and nurtured.
I have seen this behavior time and time again in my many years of working with adolescents. I know someone who knowingly faked being paralyzed for several months. Another kid appeared to actually be paralyzed with chronic pain, GI problems, and allergic reactions with zero medical explanation. It was uncanny.
Hell, I had a physically and emotionally unavailable father and two abusive older brothers, and I felt like a worthless piece of shit until I was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes at the age of eight. I got a two-week vacation in the hospital, surrounded by nurses and doctors to take care of me and bring me food. Friends and family came to visit with flowers and gifts. Even my dad came to see me. Just me and no one else. He came to see me — something that may not have happened before or since.
Nobody was ignoring, shaming, harassing, or abusing me. And even though it was traumatic to be hospitalized with a blood sugar of 711, then crashing to 22, feeling awful, being poked and prodded during all hours of the day and night, collecting countless blood and urine samples, and generally not knowing if I was gonna make it through another day, it was a fucking upgrade as far as I’m concerned.
Was that a purely medical diagnosis? Was it genetic? An autoimmune response to a viral infection? A coincidence? We don’t really know. But it sure makes you wonder, doesn’t it?
Low Self-Esteem Plated Armor
Ok, so safety and protection are also human needs, but I like to put them in a separate category. Many of our needs are about receiving or experiencing something positive, whereas safety and protection are more about not experiencing something negative or losing access to our needs that are currently satisfied.
Low self-esteem often tells you, you don’t deserve that job, that relationship, that success, that joy. So wait, how the hell is this helping?
Well, if you don’t apply for that job, you won’t have to contend with rejection, which feels like a loss of connection, belonging, acceptance, validation, safety, security, attention, affection, and purpose. Rejection in a relationship can feel the same way, including a threat to your authenticity and joy.
Virginia Satir said, “People prefer the certainty of misery to the misery of uncertainty.”
All animals have a strong need for certainty (security). And humans are just animals with more needs, bigger egos, and a wider range of perceived threats. Being human is harder than it looks.
Many learn at an early age, in an abusive or neglectful relationship with their parents, that relationships are not safe. People can’t be trusted to meet their needs in healthy and appropriate ways. They learn it’s best to not let anyone get too close. They adapt for survival, develop vulnerability avoidance tactics, and discover ways to get their needs met from a safe distance.
Low self-esteem is an excellent adaptation for minimizing the risks of human interaction.
So How Is Low Self-Esteem Serving You?
I encourage you to look at any situation in your life where low self-esteem is rearing its ugly head. Consider the above list of human needs and ask the uncomfortable question. How is this meeting my needs or protecting me?
If you can get to the root of that question, you can learn to meet those needs and protect yourself in healthier ways. But as long as low self-esteem is your best strategy, it’ll follow you to the grave.
The only way to eliminate low self-esteem is to replace it with something better that serves the same function.