Addressing Low Self Esteem

By Joanne Zagnoev, Johannesburg, South Africa
Essays 2016

MyLife Essay Contest 2016


In this essay, I address a common emotional ailment – low self esteem.  I will present two models of building self esteem.  The one inheres in the structure of the self.  The other, in the structure of the soul.  I will argue that while the first is important, the second model is essential and life transforming.  The first model derives from psychodynamic theory.  The second is embedded in Chabad chassidus.

Low self esteem is so widespread in western nations, that it is not simply a malady, it’s an epidemic.  Those of us with low self esteem are slaves to the opinion of others.  In an endless cycle of seeking affirmation, we become chronic ‘people pleasers’ forgoing authenticity in the process.

The psychological approach I use to address low self esteem is based on psychodynamic theory.  According to this theory, as we develop from infancy, through adolescence and into early adulthood, our primary need is to feel deeply and reliably attached to those upon whom we depend.  Each of us is born with a potential self that is composed of our inborn talents and temperament.  When we grow up in a safe, loving and predictable environment, we thrive, and the inborn potential with which we are born unfolds organically into what we call a ‘real self’.  The real self knows itself to be good enough.  In other words it is this process that crafts good self esteem.

If all does not go well during this period, and we are not loved or adequately cared for, we are flooded with anxiety, primitive rage and the fear of abandonment. In these circumstances, our inner potential self is unable to unfold and develop naturally.  Rather, overwhelmed with painful feelings, we develop defences that allow for survival, but that block healthy development.  The length and intensity of our suffering determines the strength and complexity of the set of defences we develop.  In this unfortunate scenario, instead of evolving into who we were born to be, we cover our ‘real self’ with the particular set of defences we develop.  We call this defensive self the ‘false’ self.   While the real self lives with authenticity and joy, the false self wreaks havoc within and disrupts our relationships with others.  A false self manifests in many differing ways.  We might become narcissistic, raging or self righteous.   A chronic feeling of low self esteem is the manifestation of an intensely dependent false self.

In psychodynamic theory, therapy facilitates healing when the therapist offers a safe space in which he or she gradually draws the client’s attention to the unconscious, unhealthy defences the client employs.  Once we uncover the unconscious defences, we gradually relinquish them and gain access to our ‘real’ self.

Having suffered with low self esteem through adolescence and early adulthood, learning the psychodynamic theory of the two selves, entering my own psychodynamic therapy, and helping to facilitate the healing of others as a therapist, helped me relinquish a number of unhealthy defences and access what felt like my ‘real’ self.  However, it was when I began to learn Chassidus that I experienced a completely different level of healing, growth, authenticity, and profound joy.

The chassidus I have learnt derives from an epic work entitled the ‘Tanya’.  It was published in 1972 and was composed by the founder of Chabad Chassidus, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi (who is affectionately known as the Alter rebbe).  While the Tanya is dense with groundbreaking concepts, I will focus on one aspect of this work that offers profound healing, particularly when it comes to building self esteem.

The Tanya, that preceded psychodynamic theory by hundreds of years, also teaches us about a dual internal structure.  What differs is that the Tanya explores the dual structure of the soul, not the self. The soul model facilitates intense healing for the maladies of the self.   According to the Alter Rebbe, we are created with two souls; the Godly soul, and the Vital Soul.  The Alter Rebbe explains that the essence of who we are inheres in the Godly Soul. This soul is marginally equivalent to the real self, in that it is who we really are.   In the words of the Alter Rebbe, this soul “is crafted from beneath the throne of God’s Glory.  It is literally a part of God”. The Alter Rebbe’s statement that “We are all crafted from beneath the throne of God’s Glory” –  is the refined version of telling our children (and friends and relatives) that “God don’t make junk”.

We might be tempted to think that the Alter Rebbe’s use of the word ‘literally’ is a poetic metaphor employed in order to emphasize that the G-dly Soul is connected to G-d.  This is untrue.  The Alter Rebbe was stating emphatically that our G-dly Soul is completely one with God.  Our relationship with God is thus eternal – it is a relationship of pure, reliable attachment.  An essential aspect of this concept is that God loves each one of us infinitely.  The holy Baal Shem Tov, the founder of the Chassidic movement, described God’s love for us using the metaphor of a couple who had been married for countless years and had been unable to have children.  Imagine that this couple was eventually blessed with a child.  The love they would have for this child would be immense.  This child would be, so to speak, ‘the apple of their eye’.  The Baal Shem Tov goes on to explain that while the love of these parents seems unending, it is miniscule compared to the infinite love God has for each of us.  We are each the beloved children of God.  This knowledge has been a soothing balm throughout my adult life.

Internalizing the truth that we are a part of an infinitely loving god offers a direct path to growing an intact self esteem. Once internalized, we know that in our essence we are beings of infinite value.  Further, while we used to contort ourselves into the person the other needed us to be in order to feel securely attached, we no longer need to do so in that we now feel safely and infinitely attached to the perfect parent, God.

In order to internalise this truth such that it is easily accessible, I encourage you to reflect on the following meditations.

  • I am the child of God and I thus have infinite value.
  • I am indestructibly attached to God and am always held in His loving embrace.

Meditation is a vigorous catalyst for change. However, we learn from the Alter Rebbe that the single most potent way to internalize our inner Godliness is to reveal it – in everything we do.  (I will explain this further at the end of the essay).

Once you truly believe that you are the beloved child of God, and that nothing can break His love for you, a solid sense of self worth will develop.  In this process, your soul-knowledge informs and moulds your self- knowledge.

As already mentioned, the Alter Rebbe explains that each of us is composed of two souls – a vital soul, and a godly soul. Further, as we have learnt, our essence resides in the Godly soul. The longing of this soul is to be attached to, and express our inner godliness continuously.  The vital soul is created to counteract the voice of the godly soul.  While the godly soul longs to express its relationship with God, the vital soul is fixated on defining itself as separate from God. (The reason God created us with this inner ‘conflict’ is beyond the scope of this essay).  The vital soul desires many things, many of which are physical in nature. But what it desires most is ego gratification.  It naturally seeks honour and praise in order to build its sense of being separate from God.


When we live with low self esteem, we face a double ‘whammy’. As we have just learnt, our vital soul actively seeks affirmation from others. When we are concurrently beset with low self esteem, the longing for acceptance and praise as experienced in the self is significantly amplified. The combination of the energy of the vital soul with a habitually false self that is inhabited with self doubt, is toxic.

Drawing upon the Alter Rebbe’s wisdom, I teach a soul-skill that serves as a powerful tonic to the predicament above the model of Horizontal and Vertical Vision. This model teaches us to learn to shift our vision when establishing our inner value. This involves training ourselves to evaluate our inner value through the ‘eyes’ of God (which exist on a vertical axis), instead of habitually evaluating ourselves through the eyes of others (which exist on a horizontal access.)  Whenever we feel inadequate, ashamed, or feel the need to contort ourselves to avoid shame, we need simply look at ourselves through a vertical lens and ask ourselves whether God’s version of our choices and behaviour in this moment or process is in line with ours.  If we search for the answer with honesty, and arrive at the conclusion that God is happy with our choices, we are free to shed our shame.

Let’s use the fictional example of Steven to clarify this concept. Steven, a highly successful private equity banker is also an important member of his community.  He involves himself in important community matters, and donates generously to many welfare projects.  Steven is then incorrectly accused of fraud in a very public court case.  He had always taken his high status role in the banking and Jewish community for granted and is suddenly faced with having to manage intense feelings of shame.  Wherever he goes, he sees people whispering about him, trying to establish whether he is guilty or not. In the face of this enormous spiritual challenge, Steven draws upon his knowledge of the model of vertical and horizontal vision.  His impulsive vision is horizontal.  From this perspective he is flooded with shame and his self esteem plummets.  He then shifts his vision of himself to the vertical plane.  He checks whether God’s version of him is that he has behaved with integrity and is able to confirm this within.  He is thereby able to move on with his self esteem intact once again.  His sense of self, is defined by his soul relationship with God.  It is God centred, not other centred.

Both tools are life transforming.  However, there is a challenging caveat.  The knowledge that we are Godly beings beloved by God is difficult to sustain.  As we learnt above, we deepen and sustain this curative wisdom when we behave in Godly ways.  In other words, the ‘volume’ of the healing voice of the Godly soul increases in direct relation to the level with which we activate the Godly soul. And the way we activate the Godly soul is by behaving in Godly ways. The only way we can know how to live Godly lives is to learn it from the manual of the soul, the Torah.  Likewise, in order to use the model of vertical and horizontal vision with integrity, we have to learn God’s version of Godly behaviour in His Torah.  Without doing so, our version of God’s vertical vision may be entirely of our own making.  In conclusion, an essential part of self healing through soul wisdom is the commitment to learn and to incrementally keep the laws of the Torah at ever deepening levels.