My Precarious Self-Esteem

August 14, 2022

5 min read


I’ve learned the hard way what happens when you define your worth by what you do.

My self-worth took a real hit the other week. An editor told me that my writing wasn’t up to snuff. He wanted me to mold the rough piece of marble I gave him into a coherent article.

How rude.

Many of us define our self-esteem, our status in the social hierarchy, by what we do, how much we make, where we live, and what we drive. Children no longer dream of becoming firefighters, astronauts, or police officers. They want to grow up to be YouTube influencers now. You get the most attention doing that.

I define myself as a writer. And if this so-called editor is calling into question my ability to write, maybe I’m not cut out for being a journalist. And if I’m not a journalist, then who am I?

My inner negative thoughts built up steam like a train without a conductor. Who is he to say I can’t write? I don’t need to subject myself to this! I can’t do anything good. I’ll probably be stuck freelancing for the rest of my life.

I took fair editorial feedback from a single comment and morphed it into a toxic internal dialogue that made me frustrated, mopey, and angry.

How insane. I took fair editorial feedback from a single comment and morphed it into a toxic internal dialogue that made me frustrated, mopey, and angry.

Clearly, my definition of self-worth was out of whack.

I’m not alone. So many of us look externally, to our accomplishments and LinkedIn bios, to our diplomas and resumes, for validation which can only come internally. We don’t find our shared humanity and dignity in jobs or titles or salary. Our innate humanity is not something that is bartered for and acquired. It’s inherent; something which we are born with and intrinsic to our soul’s essence.

The antidote to those who see themselves as nothing more than a loose amalgam of accomplishments is to make room for the crucial things often overlooked: rest and family.

Prior to the Israelites receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes, God gave the Israelites their “mission statement” to serve as “A kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” There are many competing arguments for what makes a “holy nation.” But to Rabbi Sacks, the breadcrumbs of the Jewish “mission statement” can be found in the creation of the universe in seven days.

Although the creation process took six days – the night and day, sky and sea, animals and humans – it wasn’t finished until the seventh day. How can the final day, of pressing pause and not working, be a vital part of creation? To create, to build, to work – from our modern workaholic perspective – is the very antithesis of rest, yet the Torah tells us it’s not.

“By renouncing our own status as creators on Shabbat,” Rabbi Sacks explains, “we are passive rather than active. We become creations, not creators. We renounce making in order to experience ourselves as made.” In other words, “To occupy holy space or time is to renounce human creativity so as to be existentially open to Divine creativity.” We must step back from our passions and dreams and goals and plans to fulfill the creative process. To become creations.

Hustle culture has convinced us that we are what we do and that our self-worth is inextricably linked to what we do. That’s my problem. I create endlessly, never stopping to process and digest. Like a shark that cannot stop swimming, I must constantly work, fearful that without staying relevant my ego will evaporate. How can I possibly stop or slow down while all the other journalists out there are working when I’m “resting,” pitching while I’m “unplugged?”

The satisfaction of external rewards is always fleeting. Real meaning if found by looking inward

Finding balance between hard work and self-care is key in a culture that encourages us to redline our lives until we acquire endless cars, gadgets, or watches in pursuit of happiness. As Charlie Sheen asks in the movie Wall Street, “How many yachts can you water ski behind? How much is enough?”

The answer is not in abandoning or spurning work as much as it is in finding the mushy middle ground. Rabbi Sacks notes that we cannot work endlessly nor rest indefinitely. “A world in which all time was Sabbatical,” Sacks writes “would be one in which human beings could not exist as human beings. There would be neither time nor space for human endeavor or achievement. That is precisely what God does not want to happen.”

Conversely, if we never rested, “This would be a world with no limits on human self-assertion–always the prelude to political, military, economic or environmental disaster.” In short, we’d find ourselves living like Gordon Gecko from Wall Street: unhappy, materialistic, endlessly wandering from one fix to the next to distract us from what is driving our deeper unhappiness.

When our entire identity becomes an extension of our LinkedIn bio, we prioritize our professional accomplishments above our familial and spiritual. Our definition of self-worth becomes anchored to things which have nothing to do with deeper happiness. The satisfaction of external rewards is always fleeting. Real meaning if found by looking inward

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