Contingent Self-Esteem Nature Self-esteem Things My Garden Has Taught Me

If a flower blooms in a garden and no one (but you) is around to see it…

Gardeners take a lot of pride in their gardens. Especially in those plants we’ve grown from seed or a cutting. It’s a parental pride, a feeling of having been there at the moment when the thing before you was an almost-nothing, a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it seed. It’s a pride also borne out of constant fussing and nurturing of our seedling as they matured from vulnerable almost-somethings to very needy small plants almost indistinguishable from the weeds around them, to finally the pleasures of foliage, buds and Bloomsday (not to be confused, though sometimes coinciding with that other Bloomsday on the 16th of June).

At the moment I have tiny salmon-pink Linum (flax) flowers growing across two beds, and picked daily for jam-jar floral arrangements. I must confess myself to be silly with satisfaction and swellheadedness about them. If I were on Instagram, or using Twitter, it’d be Linum-this, Linum-that, with links to photographs of the flowers from every imaginable angle all the day long. Even though, both in horticultural stature and cultivation skills, Linum are not particularly difficult to grow.

I am dispassionately aware of the skill level required to get them to bloom because the seed packet purchased from B&Q as an impulse buy whilst stocking up on sharp sand in February, was clearly designed for children, or those attracted to childlike aesthetics: stick figure flowers, a beaming-faced sun, Comic Sans font with the reassurance that “Any Grey-Fingered Idiot Could Grow These Flowers in Just Twelve Weeks!” or words to that effect.

This idiot has done just that, though the care and daily-watering perseverance required to get to Linum Bloomsday seems to go way beyond the off-screen perseverance and talents of any children I’m in contact with.

Which partly goes to explain why these tiny Linum flowers dotted down the path, fill me with the kind of pride and pleasure akin to that of having written the Great American Novel, or come up with a television format to rival The Great British Bake Off . I have done neither of these, but I’m still chuffed with getting Linum Grandiflorum Charmer Salmon to bloom, even though I’ve noticed a somewhat niggling colour-clash going on between the yellowish pink of the Charmer and the purples of salvia, delphiniums, and Erysimum Bowles’ Mauve. Be that as it may, if a flower you’ve helped bring into life blooms in your garden and no one but you is around to see it, for most gardeners that is just fine and dandy.

Not so for other creative endeavours though, like painting, writing or even producing work reports, dissertations, essays, or posts on a blog like this one. Here the dynamic for most of us seems to shift away from the zen-like equanimity of eyeballs-&-Linum to something the social psychologist Jennifer Crocker has dubbed contingent self-worth or contingent self-esteem. As William James noted in 1890, “our self-feeling in this world depends entirely on what we back ourselves to be and do”, with self-esteem rendered as an equation of “the ratio of our actualities to our supposed potentialities”, or:

                           Self-esteem =     __Success­­__

The Success part of the equation can hinge on internal or external factors. How I see and rate my life projects from within, and how they are perceived and rated from without.

Going back a century or two before James, Bishop Berkeley in his 1710 Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge wrestled with the metaphysics of these contingencies in the notion that “to be is to be perceived”. A startling phrase, and one that in our era of CCTV, webcams and constant monitoring of ourselves and each other through social media, for many a no longer questionable hypothesis.

“Things are every moment annihilated and created anew,” Berkeley writes in a lyrical prose that modern day psychologists seem on the whole to be immune to. Looking out of his window at the garden, he then notes: “The objects of sense exist only when they are perceived; the trees therefore are in the garden, or the chairs in the parlour, no longer than while there is somebody by to perceive them. Upon shutting my eyes all the furniture in the room is reduced to nothing, and barely upon opening them it is again created.”

Developmentally Berkeley is absolutely right: as human “objects” we don’t come into being until we are acknowledged by the all-hearing Ultrasound, and then intersubjectively by doctors’, nurses’, and our parent’s gaze. But we now also live in an age where being alive to ourselves means being-noticed, mainly on screens to others.

We might call this the pathology of contingent self-worth where to be perceived has become equated in the economy of Likes and Comments on our posts, to be valued. By somebody, anybody – even though half the time we’re not really sure who these somebodies are, making the whole experience at once satisfying and empty. This also means that if we’re not getting the quantity of likes and congratulatory responses we contingently have come to expect in order to feel good about ourselves and our lives, we feel in an instant like Berkeley’s garden trees or parlour chairs, reduced to nothing, annihilated.

If this is so, then it is no surprise that we function better when our self-esteem is based on “core, abstract, unique features of ourselves” like “I’m someone who values ideas and learning”, or “I like growing and looking at flowers”) rather than when self-esteem is based on “the more superficial aspects of the self or on unstable aspects such as achievements or conditional approval from others”: “I’m someone who needs to get a first for my dissertation”, or “If my Linum don’t get a gold medal at Chelsea plus hundreds of oohs and ahs, then I’ve failed as a plantsman or woman”.

A rather curious notion for our externally contingent self-worth-based culture to take on board, but backed up by lots of research is that optimal self-esteem does and should not depend on the attainment of specific outcomes or continual validation from others. Just as we need unconditional positive regard, in the words of Carl Rogers, from our caregivers and those we are close to in order to flourish, so we need to have that for ourselves in terms of maintaining a healthy sense of inner worth.

So you could say that if we want to feel more content we need to work on building our internal contingencies of self-worth. Which is why, even though this blog is one of many I’ve put my hand to since the option of “publishing” one’s writing in that Borgesian spirit of the infinite library was first mooted by Berners-Lee, I’m not going to tweet about LLFOG, or Facebook it, or suggest you subscribe to weekly emails. Can I continue writing and getting pleasure from this project even if I make it in no way contingent on external validation from kith, kin, or whoever may or may not be reading this at the moment?

Can I cultivate this blog, like my linum, as a sort of open-to-the-elements flower bed where I sow ideas and thoughts on a specific theme that delight and interest me?

If visited by the occasional human bumblebee, following some serendipitous trail after someone has entered a combination of words into a search engine, that would be great, and welcome!

But if not, the linum flowers and my more abstract thought-flax will suffice as something for me to enjoy and feel good about, having created something with my little virtual patch of words and images to set among the infinite something-nothing of cyberspace.