Feel Better

“Real” Self-Esteem

Building self-esteem is indeed a challenging journey, especially when we consider the complexities involved from a psychological perspective.

According to the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, our understanding of the self is framed within the triad of the Imaginary, the Symbolic, and the Real. The Imaginary encompasses the images we use to construct our identity, starting from the stage when we first recognize ourselves in the mirror. The Symbolic refers to our entry into language and societal norms, which shape our understanding of ourselves and the world. The Real is that which is beyond our comprehension because it cannot be fully processed in the Imaginary or Symbolic realm but is always influencing us.

When it comes to self-esteem, we’re constantly negotiating between these realms. Our Imaginary self might project an idealized version of who we wish to be, causing dissatisfaction when compared to our actual selves. The Symbolic, with its societal norms and expectations, might create pressure on us, nudging us to meet standards that might not resonate with our authentic selves. The Real, the aspects of life that we can’t fully comprehend or articulate, can confront us with our limitations and potentially challenge notions of self-esteem built in The Imaginary or Symbolic realm.

Moreover, the unconscious plays a significant role in shaping our perception of ourselves and our self-esteem. If we unconsciously hold beliefs of unworthiness or inadequacy, these beliefs can affect our behaviours and emotional responses, leading to patterns of low self-esteem and self-deprecating behaviours.

Changing unconscious beliefs can be a complex process, but it is not impossible. While it’s true that we can’t directly access our unconscious in the same way we can our conscious thoughts, we can still influence it through various therapeutic techniques and intentional practices. A common one, stemming from Emotion Focused Therapy (EFT) asks us to:

1. Identify and Understand our Emotions: Throughout our day, we can take moments to reflect on our feelings. We might try to name our emotions as accurately as possible. Next, we could examine these emotions: What triggered them? What thoughts are associated with them? How do they manifest in our bodies?

2. Accept and Express Our Emotions: We can accept our emotions without judgment. We should understand that emotions, including negative ones, are normal and informative. We can explore creative outlets like journaling, art, or speaking aloud to express these emotions. This helps create distance between us and the emotions, allowing for better understanding and processing.

3. Reflect and Challenge Emotional Patterns: It is important to reflect on how certain emotions are linked to our self-beliefs. We can reflect on whether these beliefs are accurate or helpful. When we find a belief tied to a negative emotion, we can challenge it: Is it true? Are there more positive beliefs that could replace it?

Weathering Difficult Thoughts, Emotions and Bodily Distress with RAIN is a distillation of the above and comes with its own Guided Meditation Practice if you would like to try that.

When we turn to other practical resources like Nathaniel Branden’s “Six Pillars of Self-Esteem,”, Russ Harris’s “The Confidence Gap” and Matthew McKay and Patrick Fanning’s work “Self-Esteem“, we find some other helpful steers. Here are six practices to think about:

1. Living Consciously: It’s important for us to nurture a greater awareness of ourselves and the world around us, even though it can be challenging as much of our actions, words, and thoughts tend to occur automatically. We could try incorporating mindfulness into our lives by focusing on our breath or tuning into our bodily sensations. This mindful practice can align with Lacan’s Symbolic register, where understanding and consciousness find their roots.

2. Self-Acceptance: We can also try to embrace our strengths, weaknesses, and everything in between. Some find it helpful to practice positive affirmations to help cultivate self-acceptance, despite the societal pressures that the Symbolic order often imposes on us. In his book Enneagram Transformations, Don Riso suggests a series of Transformative Psychological Affirmations and that we might want to reflect on, as well as modify so that they land better with our own psyche and then read aloud (maybe even on a daily basis). You can find the full list of Transformative Mantras here organised according to personality type.

3. Self-Responsibility: We can also try and take greater responsibility for our actions and the outcomes they generate. This involves acknowledging that we have control over our decisions. We can set small, achievable goals each day, and taking steps towards them can boost our sense of competence and self-efficacy.

4. Self-Assertiveness: It’s important for us to respect our needs, wants, and values, and express them in a respectful manner. We can start by speaking up about our preferences, asserting a boundary, or making a choice in small matters, and we could gradually extend this practice to more significant aspects of life.

5. Living Purposefully: We need to identify our goals and values and strive to align our actions with them. Perhaps can try writing down our goals, creating action steps, and regularly reviewing and updating them.

6. Personal Integrity: We can all aim to ensure that our thoughts, words, and actions are congruent and honest. We might reflect on our day, noting where we were and weren’t true to ourselves, and plan how to improve.

It’s crucial for us to remember that building self-esteem is a journey, not a destination. As with any interventions we attempt on our selves, patience and compassion is key throughout this process. Though dealing with the unconscious, navigating the Imaginary and Symbolic, and grappling with the Real can be challenging, these daily practices can support us in building a healthier sense of self.


You might also want to look at the following article which presents a daily practice for managing these three different realms: Setting Ourselve Up For The Day – The Lacanian Way

Branden, N. (1995). The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem. Bantam.

Harris, R. (2011). The Confidence Gap: A Guide to Overcoming Fear and Self-Doubt. Shambhala Publications.

McKay, M., & Fanning, P. (2000). Self-Esteem: A Proven Program of Cognitive Techniques for Assessing, Improving, and Maintaining Your Self-Esteem. New Harbinger Publications.

Neff, K. D. (2011). Self-Compassion: Stop Beating Yourself Up and Leave Insecurity Behind. HarperCollins.